Wednesday, 25 March 2015

We read to know we're not alone...

‘We read to know we’re not alone’ – William Nicholson, Shadowlands

I spent a couple of months last year volunteering with a drama group of 15 and 16 year olds. The aim was to devise a piece of theatre in 10 weeks, based on the idea of storytelling and including elements from the students’ favourite novels. This all seemed like a very good idea, until we discovered the consensus: ‘I don’t read’.

I understand this and I don’t. At school and at home, I was encouraged to read. We had an excellent English department who were always full of suggestions and happy to loan books, and at home, my house has always been full of books. It always made sense to read. And once you start reading, I don’t think you stop. But, chatting to these teenagers, I came to fully understand why they’re not interested. The school library is rubbish; and no teenager uses the public library. The books they’re reading as part of their GCSEs are uninspiring and analysed to death. Reading is associated with academia; a chore, not a privilege. There’s a virtually unlimited access to tv programmes, films, computer games, social media, instant messaging…so why make the effort to read?

For me, reading a book is an experience I can’t recreate with any other activity. It makes me enjoy spending time by myself; I learn new things; I learn new words; I develop my imagination; and I’m encouraged to see the world from someone else’s perspective. All in a way that can’t quite be replicated by a film, a tv programme or a game. From reading, I’ve learned how to write, both creatively and academically; to absorb information and improved my spoken English. These skills, aside from the imaginative, enchanting experience of reading, are invaluable.

This got me thinking: what books have I read that have changed me? What books have made me love to read? What books would I, and do I, consistently recommend? What books would I encourage a non-reader to read – to inspire them? What books can I read and reread?

And this is the list I developed:

‘In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart’

This is the first book I remember reading and loving. And have since read on numerous occasions. I rarely read non-fiction, but this was different. Written from a child’s perspective, on a very complex and seemingly adult issue, The Diary of Anne Frank offers a unique and truthful insight into the horrors of the holocaust. It’s a page turner, in all the wrong ways. We know what happens to Anne, but we never want to reach that point in the book.

‘You’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, he is trash’

And this is the second book that I remember reading and loving. This novel provoked my interest in racism, particularly in the USA, and gave me my first insight into the extreme inequality. Similarly, the childish perspective presents a very honest and sincere narrative – free of the restrictive outlook of adulthood. A story about childhood and growing up, with challenging undertones of discrimination and powerlessness. With Harper Lee’s sequel, Go Set a Watchman, about to be released, there’s no better time to read it!

‘A man’s heart is a wretched, wretched thing. It isn’t like a mother’s womb. It won’t bleed. It won’t stretch to make room for you’

This novel is the most harrowing book I’ve ever read. It follows the story of Mariam, a 15 year girl sold to a much older man for marriage.  It explores the emotional traumas of miscarriage, an abusive relationship, polygamy and the emotional strength of two marginalised women in a war-torn and aggressively patriarchal society. It’s an incredible cultural insight into the struggles faced by women in troubled Islamic nations, and one of the most heart-wrenching stories ever created.

‘In his blue gardens, men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars’

The main reason I love this book is because I have a fictional love affair with Gatsby. I am in awe of Fitzgerald’s ability to create such a multifaceted and realistic character with whom I have a strange capacity to relate to. It’s a really short, fast-paced novel for those who struggle to commit to more than 200 pages, and a beautiful tale of unrequited and unrealistic love. It is full of 1920s glamour and extravagance, making it one of the most imaginatively provocative novels I’ve read.

‘If a Negro got legs he ought to use them. Sit down too long, somebody will figure out a way to tie them up’

Beloved is not a novel to be taken lightly; by which I mean, you have to commit to it, and you have to be ready for it – thematically and practically. It is not an easy read, but it’s an extraordinary one. It’s rhythmic and poetic and aggressive, all at the same time. Morrison explores the slave trade from the perspective of identity, of loss and of devastation. Haunting, sickening and spine-tingling: Beloved is the most powerful and most bizarre novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

‘He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same’

I should have hated this story. I didn’t like any of the characters, and the entire plot is destructive and unhealthy. But I didn’t. The relative lack of plot is made up for in the extensive development of interesting and psychologically convoluted characters and a beautifully desolate setting. I’m a sucker for love stories, and this is the most dysfunctional one you’ll ever read.

‘I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me’

NW is a great novel about modern, urban life. I reread this shortly after moving to London, and it seemed much more meaningful when I could relate the places Zadie Smith references. I loved that it followed the lives of four different characters, drawing attention to the anonymous nature of city living – that everyone has very separate lives whilst living in such dense communities. It’s realistic, and it’s optimistic. It’s an enjoyable, relatable read.

‘We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories’

There’s something simultaneously curious and uncomfortable about dystopian novels. And this is a very good one. Margaret Attwood creates a post-revolution world in which women are removed of virtually all their rights, becoming numbers and labels. This society is militarised and strangely Christian, and largely adopts women for reproductive purposes. We follow the life of Offred, a handmaid, who encounters a difficult life, dominated by rape, forbidden relationships, female comradery and suicidal contemplations. Not very cheery, but a must-read.

