A level results day: Why my best lessons at uni had nothing to do with my degree

Image credit: PA / Daily Mail (obvs)

Today is A-Level results day, and apart from the mandatory media photos of pretty 18-year-olds jumping up and down clutching their results (above), there will also be many looking ahead to university and wondering what the future holds.

I’ll be the first to admit that my university experience maybe didn’t look that similar to most people’s.

Like it or not, there is a stereotype that students spend most of their time at uni doing as little work as possible, and drinking more on a Wednesday (and Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday) than most people do in a month.

But not only did I not drink alcohol at university (no real reason, just was never that bothered – although all my friends drank, and I do drink now) I also went to Cambridge, which meant that the apparently-usual tactic of doing absolutely sod all until deadline day every three months wouldn’t quite have worked…

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RIP Sally Brampton: Who could see joy in the ordinary

On my bathroom wall there’s a page torn from the back of my favourite magazine, Psychologies. It’s a column by Sally Brampton, who killed herself last month, after a long and much-documented struggle with terrible, colour-sapping, joy-slaughtering depression.

As I never knew her personally, Brampton’s death came as a shock. I discovered it, as I do most things, by faffing around on Twitter, and it took only a cursory Google to confirm it was true.

That Brampton apparently walked into the sea seems a heartbreaking yet curiously apt method for a woman who had often written of her love of the seaside, the happiness of meeting friends on the beach, and finding meaning in the tranquil ‘boredom’ of her life since moving from London.

Although she was much heralded as a brilliant editor, razor-sharp yet kind commissioner, and the architect of a new style of women’s magazine, I only discovered Brampton through her writing on depression and life in Psychologies.

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“Just write”, she said: On the wisdom of Laura Barnett, author of The Versions of Us

Last night I went to see Laura Barnett at a book event at Clapham Library, and found myself inspired not just by her beautiful novel, but also her honesty and clarity, and her very human appreciation of how very hard it is to find time to write

Laura Barnett, author of the wonderful 2015 novel The Versions of Us, is rare.

As her first ever published book, the novel was a Sunday Times bestseller, has been translated into over 20 languages, optioned for a TV series, and has enabled Barnett to put aside her previous journalism work and take to writing fiction full time. For a writer, it’s the dream.

Except, it wasn’t quite her first book. As she explained at her very own literary event at the opening night of the Omnibus Clapham Literary Festival last night – twinkly, friendly, articulate, funny, blonde and stylish as she was ‒ it was actually her third novel, and had been, at times, bloody tough to write.

Not that you could tell from reading it. It’s lyrical, beautiful; stunning in both description and characterisation – the individuals within it as real and flawed and insecure and loving and sexy and fragile and scared and fabulous as any actual human ‒ and as expansive and detailed in its descriptions as in its depiction of life and all its infinite tiny decisions and worries.

Much of it is set in Cambridge (my old uni), whose colleges are centuries-old and whose streets are seemingly impervious to the restless decades, and Rome (one of my all-time favourite cities), and Cornwall (where one of my best friends lives), so much so that I felt like it was almost written for me.

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January 2015: Not so much “Resolutions” as “Things to Remember”…

At least, that’s what I said to myself after I doodled this lot (below) on a page in my new year’s notebook one night last week.

Rather than actual Things To Do (because god knows we’ve all got enough of those already), they’re more words to live by – how I try to live my life, always, whoever and whatever I’m dealing with.

resolutions-2015Sometimes I achieve it, and have a day where even the most-delayed, rammed, horrifically-slow District line Underground train can’t dent my zen-like, at-peace-with-the-world state.

Other times, even a five-minute delay can cause me to nearly cry with frustration at EVERYTHING being WRONG, and as the pure, distilled symbol of everything I don’t like about my life. (When does a Tube metaphor ever NOT perfectly describe the difficulties of existence, I ask you? Never. Nearly.)

These Things To Try And Remember segue neatly into actual “Things To Do”, because they help me balance my mood, remember what I’m living for, and crucially, make me feel good about myself.

So, blah blah blah, if you really want to know – in terms of ACTUAL resolutions, I’ve started a bloody difficult new exercise plan (TurboFire), am doing daily yoga workouts before work, trying to break the Christmas habits and eat better, keeping up my food diary again, starting up driving lessons again, trying to learn the repertoire of my new choir, keeping an open mind on relationships, and generally trying to take 2015 as it comes. With joy. And resolution. In that sense, these kind of ARE resolutions.

But crucially, I’m not beating myself up if I “break” one, or have a shit day. And equally I’m trying not to feel too “this is too good to be true” if I have a good day.

After all – as you can read here and here – one of my most favourite sayings is “If you’re tired of starting over, stop giving up”. Which, in less wanky language, is “Whatever it is, don’t let one fuck up, fuck up everything, and DON’T GIVE UP, EVER”. Maybe I should add that gem to the above list? Haha.

Here’s to 2015, everyone x

It’s my party, and I’ll post song lyrics if I want to

Despite its many foibles, I generally love Twitter. It may be the place where productivity goes to die, but I also find it supportive, funny, friendly and intelligent. I guess it’s who you follow, right?! Twitter is what you make it.

