Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Why I hate “The North”

Firstly, I should apologise for such a misleading title. It was a cheap trick to get you to click on the link. I don’t hate the North of England. Nor the North Pole. Nor walking in a northerly direction. What I hate (and I am aware hate is a strong word) is when people refer to anywhere north of London as “The North”.

I find this expression interesting. You see, when you are in “The North”, you never hear people refer to “The South”. People in “The North” use the names of places (at least, the people I know do). London. Brighton. Southampton.  Even if they don’t reference cities, they are specific about what county they are referring to. Cornwall. Kent. Berkshire (although I don’t really know where that is).

You see, there is something in this generic expression for a huge chunk of the country that implies a certain bigotry. In my mind, it’s like saying somebody is African rather than Senegalese or Zambian. Just like Morocco is different from Malawi, Leeds is different from Liverpool, Lincoln, Lancaster, and Leicester (which, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t even count as “The North” in a "Northerner"’s books). I know we’re talking about geographies of largely differing areas, but it’s intriguing to me how people can be so consciously politically-correct when referring to another continent, yet are willing to sweep a vast expanse of the their own country under one non-specific phrase.

Of course, there are times when it’s appropriate to say “Africa”. Or “The North”.  Recently, however, I have been aware of an appalling over-use of the phrase. Largely, this has been from my own boyfriend, but I am increasingly conscious of the number of people who show absolutely no grasp of the subtleties and differences within “The North” itself.

For example, how many of you knew that depending on where you come from in the North East, you are known as either a Geordie, Mackem, Smoggie, Sand-Dancer or a Monkey-Hanger? Certainly not one of my colleagues at school, who asks me every holiday if I am going home to Durham. For those of you that don’t know, I went to Durham University. But I am not from Durham. I am from Wetherby, which is a small market town in Yorkshire, getting on for 100 miles south of Durham. I have definitely told her this on numerous occasions. Thus, the assumption that I should return ‘home’ to my University town can only be suggestive of a few things. One possibility is that this colleague firmly believes that people in “The North” only go to Universities in their home town – they are not brave enough to venture any further afield. Alternatively, it might mean that she doesn’t know the name of any other Northern towns (in which case she would get bonus points for not using “The North”). Or perhaps she has heard that Durham is a nice place, unlike most of “The North”, and therefore it is more than likely that I would just go there and pretend it was my home for sh’iggles. Whichever it is, despite her well-wishing small-talk, it’s bloody rude.

Perhaps I am being over-sensitive, but it’s hard not to be a little emotionally hurt when people hold such an oversimplified and gloriously uninformed view of your home.

The emotional pain also comes when Boyfriend uses the phrase “The North” interchangeably with another of his favourite generalisations - “The Provinces”. “Provinces” is another interesting word. A quick flick through aligns it with words such as “territory”, “governed” and “under jurisdiction”, but the key idea is that it signifies areas “situated away from the capital or population centre”. Within all of these definitions is a suggestion that the capital, in our case London, is in some way superior to “The Provinces”. I know there are those of you reading this that probably believe this is true. So let me tell you why you’re wrong.

Enter Tropical World
Certainly, London has many fantastic things that Leeds does not. The underground. Free museums.  The Queen’s house. But, Leeds also has many fantastic things that London does not. Vacant parking spaces. Pubs where you can get a pint for £3. The Butterfly House at Tropical World.

Many of you will go on to suggest that all of the important business happens in London. The government? Fair enough. The banks? Fair enough. The flagship stores of our biggest shops? Fair enough. But who elects the government? And where are the call-centres, branches and the majority of banks’ customers situated (another perk of “The North” – you can actually speak to cashiers outside of London without having to wait three hours)? And how much money does a flagship store take versus all of its stores in “The North”? Yes, London is a concentrated area of business, but it’s easy to forget that much more exists elsewhere.

Which leads onto my next point. Size. So often, we’re conditioned to believe that biggest = best.  In which case, the size of London surely secures its superiority. But the problem is, in bunching together “The North”, you’re actually creating a super-power much larger than the measly 8 million people who live in the capital. Yeah, you didn’t see that coming, did you?