‘If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here – and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: we enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp’

I really like learning things from books. I have an abysmal knowledge of history, and basically everything I know is because of fiction I’ve read. Bill Bryson’s book rouses this curiosity. It explains all the science that I struggle to understand accessibly, so that it’s comprehensible and relevant to the general public. Never before did I think I’d find myself reading about the Big Bang, particle physics and quantum mechanics.

“Think how you love me,” she whispered. “I don’t ask you to love me always like this, but I ask you to remember: somewhere inside me there’ll always be the person I am tonight’.

Saving the best until last. This is my favourite book in the world. In the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s definitely true that authors do get better with age since this is his final finished novel. Set in the South of France, we meet our protagonists Dick and Nicole. We see their troubled relationship deteriorate and result in Dick’s affair with a much younger woman, Rosemary. Fitzgerald transports us into his own world, his life a parallel of Dick and Nicole’s tale, and carefully explores the peaks and troughs of marriage and affairs – and how this difficult circle of deceit comes back to bite in the form of poor mental health and, eventually, murder.

This is just a condensed list of some incredible books I’ve read in the last few years (be it for the first or twenty-first time). They’re a mixture of great routes into reading, ways to catch the reading bug, and suggestions for self-confessed readers.

In the wise words of Stephen King, ‘books are a uniquely portable magic’.

Enjoy. X


Wednesday, 18 March 2015

I'm 21 and colouring is my favourite new hobby

When I was 17, my mum spent months trying to help me find something that I find relaxing. In the build up to A Level stress, coming to terms with being utterly hopeless at driving and wondering if I'd ever learn how to parallel park, and all the other teenage woes (spots, eyebrows, braces, MEN), I found myself forever tense and unable to switch off. I tried everything. Baths made me too hot, I wasn't very good at knitting, running was not for me, and I can't sit still long enough to watch films. 

And then it came to me, and I rediscovered my love of colouring. I'd always loved doing arts and crafts as kid, even though I'm far from artistic - my art teacher at school begged my not to take GCSE Art because I could only be trusted with collage - and it seemed to come full circle. I found myself printing pictures, mainly of Disney characters (obviously), from the internet to colour in, just as I'd done when I was 10 - throwback to The Bubblegum Club. I'd spend hours happily sitting there, colouring for hours. 

In the last 4 years I've got over myself a bit, but still occasionally struggle with the life of a number 1 worrier. And then came 2015, a game-changing year for colouring...

It came in the form of 'Art Therapy: An Anti-Stress Colouring Book'

There are 104 different patterns and designs, all extremely intricate - which is what makes them so satisfying to colour in. It does take absolutely ages to finish a page but once you commit to your colouring - whilst you're watching tv, over a weekend breakfast or, my new favourite, procrasti-colouring - it does come together. 

Here are my latest creations:

So, for stress-beating, art therapy or just a bit of childhood regression, I'd 100% recommend giving the anti-stress colouring book a go!


Friday, 13 March 2015

2015 in theatre

Theatre is, and always has been, my passion. Ever since begging my mum let me join the school drama club aged 7, I've been hooked - on the magic, the talent and the beauty of the theatre. These days I'm more of a spectator than a performer, and living in London has given me the perfect excuse to revel in the theatre:

This is my year in theatre:

I first saw the show 8 years ago and fell in love with it. This February marked my fifth viewing, and I think it was the best one yet. There is nothing not to absolutely adore about this show - it combines the unrivalled charm of fiery, raw theatre with a strong soundtrack, exceptional wit and the most amazing dancing. Despite knowing the story, the lyrics to all the songs, and being prepared for the intense emotion, every time I see the show I'm affected a little bit more. I shed an extra tear, there's another giggle and I'm consistently amazed. It's the perfect and my absolute favourite musical!

I've been aching to see this show since it opened in the West End in 2013, and it did not disappoint. Having never seen South Park, I wasn't sure what to expect - but within 2 minutes of the opening my cheeks were sore from laughing. The Book of Mormon offers a great story, some excellent stagecraft - but what makes it is the hugely varied, catchy and hilarious songs. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done an incredible job of creating a show that's so close to the mark, yet offends none - and is loved by all.
P.s. I still have maggots in my scrotum


I went to see this play by chance, stuck for ideas for Mother's Day, and feeling like I should get in there quickly before it finishes in London after 12 weeks. I had no idea what to expect, aside from 'internet, future, paedophiles'. It was really bizarre, and it took me a little while to get into it and fully understand quite how these issues were being addressed. The Nether is a futuristic, virtual space in which 'The Hideaway' exists: an arena in which paedophiles can express themselves within the safe, distanced confines of the internet. Initially it seems hideous. Eventually you begin to consider if it's actually morally responsible - if we don't have the power to harness and control individuals' imagination, we can at least restrict their actions. I was thrilled to see a play this risky and challenging in the West End and not stuck in various fringes. It confronted an issue often avoided, asking a question that we, one day, may have to deal with. 

