Friday 30 December 2016

Dead Famous, Famous Dead | Celebrity (and other) Deaths and Some Responses

A few months ago I almost bumped into my latest celebrity crush at Birmingham New Street railway station. I’ll not give the name. Far too embarrassing. But by way of a clue or two he’s a thespian known for radio drama as well as a presence on TV, and in at least two roles plays a character with a medical degree. . . It’s a thrill to see or meet someone whose work you admire, whether or not they do a similar job to you, or you ‘know’ them only through their on screen, stage, literary (or similar) performance(s). I’m always touched when well-known people speak of being star-struck on encountering or working with their own idols; evidence of how we all look to others for example and likely all, however lowly we consider ourselves, provide inspiration to others.

Because stories (of all kinds), music and other creative outputs affect us emotionally as well as cerebrally it’s not surprisingly that when an actor, singer, comedian, writer dies there is a certain amount (related of course to the fame and popularity (or opposite) of the deceased) of public as well as private grief. This year there has been a plethora of celebrity deaths with the baby-boomer generation, the rise of ‘celebrity’, and the easier access both to 24/7 news and public mourning, via the internet and social media, all being cited as possible reasons for both the rise of and responses to these events. 

In reflecting on my own reactions to some of this year's losses I acknowledged (in a shorter version of this piece that I wrote in May) that whilst I had a good deal of sympathy for Ronnie Corbett’s family, agreed with others that Prince was taken too soon, felt sadness at the loss of Terry Wogan’s wit and David Bowie’s music I experienced significant grief following the deaths of Alan Rickman and Victoria Wood. Having re-watched the Barchester Chronicles and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (saving Madly Deeply for when I felt stronger) and gobbled up the television tributes to Ms Wood plus various YouTube versions of sketches she wrote and/or starred in I felt sadder still that there will be no further creations from either of them. Just as sometimes it feels impossible, despite my acceptance of the opposite, that I’ll never, see, touch or talk to my deceased loved ones again, it feels incongruous that Wood won’t write another funny, insightful song or Rickman won’t sneer or smile in that sexy way that no other actor can get close to. And whilst I don’t believe I’m the victim of what some might call 'pathological fandom' I do feel that these individuals, although I never met them, where important to me. They made me laugh and cry, they entertained me and gave me pause for thought, I respected and took pleasure from their achievements and felt some connection to their humour and aspects of their politics. Since my first musings on this phenomenon there have been additional deaths with, in just the last week, Liz Smith, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Richards and George Michael being added to a list which also includes Caroline Aherne, Mohammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, and more, many more. Tributes and detail on the professional, political and personal influence of these and other celebrities who have died this year continue to be produced and broadcast.

There are of course examples of people who have died this year whose influence has been significant in the arts who are less well known, less widely mourned. So whereas the work of author Richard Adams may be remembered by many, that of 25 year old Max Ritvo, a poet who wrote about his experience of living with cancer, is less likely to be. And, in other areas; despite the value of their work Dr. Donald Ainslee (D. A.) Henderson who led the successful effort to eradicate smallpox and Vera Rubin, the astronomer whose work helped establish the unsuspected existence of dark matter, are hardly household names. Sadly, most of us likely know more about the life and work of Jo Cox MP, than we would had she not been murdered in June this year. 

Paraphrasing a social media post I read recently: ‘although most of us won’t trend on twitter when we die’ we all have some impact, some influence. When my husband John died in 2010 I received a number of letters from people (some of whom I had never met) that, in his job as a lecturer he had supported, influenced, inspired. Similarly following my mum’s death in 2012 several friends, including several I had not heard from for more than 30 years, spoke or wrote to me about the kindness and humour of my parents (my father died in 1979), highlighting their positive presence in the lives of young people other than me, their only child. Evidence of the importance of those of us who live ordinary lives in terms of legacy on the lives of others.