But there’s still another argument I have to quash.
Boyfriend’s most frequent claim is that “London is just better!”  What’s key here is that the word “better” is subjective. It is an opinion. Not a fact. So in claiming that your own home is “better” (rather than simply “different”) than another area of the country, you are being ever-so-slightly insensitive and more-than-slightly arrogant.

So next time any of you end up talking to a “Northerner” about “The North”, show them (and yourself) some respect. Nobody’s expecting you to visit Hull or anything, but you could at least educate yourself a little and spare us the generalised gags about flat-caps, ferrets and racing pigeons.

Oh, and the accents. Don’t EVER attempt our accents.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Why you all should read The Great Gatsby

One of the things I am most embarrassed about in my 'English career' is misquoting the last line of The Great Gatsby in my finals. I realised my mistake as soon as the infamous bellow of “Stop writing” echoed through Caedmon Hall. But it was too late. Scribbling it out would have risked certain disqualification. So I left it. 

Big mistake. Despite graduating over five years ago, it's something that continues to haunt me. Why? Because in my mind, misquoting The Great Gatsby is like misquoting The Bible. And nobody would ever dare do that... would they?

Lots of you will have read The Great Gatsby, and lots of you will have not. Some of you will have advocated The Great Gatsby to others, some of you will have been advocated at.  But for a long time, I didn’t really understand the appeal of this book: yes, it’s got some nice similes, and there’s a jolly tragic love plot, but I wasn’t quite sure I liked it. Of course, this may have been due to initially reading it as part of my A Level English Literature, which was a thoroughly traumatic experience in itself thanks to Mr G’s heinous armpits (his shirts were actually stained green, and he was evicted to a portakabin outside of the main building when I was in Year 13, presumably to give the English Corridor a chance to air). But after a few years of growing up and reading it for the third time, I think I came to the conclusion that it’s a bloody good book.

A quick search on Google will give you a number of superficial reasons to read the “Greatest American Novel of All Time”. My favourite examples include:

“The story takes place in East Egg and West Egg, Long Island. I know I would like to live in a town named after my favorite breakfast food.”
“It's actually a fairly quick read.”
“Fans of weepy romances like Titanic and The Notebook will eat this up.”
“You will automatically look way more intelligent when you understand references to Gatsby or Daisy Buchanan.”

For anyone that has read Gatsby, I hope these suggestions have caused your stomach to machinate just like mine currently is. These are not good reasons to read any book. If we all went around choosing our fiction on the criteria of breakfast foods we liked, I’m sure sales of ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Coco Pops’ would flourish, but the quality of the discussion surrounding literature would quickly expire.

But the reason that I hear most people give for reading a book, particularly classics, is because they “feel they should”. Nobody should ever read a book because they are pressured into it, whether that be by the guardians of the literary canon, the relentless protestations of a friend or a sense of self-imposed guilt. I am quite proud of the fact that I have never read 1984. And I have no idea what happens in Anthony and Cleopatra or Julius Caesar. Or most of Dickens. Apparently, as an English Teacher, I should have read these classics. But I haven’t, because I don’t want to.

I  know what you’re thinking. I’m a terrible hypocrite. I’m saying people shouldn’t be forced to read books, whilst trying to persuade you to read one. But that’s not what I’m doing. I’m going to give you a good reason to consider reading Gatsby. And if you still don’t want to, you don’t have to. So here goes:

My pupils often ask me why I always choose such depressing books to teach them. They have a point. Last school year, my text choices included We Need to Talk About Kevin (school shootings and devil children), Sylvia Plath’s poetry (yes, the one who put her head in the oven), a Victorian Gothic novella (involving a child possessed by the devil), 2 x Death of a Salesman (the clue is in the title), Jane Eyre (which deserves a blog post of its own in terms of the ‘heroine’ succumbing to a patriarchal society) and even The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (which, as I taught my Year 8, has a pretty unsettling ending since the child is left merely appeased by the gift of a dog, following the revelation that all adults are untrustworthy). These titles lead to a death count of nearly thirty (including a suicide rate of over five), the abuse of numerous children and the demise of one dog with a pitchfork.

