Friday 30 September 2016

Let's Talk | Communication, Community, Creativity

I find it particularly interesting that these two articles, both appearing in The Guardian were published this week within a couple of days of each other:

Life is richer when we talk to strangers (David Ferguson) complete with a photograph of commuters in a packed tube/subway train

Author Kio Stark’s new book When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You is about her seven-year personal study of her interactions with strangers in New York City. She believes that reaching across the gulf of silence that normally stands between ourselves and the people we encounter on a daily basis is not just essential, but transformative.
. . .  Stark said: “When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life – and theirs.”

'Tube-Chat' campaign promotes horror amongst London commuters (Jamie Grierson)

Badges from mystery source encouraging passengers to talk elicit calls for ‘do not disturb’ signs – but not everyone is against. . .

I have lots I want to write about at the moment. In fact I have several part completed pieces on such topics as hope, fear and (party) politics; the non/motherhood debate and its particular twist this summer; various isms (not least ageism here); media bias and so on and so on. But last night I slept better than I have for many nights, today the sun is shining and I had scrambled egg sandwiches for lunch (my comfort food of choice). I feel sure the significant discomfort and distress (see previous post) I've felt over the past weeks will return but for now I'm feeling a little positivity and have decided to make the most of it. Hence this blog entry on the importance, and joy, of talk and other forms of communication.

First a couple of personal tube tales. I lived in Wimbledon and Walthamstow for a few years in my twenties and for some of this time travelled to and from work on the London underground, I remember these journeys as solitary ones. I'd meet the same people day in, day out but never went beyond a nod or a smile with anyone. One memorable morning I was sent home from work feeling poorly and whilst on the journey I began to feel much worse. Knowing I was going to throw up I left the tube train at a stop before mine and made my way as close to the end of the platform as I could before losing much of my stomach contents. Unfortunately for me there was a blockage on the line and instead of promptly leaving the train  remained in the station for several minutes during which, after extensive vomiting, I leaned against the wall and shivered. No one, either on the platform or from the tube train, came to help me. I got home eventually and recovered in bed over a couple of days. I travel to and through London a lot at the moment for various work commitments so once again I'm a regular London underground user. A few months ago whilst approaching a short set of stairs at Kings Cross complete with pack-pack and small wheelie case I was approached by a man saying 'Hi, let me carry your case'. I smiled and said 'It's OK thanks, I can manage'. 'No, let me', he replied 'It will be my good deed for the day.' I gave him my bag. I hope he felt pleased with our encounter, I did.

Although I have spent all my working life in people-focused jobs, much of which involves me standing up in front of people and talking I am in fact rather shy. I find conferences where I know no one scary and when teaching big groups find the first encounters hard going. I prefer evenings with friends in small groups to big parties.  I'm not alone I know.  And yet, I enjoy brief communications with  acquaintances and strangers. One of the many good things about moving back (a few years ago) to the small seaside town I grew up in is how hard it is to walk along the main street or to the beach without meeting someone I'm acquainted with. Maybe an old friend from school, or a more recent acquaintance to share a smile, an hello or an exchange about the weather with. I have a couple of very good friends who always stop to talk to dogs and their owners. I too like dogs (and cats) myself and will sometimes stop to stroke one whilst out. I'm much more likely though, as one friend pointed out to me recently, to chat to children, on the train, in a shop or a cafe. I also quite regularly compliment people - usually women, sometimes men - on something they are wearing and experience pleasure when strangers do the same to me.

Much of our communication takes place online nowadays and this of course has both positive and negative consequences which has been starkly highlighted during this summer's Labour leadership election. But, but, my good mood in mind, I'm trying to focus more on the positive here. In the last few years I have become concerned in my academic work in how to present research and scholarly messages in different ways (beyond the traditional academic article or report). So, I am interested in, and attempt to contribute to, the creative telling of academic 'findings' in different ways - through songs, fiction, theatre - and in different outlets - in blogs and non-academic publications. The numerous songs, poems, videos and blog entries written and performed in support of Jeremy Corbyn, his team and his policies (put any of these words into Google or YouTube or see this for an example demonstrates that creativity and politics clearly go together also.

And yet, it's still important to talk, even those of us who feel a little shy on occasion. As many, many commentators have said (and written), including over the last few weeks, if the dominant messages we receive are not as we would wish, are not complete or accurate, it is the responsibility of all of us to join with others to challenge these. And not just on paper or online but face-to-face out and about in the world. With this in mind members of my local Labour Party CLP, as part of Labour's Campaign Day: Education not Segregation,  are frequenting  a stall in the centre of town tomorrow. As a fairly new member of the LP I've not been able to attend a meeting as yet (not least due to the summer suspension of meetings) so I'm planning to go along and say 'hello'.

With thanks and apologies to David Bowie I'd like to end this post with a song - just substitute 'dance' with 'talk' and off you go.