But what of Michael McCluskey, and others like him, who this year have died whilst living on the streets. Michael, in his late 40s, was known to many of the volunteers who work with the homeless in Medway, Kent and according to newspaper articles was a father and grandfather and a West Ham supporter. He was found dead in the high street on Christmas Eve and floral tributes were left in his memory.  A couple of months earlier in October about 100 people attended the funeral of Neil Dearden, who died in hospital but was previously living rough in Rochdale. The funeral was paid for by the £6,000 raised on a crowdfunding page set up by Mohammed Yousaf. Motivated to give Neil the ‘funeral he deserved’ Yousaf, a local business man, said: ‘Neil wasn’t a straightforward guy and had problems, but he was a wonderful guy and never harmed anyone. He was a true legend and a bit of a celebrity in the area.’

My life, like the lives of many others, has been enriched and enhanced, by the life and work of many of the famous, and not so famous, folk who have died this year, likely by some in ways I/we will never appreciate. The lives and deaths of McCluskey and Dearden are significant too and not only to those who knew and cared for them. In the UK the cost of a funeral in 2016 is more than double what it was in 2004 and homelessness (including those sleeping rough, squatters, sofa surfers, and those living in hostels and bed and breakfast accommodation) is clearly a crisis. In such a society the deaths of homeless people, with little fame and no fortune, and the responses to them, deserve as much, if not more of a reaction, as those of the more acclaimed and immortalised.  We should all, and here I include the political ‘elite’, the mainstream media, and each and every one of us, take note. With 2017 just a couple of days away one our hopes for the new year should be that Michael McCluskey and Neil Dearden, and others like them, did not die in vain. 

Monday 26 December 2016

What's love got to do with it?: politics, passion and positionality

My first political awakening came relatively late. It wasn’t that I was unaware of inequality, and injustice but I hadn’t ever before felt the burning need to people the barricades with like-minded others. It was a return to education following 10 years of training and working as a nursery nurse that did it. In a Monday evening A Level Course at my local FE College my love affair with all things sociological began. I couldn’t get enough of studying or of sociology and the effect it had on the way that I felt about the world and my place and position within it. This was the start of the growth of my personal political imagination; a development that opened my eyes wide to the tragedy of living in Thatcher’s Britain whilst at the same time filling me with excitement and a hope to work alongside others for a better future.

My influence has been moderate. In the research that I have done my aim has always been to raise questions about the social world in an attempt to change things for the better.  Many of the issues I have studied -- not least in the areas of reproductive and non/parental identity (i.e. the status and experience of those who do and do not parent); on gender and health; on working and learning in higher education; on the social and emotional experience of travel; on loss and bereavement - concern experiences that I, and others, think are both misrepresented and misunderstood. I can (at the local level at least) show evidence of some positive difference and I am humbled when my academic publications are referenced by others who work in similar areas. As teacher, as colleague, as supervisor, as mentor I have been privileged to be able to help others in their endeavours for change but I continue to learn as much as I give from those my job has been to teach or support. I delight in the many good friendships I have made through my professional life.   

In my research I have attempted to give a voice to individuals whose experiences have not always been given the attention it deserves. Additionally, some of my work has been auto/biographical. By this I mean that I have undertook research on issues of which I have personal 
experience and have explicitly reflected on the significance of this on and in my work. An auto/biographical approach acknowledges that when researching and writing about our self the traces of others are always present and when focused on the lives of others our own values, beliefs, experience is - whether explicit or implicit - part of the story. 

So my engagement with sociology, specifically feminist, auto/biographical sociology has been personally significant. It has not only helped to shape my identity and my understanding of important life events and experiences but it’s also given me a language to articulate my feelings and reflections. No where more is this evident than with reference to the encounters with loss which have peppered my adult life. My father died when I was 20, I miscarried my only (to my knowledge) biological child in my mid twenties and was divorced from my first husband at 32. My relationship with my second husband was happy but hard work given his many years of illness and when he died a couple of months short of seven years ago he was estranged from his two sons who remain estranged (their choice) from me, even though John had sole custody and they had lived with and were cared for by the two of us during their teenage years and early twenties. Almost five years ago the person who was my main support and source of comfort throughout all of these experiences – my mum, Dorothy – died following a short but nasty illness. Other extended family members and close friends have died over the years and as such I feel that that I have become something of an expert in bereavement.  Additionally, after more than 21 years of full-time work in the academy in December 2014 I left; accepting an offer of ‘voluntary' redundancy. So although I continue to work at various higher education institutions on a freelance basis, and enjoy the liberation from institutional administration, this change to my everyday working practices has required some significant adjustment for it is a loss of another sort. It was a loss – my miscarriage – that led me to sociology and in turn I believe that sociology has influenced the way that I ‘do grief’, just as it have influenced my engagement with the social and political world more generally. 