My standard response to this query has generally been that depressing books are more interesting. I’ve never been one for a happy ending, and I managed to write an entire dissertation on why the climax of the Harry Potter series was abysmal, and all the best children’s books end horribly. To me, depressing books usually feature much more complexity in terms of character, plot and idea than a sugary-sweet tale could ever dream of delivering.

So where does Gatsby figure in all of this? Well, my initial interpretation of the book was that it too fitted into the ‘depressing’ category. It’s a critique of everything that was wrong with 1920’s America: on a basic level, it tracks the end of the American Dream and features a cast of shallow, dishonest and unfaithful characters. Oh, and there are also three pretty bloody deaths.

But in teaching Gatsby earlier in the year, I rediscovered my favourite line from the novel. Even those of you who have studied it would never be able to guess it - it’s not one of the big guns, but a phrase of such simplicity that it makes me quiver a little every time I read it (English geek, I know): at the end of the first chapter, we get a glimpse of the eponymous hero, who is described as “regarding the silver pepper of the stars”. 

I’ve always liked the delicacy of this phrase, and Fitzgerald’s verb-choices are an eternal pleasure to examine, but this quotation is more than just something to be analysed on a linguistic level. It captures what the whole novel is about. You see, from the midst of a darkly corrupt and pessimistic world comes an image about our capacity to look for more, to consider our place in the world, and (here comes one of the aforementioned big guns) to “dream”. 

The word “dream” gets a bit of a bad press these days. We most regularly hear it in relation to contestants on the X Factor, whose “dream” it is to be as big as BeyoncĂ©. Considering that most of these statements are followed by an audition consisting of noises akin to what can only be described as the mating call of a badger, their “dreams” seem largely laughable. Furthermore, when we describe a person as “dreamy” it’s not usually a good thing - it's all just a bit airy fairy - and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “It’s my dream to work in accountancy”. In short, the word has become a little OTT.

But behind this weighty word is a simple and positive sentiment.  Surely it’s a good thing to want more for ourselves? Of course, we have to be realistic, and that’s where Jay Gatsby makes a bit of a hash of it all, but despite this, F. Scott Fitzgerald concludes that there is something “gorgeous” about a capacity to dream. You see, in a pessimistic world, it’s easy to be drawn into being pessimistic ourselves. To moan about our jobs, our love-lives and the quality of television on a Tuesday night (which is terrible since the Bake Off ended). But maybe, just maybe, we should all spend a little more time regarding the silver pepper of the stars.

So, in conclusion: you should not (re)read The Great Gatsby because I say you should. You should read The Great Gatsby to salvage some of the reputation of dreams. You should read Gatsby to see that there is the possibility of light in a dark world. And, most importantly, you should read The Great Gatsby if you’ve ever had the inkling of dream yourself.

p.s. The latest film of Gatsby, featuring Leonardo di Caprio and directed by Baz Luhrmann, is due for release in May. So if you are going to read it, please do it before then. As amazing as  Luhrmann's adaptations can be, I sense that this one isn't going to be particularly subtle...

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Why pink should be banned

Before we get started, I should be clear about something. I am not talking about Pink the artist. I rather like Pink the artist, and have done since I was about 15 (in fact, I quoted her in my GCSE English Language exam). And I really like her in that relatively new video where she's all buff and hangs about upside down a lot. This one: 

No, my beef is with pink the colour. Not that pink the colour is to blame, of course. 

This has been an issue on my mind for a little while, but it really came to light upon the birth of my niece in September. When visiting her for the first time, I was physically shocked (as in, I made a strange gasping noise involving a small amount of mucus that I think I successfully managed to disguise as a cough) at the sheer number of pink cards she had received congratulating her on her arrival on earth.

‘What’s wrong with this?’ you might cry.

An obscene amount of pink...

Everything is wrong with this.

You see, poor little Lucy is being conditioned right from birth to be a poor little girl who likes pink. My own mother failed to see the significance of this. Her first retort was that, when Lucy is old enough, she will be able to make her own choices whether she wants to own / wear pink items. But a choice is exactly what she won’t have. She is going to spend the next few years being showered with pink presents, and before she even knows what a choice is, she’s going to believe she likes pink.