But the other day, I saw this image being widely retweeted, which made me want to switch off. Call me over-sensitive (as many have and will), but I found it pretty patronising.

Because I love song lyrics, find them meaningful and inspirational, and sometimes the only thing that can keep me going when my mental health is having another wobble.

If I sometimes post them, or use them as inspiration for art, then I don’t see why I should expect false concern in return. We don’t mock people for writing poetry, or speaking plainly about how they feel.

So why this?

Granted, social media should never take the place of a psychologist, and those of us who started using Facebook as teenagers have learned the hard – and maybe bloody embarrassing – way that online updates aren’t the place for your inner turmoil.

So yeah, if your own timeline is more emo nostalgia than interesting or funny, then
maybe log off and go outside for a bit. Everyone wins.

And yet. Personally, I love the fact that sometimes, you can post something
indirect, and connect with other people over it. Song lyrics, for example.

For so many people, myself included, song lyrics are the expression of emotions that
sometimes feel too hard to write. It’s a truism that you can often sing far simpler,
far more direct things than you can say. I’ve always been someone who can fall in
love with a song simply because it said something – however deep or however
frivolous – that I couldn’t, or didn’t know how, to articulate.

And if that speaks – or more accurately – sings to me at a particular time, then I
don’t want to feel like I have to apologise for it. Or think that someone will post a sarcastic response if it’s not representative of their experience. It’s very “I’m all right Jack, my life’s going great right now, so please refrain from posting song lyrics that I find uncool, you’re bringing down my timeline, yeah?”

I mean, personally, I don’t even POST song lyrics, as such. But I do listen to music
every single day, and experience lyrics profoundly. A single line can genuinely
bring me to tears, laughter, contentment or total serenity, and that means so much.

Also, some of my most expressive painting ideas come from song lyrics, or feelings
that songs create. Why are lyrics seen as something to be mocked, but poetry or lines from literature are fine?

Many song lyrics may not be necessarily comparable, linguistically, to literature –
but as Mary Beard recently said (in the Evening Standard magazine, if I remember
correctly) studying “low art” as well as “high art” doesn’t mean that you’re saying
one is the same as the other, or better. Just different. And if Mary Beard said it,
that’s good enough for me.

If lyricists can put into song what I sometimes can’t write, then fantastic. Finding
a song that says exactly what you were thinking is cathartic, eye-opening, and makes
you feel part of something. Music is incredible, and lyrics are part of it. What
could be wrong with that?

Online arenas shouldn’t be a replacement for therapy, or somewhere to
vent your frustrations, within reason. But if some songwriter, somewhere – whether
legendary, respected, teenage, or just-in-the-charts – manages to express something
better than you yourself can, then why not?

Post it. Write that tweet. Paint that painting. Quote that quotation. And don’t
mock, or chide anyone else who does, too. If it’s not for you, unfollow, unfriend, mute, and move on.

As more and more of us see online spaces as an extension of ourselves, they
shouldn’t become yet another “cool table”, at which you can only sit if your humour,
feelings and music choice are deemed sophisticated enough for a chosen few. It’s the same reason that I find the widespread mocking of the phrase “u ok hun” pretty insulting too.

I mean, I get it: a lot of people are annoying online. But sometimes, all people need is to feel noticed, to feel that someone cares if they’re OKYes, there’s a balance – no-one likes those constantly, dreary-for-no-reason, purposefully attention-seeking statuses. But a song lyric can bridge that gap between being whiny, and saying something that is really meaningful to you.

In today’s society, where poll after poll shows that loneliness in young people is rife, if posting song lyrics – or even a painting of them – DOES elicit a friendly response from someone, and brightens up that person’s day for a bit, then what the heck is wrong with that?

I refuse to subscribe to this idea that unless you’re being unremittingly negative or dark, then you’re being “annoying”.

Don’t reduce people’s feelings – or their braveness in revealing them – to a mocking, pretend-concern, sneering greetings card. Because the only thing more insincere and cynical than someone seeking sympathy online, is someone mocking that in response.

And never mind song lyrics, it was one indisputably great writer who said it
best: If music be the food of love, play on.

Only then can we fully express the feelings we have, until they might no longer trouble us. And we can feel all the better for it.

What would Maya Angelou do? Her best quotes

The great, late Maya Angelou was pretty damn perceptive (understatement). I quoted her in this piece about personal heartbreak, but there are a lot of incredible phrases from her floating about in light of her death at the end of May, and I wanted to honour them, too.

I’ve been reading her I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and although it’s a bloody shame that she had to die before I really discovered her wisdom, I guess it’s better late than never.

Meanwhile, here are some of my favourite, most meaningful quotes from her, taken from this piece on the Guardian.

  • You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
  • It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.
  • I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.
  • We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
  • Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.
  • I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights (I think this is true, but I also include “missed flights/trains” into the lost luggage bit, and “tangled headphones” into the last one).

And the last, most galvanising of all:

  • Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.