In a novel I read shortly after my mum's death I came across a reference to a poem entitled The Summer Day, written by Mary Oliver, the last three line of which are:

     Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
     Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
     with your one wild and precious life? 

I am still trying to work this out. I have done some stuff, achieved some things, but there is still lots more to do.

Much of my work in the academy has been multi-disciplinary and recently this has included collaboration with occupational therapists. Occupational science encourages us to use the term occupation broadly (not merely in relation to paid work) and suggests that although occupations may lose meaning when one is grieving paradoxically it is occupation that can help in regaining meaning in life. I have long found writing enriching, therapeutic even. The night I left my first marital home I packed a change of clothes, my toothbrush and the books on prisons and imprisonment I was currently reading in preparation for writing an undergraduate essay (marked coincidentally by the man who was to become my second husband although this was several years before our intimate relationship began).  Academic writing also helped me through John's periods of mental distress, alcohol misuse and physical illness.

In the last few years I have begun to experiment with other, different genres. Following the usual childhood creations I was left with ambitions to write fiction and memoir like my dad Ron, (a blue collar worker for most of his working life) did whenever he had time.  As well as a 40 thousand word memoir my dad wrote, and had some success in publishing, short stories in the 1960s and 1970s. He made up stories for me too; my favourite being the series about a gnome called Tipperty Tapperty Sam who lived under a bridge and made furniture for dolls houses. Despite my desire to follow in his storytelling example until recently I had no imagination about what to write. In 2010, not long after John’s death, I suddenly had a few ideas, and even more after my mum died in 2012. Not surprisingly perhaps many of my early (and current) attempts are grounded in, or relate to, my own life; early experiences, reworking of family events and challenges told to me by my parents; adult adventures and engagements with change. Other pieces relate broadly to research data I have collected and to events in the news. In 2015 I began writing short pieces of memoir all of which related in some ways to loss and to the legacies I believe that John and my parents have left me with. The two thousand plus words here represent one example of such work.

Following some, previously unusual for me, physical illness (evidence I believe of the connections between emotional and physical wellbeing and the fact that for many of us grief is an embodied experience) at the end of summer 2015 I began to feel very low. Almost a year later just as I was beginning to come out of this particularly part of my grief journey, I was struck by tremendous anger and anxiety. It wasn't that I wasn't distressed by the 2015 general election result, I was. It wasn't that I didn't feel shock and fear following the May EU referendum, I did. But what I really couldn’t get over was when at a time when the Left really needed to work together and to work hard for a better more secure future for all a significant number of the Parliamentary Labour Party thought that it was sensible to start an internal war. This was what really stimulated my second (party) political awakening. This time rather than experiencing excitement about my potential involvement I just felt very miserable (in an earlier blog entry entitled Stomach Churns and Chewed Nails I detailed some of my physical symptoms). In part my anger and anxiety was self-directed. I felt guilty for my political laziness over the past few years. I don’t regret focusing on the ‘personal as political’ in both my working and private lives but I have neglected the ‘bigger picture’ somewhat. My anxiety grew as I felt increasingly helpless in terms of what I could actually do. I missed John tremendously during this time. He was himself a political being, reflected in the choice of music and readings at his funeral, including a memory shared by a long-time good friend who recalled the time he and John were thrown out of a Conservative club just because they stood on a table to sing The Red Flag. I can't think why they both had lovely voices.  

Several months on I am a little less 'churned up' although my equilibrium is precarious and still likely to dip on a daily basis. This more comfortable state I credit, at least in part, to having found a way to live with the (now lower level) anxiety. Also relevant is that alongside my writing on this blog and elsewhere (some of which not surprisingly relates to recent political events and my responses to these) I have become more actively involved in party politics at a local level. I have also recently signed up for some additional volunteering which involves writing, listening and talking; all things I can go. With these developments in mind I like to think that I’m taking Maya Angelou (2006) to heart when she writes:

     You should be angry. . . . So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. 
     You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. 
     You talk it. Never stop talking it.