Mother clearly didn’t have an argument against this, so she quickly changed tack and said that the reason it was important for Lucy to have / wear pink was so that when she is out and about people will know that she’s a girl. Why is it important, that, aged two weeks, random members of the public know that she is a girl? Mother’s claim was that people need to know what pronoun to use: i.e. to be able to say “Isn’t she lovely?”. I swiftly responded that the pronoun “they” could easily carry the same message (“Aren’t they lovely?”) or, perhaps revealing my own opinions on babies, “it” could suffice.

Children aren’t born with a gender (a sociological term), they are born as a member of a sex (a biological term) – this is an important distinction. And there’s something in the eagerness to call Lucy “she” that is akin to dressing her in pink – it’s transforming her into a girl rather than merely a set of female chromosomes. I’m not suggesting that we only use gender neutral pronouns from now own, but what I am saying is that we need to think again about carelessly turning girls into girly girls.

Not that I am saying there is anything wrong with being a girly girl. Provided you have had a choice in becoming one. A friend of mine offered a snippet of information to me recently: apparently blue used to be associated with femininity (reminiscent of the Virgin Mary), whilst red was the colour of masculinity (war, aggression etc.). I’m not quite sure why we need colours for boys and girls, but somewhere along the line, pink has become associated with femininity, and not in a powerful way. Pink is the colour of the Disney Princess range, those girls who famously need their Prince to come and rescue them. Pink is the colour of delicate flowers, that need tending and protecting from the weather. Pink is the colour of pigs, domesticated beasts only used for their body and tortured for their meat... OK, I’m getting carried away now. But ultimately, pink is watered down red; something weak, lacking power and blatantly pathetic.

"Designed to fit comfortably in a woman's hand"
Even as an adult woman, I find it tremendously difficult to avoid pink. I am currently sat typing this in a pair of pink fluffy slippers (which, incidentally, I think were a present from one of the aforementioned pink baby-card senders) and suffer regular angst at trying to find gym wear that doesn’t contain even a dash of pink. The only female razor available in the Tooting Sainsbury's the other day was pink, and I received a pack of pink earplugs 'for feminine ears' this Christmas. The ‘Bic for Her’ range of pink pens was suitably humiliated by reviewers earlier in the year (worth a read, if you haven't seen it before:, and yet they are still on sale. The problem is that most of us don’t see the humiliation and the restriction in the constant everyday alignment of pink with femininity.

Normally, I wouldn't suggest that jumping straight into banning something was a good idea: choice is clearly one of the benefits of a democratic society. But choice is exactly what young girls don't have at the moment. Pink needs to be banned because, no matter how many more female CEOs battle their way to the top of the business world (still a measly and insignificant number), the concept of feminine weakness is too ingrained in your average Briton’s mindset. As my Mother quite clearly illustrates, the older generation don't understand this, and continue to exacerbate the problem by surrounding my niece with thousands of pink cards, so that when she gets old enough to make a choice, she’s already been brainwashed.

But the scary thing is, it’s not just the ‘oldies’ that are fuelling the issue. Having tested my theories on a trusted friend, I thought I was ready to start gently pushing my ideas on some pregnant women. It didn’t go well.

A month or so ago, I had a conversation with a seemingly strong woman in relatively senior position at school. She is probably only 6-7 years older than me, and is currently pregnant with a baby girl. When I floated the idea that she could think about not dressing her future daughter in pink, she looked at me as if I had suggested we abort her baby from her womb, right there and then in the lunch hall. If successful women aren’t even prepared to consider rejecting pink for their daughters, then how are we ever going to escape our pink prison?

So I guess what I’m saying is that, seeing as my words have very little sway with the government, and I’m not sure of the practicalities of banning a colour, we should all attempt to be a little more like Pink the artist and “Try” (yes, pun!) to give young girls a chance to be something, anything, more than a Disney princess.