Saturday 17 September 2016

Stomach Churns and Chewed Nails | A Summer of Discomfort

I have spent much of the summer feeling what my mum would have described as ‘churned up’. My finger nails are the most chewed they have been for years. My usual irregular midlife sleeping patterns are more disturbed than ever and I’m crying rather more than I usually do. Recently I took part in one of the social media polls that most of us come across every day. I answered the ‘Has the current Labour leadership election affected your mental health?’  honestly opting for ‘A lot’. Although, like many others, I get angry and upset by what I see as private and public injustices I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly anxious person. The almost constant mental and physical unease I have experienced for the last couple of months or so is very new to me.

As I sociologist I could write about (and support with references) the current misunderstanding of the ideas of Marx and Trotsky or the misappropriation of feminist agendas and anti-racist debates in attempts to score political points. I could also draw on social science discussions (some of which have become mainstream, others less so) concerning ‘media socialisation’, ‘false consciousness’, ‘emotional labour’ and so on. But I’m not going to do any of that for now.  Instead, a little more about me, my feelings and concerns.

I care about current and future generations. For example, although sadly I have no biological children of my own,  I care for and support, in various ways, the children and grandchildren of others in my personal life and through my work. Having had a father who died nearly 38 years ago of a heart attack and a mother and husband (plus several very good friends) who died four and six years ago respectively of cancer I care about the health and care needs of others, my own as I age, and of those that follow me. 

The majority of my working life has been spent with young children whilst working as a nursery nurse and youth worker and young (and not so young) adults as a teacher, researcher, mentor and manager in higher education (following a late degree supported by a grant). Currently, alongside continued academic work and some newer types of writing (including fiction and memoir) I also work as a civil celebrant (qualified to conduct non and semi-religious funerals, weddings, and other commitment and naming ceremonies). All my people focused work (which also included a number of jobs in the tourist industry) has been significant in my personal political education both experientially and through the related reading I have done. This week I have read two articles highlighting worrying concerns at both ends of the lifecourse:

Midwife crisis will 'let down' a whole generation of new mothers (written in 2013)

The NHS's chronic shortage of midwives will last into the mid-2020s, despite ministerial pledges to improve maternity care amid a continuing baby boom, according to new figures.

The calculations, by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), suggest that the gap between the number of midwives the NHS in England needs and the number it now has will not be closed until 2026. The shortage is certain to force maternity units to close suddenly and lead to some mothers receiving inadequate care before, during or after giving birth.

The ‘cost of dying’ outstrips inflation as funeral costs increase 5.5% in a year year

Insurer SunLife’s annual Cost of Dying research shows that the cost of dying is the fastest rising of any fixed cost in the UK – rising much faster than any cost of living such as rent, food, utilities, insurance or clothing.

The overall cost of dying which includes death-related costs such as probate, headstones and flowers in addition to the basic cost of a funeral – has risen by 8.3% to £8,802.

The funeral – which makes up 44% of the cost of dying – has soared by 5.5% in a single year, a rise more than 10 times the increase in the cost of living.

The average funeral in the UK now costs £3,897 which is more than double what it was when SunLife first started tracking funeral prices in 2004.


I worry about these issues. I care about the people affected. I worry and care about prejudice, in/equality, safety, peace and more. Don’t we all? Maybe, maybe not? 


My recent reading has also included the following two pieces just this morning. 

The first: The fall of Labour’s golden generation
Seems to me to be a lot about politics as a career.

The second: Jeremy Corbyn: ‘People say I should be tougher. But it’s not my style’
Highlights (again in my opinion) that for some politics is a vocation.  

Of course my analysis here is simplistic and there is much more that can be said about each article but with the focus of this piece in mind it was the second one that prompted tears today. Following weeks (and of course it's not over yet) of mainstream and social media programmes, articles, posts and tweets full of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, personal attacks, bile; to read something so human disarmed me for a little while.

From the reading I have done and my social media presence I know that my own feelings are anything but unique and in concentrating on myself I make no claim to be any more, or even as, affected as many others. But still my stomach misbehaves. Will it steady following next weekend’s announcement? I doubt it. There’ll be more to worry and care about, more to challenge, much more to work for and on. 

Despite the last almost 1000 words in the great scheme of things me and my feelings are of little consequence. For as someone recently said:

Real pressure - real pressure - is when you don't have enough money to feed your kids, when you don't have a roof over your head, when you are wondering if you are going to be cared for, when you are wondering how you can survive, you are wondering how you are going to cope with the debts you have incurred, you are wondering if your lovely employer is going to give you a call to give you a couple of hours work or not bother, or change their mind when you are on the bus on the way to do that job.  

And, if I may add, real pressure is when midwife shortages negatively impact on birth experiences for all concerned and when people are literally too poor to die.