War horse is artistic, moving and refreshingly childlike. Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the tale of one man's journey through WWI in search of his horse who has been sold to the cavalry. But this time, the focus is not specifically on the soldiers, but the horses - those who also didn't sign up to fight and experienced similar horrors. War horse is famed for its stagecraft, and very rightly so. I quickly became lost in the puppetry: the birds flying overhead, the horses so lifelike, and the comedic Barbara the goose as enchanting as the actors on stage. It is a tale of friendship and hope more than it is a typical, graphic war story. War horse offers a new perspective, a new heart, an innocent challenge to a complex existence. 


We all heard the media accounts, some of us watched the documentary, but neither does justice to the story quite like the play. Nirbhaya, meaning 'fearless', was the name given to the girl gang raped (and ultimately killed) by a group of men on a Delhi bus in 2012. This play is part of the consequence: the rising up of Indian women, who will no longer be silenced, telling their stories. Nirbhaya traces the stories of 5 women with shocking tales they can finally tell. But the most torturous thing about these stories, is that they are their own. Sitting in front of a woman who tells you how she was consistently raped as a child, or covered in kerosene and set on fire by her husband is genuinely one of the most distressing things I've done. Through powerful narratives and physical theatre, the company brings to light the horrors faced by the women and girls of India, questioning ideas of belonging, the presence of the self and rejection of the body. Though arguably too graphic in parts, it achieved its purpose. It made me angry; it made me feel sick; and it made me want to help and be part of the change. Nirbhaya is a show I never want to see again, but I'm grateful for the chance to see it once. 


How to survive the first year of uni? Live for the second...

Going to university was one of the hardest ting I've ever done. And I didn't expect it to be.

We've all heard the horror stories of nightmare housemates, fresher's week bankruptcy and, god forbid, dropouts. But that wasn't why it sucked - I had some lovely flatmates (and some odd ones), fresher's week was fine, and I didn't actually drop out. So why?

I was ready to leave school, I was even more ready to leave home, and I thought I was ready to go to university. Most of my friends has been the previous year, and their instagram photos of nights out and stories of new friends made me excited to go too. London was a big change from the countryside village I'd grown up in, but I loved that it was so busy, that there was always something going on, and the 24 hour Tesco was perfect for Sunday night Ben & Jerry's runs.

But then there was the small matter of the actual university. I'd worked really hard at school, and was won over by UCL's elitism and promises of a flexible course and glamorous fieldtrips. It wasn't quite like that when I got there. I found myself dreading the few lectures I did have: uninterested, unmotivated and frustrated by the complete absence of structure. Going from a very well-organised and busy school life, where I was constantly pushed and challenged, and thrived off being a workaholic, I didn't really know what to do with myself when I had very little do - none of which interested me. I thought about dropping out on numerous occasions, but could never really come up with a back-up plan. I just accepted that maybe university wasn't for me, but that I should just recognise that and get on with it. Combined with seemingly never-ending spouts of fresher's flu, unstable living situations and money worries, this didn't make for a very happy first year.

But I got through it, I passed it, and I tried to forget about it over a very long summer - which was refreshing, revitalising and the beginning of starting to be happy again and feeling really settled.

Second year has been nothing like first year. I knew the kind of contact hours I was expecting, but I'd also learnt how to fill all those I had spare. No longer were academic articles completely baffling and tiresome (some definitely still are...), and I knew how to write essays and what was expected of me. I got on with my work, starting to enjoy it, and thankful for my increased choice of modules in the second year. I also joined the UCL Drama Society, UCL PEN and am starting to volunteer with older people in my local community. I've made more friends, I have a lovely house that feels like home, and I'm lucky enough to come home to my wonderful, supportive boyfriend every evening. I no longer feel frustrated and anxious but comfortable and happy. The workload has increased, and it's harder, but I love that - I have something to do and I am progressively specialising in a subject I am, albeit, learning to love.

So I have 2 weeks left of teaching of my second year, and I don't know where the time has gone. This time last year I was counting down the minutes until the end of term, and panicking about the exams I had no idea how to do. Today, I am in a very exclusive relationship with my dissertation proposal and wishing I had more time left to catch up with reading and complete my essays. I am excited for summer, holidays, and a chance to get my teeth into my dissertation. I have a love/hate relationship with regards to my third year. I'm edging even closer towards real life, career decisions and fully-fledged adulthood, and that's a very scary prospect. But for now, I still have another year of learning, growing and experiencing - all within the safe confines of university - left to do.

So fight the first year. If you know that deep down, somewhere, university is probably for you, stick with it. If you hate it, find a back-up plan. If you can't come up with an alternative, a degree is never a bad thing to have.  Take risks if you need to: change courses, move universities, resit years. It'll all work out in the end. And once you've made it past the first year, it gets better. Promise.

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