You can start by not sending any more pink greetings cards.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Why people who work in marketing aren’t all bad

At some point, we've all thought of marketeers / advertisers as patronising, calculating, cruel, manipulative, cold, hypocritical, money-grabbing or just downright evil... perhaps all of these. And at first glance you wouldn't be wrong. But I feel I am in a good position to talk about this because, having previously worked in the PR department of a consumer goods giant, I have experienced both sides of the marketing industry. That is, I’ve been both a consumer and a charlatan.

My reasons for leaving this job were multi-fold, but a large contributing factor was the level of deception that I felt uncomfortable with peddling. Of course, my former employers are not the only ones to embark on this trickery, but I want to (eventually) give you an insight into that world.

(Also, before I get into things properly, I want to apologise for my blurring of the worlds of P.R., advertising and marketing. I know they are different. But this is in a way that is a little too complicated to explore fully within a coherent argument on a Sunday afternoon. So I'm going with a slight amalgamation under the theme of "the promotion of brands" that I hope isn't too offensive to anybody.)

Mmmmm, delicious raspberry parfait...
Recently, I had a revelation when undertaking one of my favourite pastimes - picking apart the flaws in adverts. Waitrose’s Christmas Ad was next under fire. It starts with some pornographic shots of puddings – some of which definitely look like breasts – before zooming in on Heston’s tasty Basked Alaska, which contains “a smooth raspberry parfait encased in a crisp chocolate glaze”. My dribbling was swiftly cut short by a sharp zoom out to Heston and Delia, claiming that instead of a fancy Christmas advert, Waitrose would be donating their marketing money to their charity scheme. Now, whilst a small part of my brain remained sceptical about them using charitable work as a promotional tool to essentially help them make more profit, and that it wasn't really generosity since they would be donating money that they would have spent anyway, at least they are giving something back to the community. And I remembered reading how Mr Blumenthal and Ms Smith had chosen to waive their fees for the advert too: how lovely, I thought.

But then I remembered, thanks to a horrendous assessment centre experience involving building a bridge out of Meccano in my quest for a graduate job, that Waitrose and John Lewis are essentially the same company. ‘Outrage!’ I bellowed. ‘Hypocrisy!’ I roared. According to the Daily Mail (as reliable a source as any), John Lewis’ Christmas ad cost £6 million to produce, before we even get into the dosh shoved at repeatedly airing the bloody thing.

The media seem to see the funny side in this – that, “Ha ha ha, Waitrose is ‘taking the mickey’ out of its sister company – isn’t this jolly nice and self-referential of them?” (eg: But I don’t think there’s anything jolly nice about one half of a company pretending to be charitable, and the other half wasting millions of pounds on a snowman going to buy a scarf for his missus.

A great Christmas blouse, and a fabulous nonchalant pose
But this isn’t where my revelation ends. I have quite a soft spot for crazy Heston. And also for Delia and her lovely blouses (she always looks so comfortable). And I genuinely believe that they genuinely believed in the genuine cause they were promoting. It’s not their fault that the John Lewis lot decided to squander their cash on giving a pretend lump of ice a personality.

And this takes me back to my former employer. You see, most people I knew in marketing genuinely believed that the products they were pushing were genuinely amazing. In the space of under a year, I watched cynical young graduates turn into sincere advocates of five-bladed razors, gel washing ‘powder’ and hickory-smoked anti-wrinkle cream. Even when criticised for air-brushed advertisements, or testing chemical compounds on animals, these people really did believe in the benefits of their products. And that word ‘their’ is key: they began to love these products as if they were their own children - they become defensive of them, and wanted everybody else to worship them too.

And it’s because of this that not everybody that works in marketing is bad. The majority of them are naively swept along by the P.R. of their employer: the real deception takes place within companies themselves, not in their advertisements. Whether that’s flattering you through exclusive evenings at Chessington World of Adventures, indulging you in lavish Christmas Hampers, or buttering you up by depositing a free epilator on your desk every few months, the big bosses swiftly make you believe that their products / brands are to be cherished.