Alongside the activities detailed here I have certainly talked a lot in the last few months and I’m grateful to my dear, generous friends who have listened to me (a lot) and others who have read and commented on the pieces I have written. These communications haven’t always been easy or comfortable but they have all been useful in helping me to work out what I need to do next: to be useful, to feel useful. More than one person has challenged me on my support for a politics that is kinder, gentler and more focused on hope, peace and solidarity. It’s not that they don’t want similar but rather it’s the possibility, the reality of such as approach they are sceptical of. I accept this. Turning on the TV or radio or reading a mainstream or alternative news piece in my social media feed is all I need to do to be reminded how nasty and brutish the political world and broader society – both at home and abroad – can be, and often is. And yet: political campaigns to end infant funeral charges; speeches and alternative Christmas messages in remembrance of deceased colleagues, friends and family members; public discussion of the need for material and emotional support for the elderly, for those suffering from mental or physical ill-health, for asylum speakers; and solidarity with those who deliver our mail, enable our journeys to work, take care of us when we are ill who are fighting for more efficient, safer, better paid working conditions. . .  and so on, go some way to lift my mood. Add to this MPs staffing food bank stalls; recording (admittedly sometimes cheesy) charity singles; and highlighting the importance of love and care through their interactions with others as well as their political oration.

For those who want to find them, there are also many, many examples, of positive and life-affirming messages in literature, film and other cultural outputs. I Daniel Blake and Harry’s Last Stand (Harry Leslie Smith (2014) Harry's Last Stand: How the world my generation built is falling down, and what we can do to save it Icon Books) are both frightening reminders of how bad things are and how, if we don’t all fight hard to change things, they could get even worse. But IDB and Harry’s memoir are also about the power of positive relationships, of friendship and of love. 

I carry in my heart those I have loved who are no longer with me and despite my lack of traditional family I am lucky to have a life peopled with significant others who I love and who love me. If the personal is political, which it is, then the political is personal also. My personal politics is still developing, I'm still learning and changing but I know my approach will always include a focus on love for having received so much of it I have lots of it to share. Whilst writing this piece I have been conscious that some might dismiss my feelings and my ambitions as idealistic, as naive, as 'gross advertisement and sickly self-indulgence' (for after all I've had this criticism before, but that's another story). If so, so be it. After the year I, we, have all had I'm just doing what I know I have to do. 


The image on the front of Jeremy Corbyn's Christmas card is in fact more complex than it seems. On first inspection it's a dove carrying an olive branch. Looking again some people see 2017 and others the word JOY. Despite The Sun's suggestion that this is un-festive, whatever one's religious belief, or not, what more could we want for 2017 but peace and joy.
In my small way I need to keep working on achieving this for myself and for others, in order, not least, to feel comfortable within my own skin. 

Sunday 4 December 2016

The Twelve Days of Christmas | The 2016 version

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree. 
A somewhat unusual present I’m sure you’ll agree,
but apparently this was all that was left after the Black Friday rush. 

On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me two turtle doves. 
Symbolic of peace the doves represent a concept and ideal we definitely need to focus on just now; 
both at home and further afield. 
With the ‘politics of hate’ 
seemingly dominant on the streets 
and in much of the main stream media, 
more emphasis on peace, tolerance and kindness 
as strengths rather than weaknesses 
would be especially welcome. 

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me three French hens
A valuable gift for two reasons. 
First, the hens will probably cost very much more soon given that 'Brexit means Brexit'. 
Second, at least we can be guaranteed eggs,
even if,
fish fingers,
and goodness knows what else, 
are no longer available. 

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me four calling birds.
Following his successful campaign
the present elect of the United States of America
telephoned rather more than four world leaders,
before the prime minister of the small group of islands, 
4,242 miles away, 
with whom the USA has a long standing ‘special relationship’. 
Not to worry for he remains great friends, 
and shares a desire to make his country ‘great again’, 
with a Britain (for now) based  like-minded other 
who is currently being given much more attention and air time than is sensible. 
Enough already. 