John Lewis ad scene 13
They just want to share the love...
If we take this into consideration, even the John Lewis splash-your-cash lot aren't in the wrong. One thing I learned from my Meccano experience was how much people who work at John Lewis love John Lewis. They don't see the hypocrisy because they are blinded by adoration: they probably all believe that £6 million on a heart-warming Christmas advert is a good investment, since it will make you love their baby too. And it seems to have worked, because they reported weekly sales figures of £147 million on the 15th December, up a mere £14 million on the same week last year. I just wonder how much of that obscene profit will make it into Waitrose's charity campaign?

But back to me - why was I any different? Well, firstly, because I didn’t work on a specific brand. I never had the quality time, and therefore the chance to form a bond, with a box of nappies.  Secondly, I had to deal with the outside world. Having to answer calls from livid local journalists about the closing of a manufacturing plant in the middle of a recession soon breaks the spell cast by a bottle of discount-price washing-up liquid from the staff shop. In contrast, most marketeers are kept locked firmly at their desks, only being allowed outside to liaise with their advertising agency, who are equally complicit in the con.

Thus, the point of this post is that I want you to know that your average marketeer isn’t trying to deceive you. They’re trying to help you. They want you to share their baby. To have cuddles with it, to play with it.

So please remember that it isn’t their fault when it craps on you. It’s their employer’s.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Why 3021 characters are better than 140

I read something today. Something that caused me to take the momentous decision to start a blog. 

That something was a relatively simple idea, but something that I think is easily forgotten in our modern world:

“People are capable of revealing rich patterns of thought and feeling through language.” 

Now of course, you probably all knew that, unless you are emotionally stunted in some way. But it really got me thinking about how little I use language to its full capabilities. And as an English Teacher, that worried me.

I have, for some time, possessed a hatred of Twitter, and those of you who know me relatively well have probably realised I’m pretty useless at replying to text messages. I have previously blamed this on the useless heap of crap the Orange Shop (or is it now EE?) insist on calling a phone. Other excuses have been a lack of time, my general derision for people that spend their lives refreshing a screen for the latest sneak-peak into Giles Coren or Grace Dent’s life, along with those of you who refer to things that happened “on Twitter” as if it was the real world. But today, I hit on the real reason. It’s the limited length; that horrendous pressure to say something witty / life-affirming / sufficiently impressive in only 140 characters.

Now I know this isn’t ground-breaking, but it turns out that our world is full of limitations on language, and I didn’t even notice it happening. Everything has got shorter – we don’t write letters, we email; we don’t email, we text; we don’t text, we tweet. I realise that this isn’t exactly how it works, but that list does capture a general chain of (d?)evolution over the last fifteen or so years. On top of this, newspapers are physically smaller (The Independent even shortened its bloody name to ‘i’), my school reports are limited to 160 characters (in which you must comment on a pupil’s entire term of work), and even the blessed BBC offers news snippets between programmes for those of us that won’t engage in a full news item (I sound snide, but I’m one of them). 

Whereas some folks claim this is to do with the short attention spans of the younger generation, I think this is doing all of us a disservice. The teenagers I know (admittedly, they are all terribly middle class and pay for their education) are perfectly capable of sitting and concentrating in a 90 minute lesson. Furthermore, they will all sit and read a book for 45 minutes in a library class. And I regularly see less privileged children out and about, fully engaged in an activity for more than a minute at a time (even if that is the persistent tormenting of a Chinese man on the bus, like I witnessed last week).

The problem is that we have lowered our expectations of ourselves when it comes to language. We’re too willing to accept the shortened version, whether that’s for genuine time constraints or just pure laziness. But what I’m saying is that we need to make more time for words – not just to read something longer than a 'Daily Mail Online' article every so often (I know you do it, we all do), but to use more words to express ourselves. And by this I don’t just mean verbally, but on the page / screen. This is the important part. By limiting yourself to 140 characters, you’re essentially limiting your emotions to about thirty words.  

You see, if I’d written this post as a tweet, I probably would have come across as either angry, bitter or saddened. Hopefully, after reading this, you’ll realise I’m all three. And possibly slightly optimistic that, by setting an example through this blog, I can encourage other people to spend a little more time each day using language to its full potential.