On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me FIVE GOLD RINGS. 
A reminder of a summer of achievement. 
To cheer the soul during a year of disappointment,
and grief, 
many of us tuned in to the coverage of the Olympics. 
On one level a wonderful celebration of diversity, 
with huge support for all athletes irrespective of
social class, 
ethnicity and dis/ability.  
And yet there are divisions; 
(not least in that the Paralympics received less financial support and less coverage than the 'main' event a month earlier) 
and expectations; 
(woe betide anyone who doesn’t show the appropriate level of patriotic pride during their country’s national anthem) 
for those who compete. 
And as ever during such an event stark local inequality was highlighted: 

"Rio's plan, in hosting the Olympics, was to get the city on the world stage, attracting tourism and investment . . . With almost no effort, Rio stands out from most cities around the world. Who else has scenery and a percussive cultural mix like ours?

Now if we'd just managed to produce better sanitation, income distribution, housing, public safety, an integrated and efficient transportation system, public health and education ...The focus on marketing -- instead of our reality -- is why many locals aren't exactly psyched for the Olympic Games."

On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me six geese a laying.  
What were they laying I wondered; 
certainly not the golden egg for anyone not a member of the 1%. 
Austerity isn't working for almost everyone - 
who needs an education, 
who gets sick on occasion, 
who wants to keep warm and dry and eat well, 
who is growing older . . . 
There is a gender difference here too,
as several reports tell us that austerity affects women twice as hard as men. 
it seems that Black and Minority Ethic (BME) women are likely to be even more disadvantaged. 
What’s good for the goose is clearly even better (if only a bit) for the gander. 
And yet the pressures on men are significant also as evidenced by frighteningly high and increasing suicide rates.

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me seven swans a swimming. 
By now my home is overrun with poultry, 
and by rights my true love was a tad foolish imparting this particular present, 
given that unmarked swans by prerogative right belong to the British Crown. 
So asking for a gift note 
I returned the bevy of swans to their rightful owner. 
I hope they are able to cope with the noise of the, 
recently announced, 
refurbishment of their keeper’s (sometime) place of residence. 
The renovations will be paid for with taxpayers’ money. 
All the queen's men and women are fine with this.
If we lived in a society where benefit reduction was imposed on many in social housing who are deemed to have a 'spare' bedroom; 
if we lived in a society where child homelessness was the highest it has been for nearly a decade; 
if we lived in a society where a man sleeping rough died on the same day that the charity Shelter reached its 50th birthday;
then maybe we wouldn't be quite so supportive of this particular DIY SOS. 

On the eight day of Christmas my true love gave to me eight maids a milking. 
In the year when the Oxford Dictionaries' 'Word of the Year' is,
it is difficult to decide who deserves the prize for -
'milking it' the most. 
When a politician’s dress and shoe sense
is more important than her or his policies; 
when the facts about the value of immigration
are ignored in favour of xenophobia to deflect attention from a failing governmental agenda; 
when it's hard to tell whether the 'news' item we read or hear about is reality or satire,
I'm sure you are wondering if my reference to eight maids, 
(along with the rest of my festive booty), 
is itself a piece of 'fake' news. 

On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me nine ladies dancing. 
Makes a change from cavorting ex-shadow chancellors. 
Great balls of fire indeed.

On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me ten lords a leaping. 
Rather excitable this lot. 
All new to The House of Lords, (along with a few others),
they have to fight for seats given the increase in numbers in recent years. 
And to think it's being suggested that the number of MPs in The House of Commons, (affecting all politics parties but the Labour Party the most),
be reduced. 
Inevitably all the jumping about led to a nasty accident or two,
necessitating a long afternoon sitting in A and E,
whilst overstretched and tired looking doctors and nurses rushed around us. 
On leaving the hospital I signed a petition,
calling on the government to give the NHS the funding it needs. 
You can find it at #CarefortheNHS

On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me eleven pipers piping. 
In remembrance of those in the public eye that died this year, including: 
Alan Rickman, 
Victoria Wood, 
David Bowie,
Lennard Cohen, 
Ronnie Corbett, 
Caroline Aherne, 
Andrew Sachs, 
Carla Lane, 
Terry Wogan, 
Robert Vaughn . . .
(and more, too many more).  

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming.
As we listen to the beat accompanying us out of a year we would rather forget,
the very best we should hope for, 
I think, 
is that in 2017,
we will begin to appreciate, 
as the late Jo Cox MP, 
said as part of her maiden speech: 
'that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us'.