And then…

I’m happy. I’ve been happy for almost a year with barely any depressive dips and I can’t really explain why. Maybe it’s not just happiness, perhaps it’s also contentment, self acceptance and generally better mental health.

With this happiness has come a willingness to leave the house more often, which has also led to reconnecting with friends that I’d drifted away from over the past decade, apologising to some for having lost touch when I was at my lowest and getting to know others who were probably acquaintances before.

One of the best things about my world and the people I chose to surround myself with is that they are intelligent, creative, artistic and kind. I see what they are doing with their lives and I’m so proud that I even know them a little bit. I know people who can write beautiful poetry and prose, who can sing, play and dance, who take stunning photos, who make people laugh and cry with their stories, who create works of art in physical forms and send them out into the world. The world at the moment can be very frightening, depressing and unsettling, but I’m grateful for those bringing joy into it.

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Like our genial host, Michael Ian Black, I have never read ‘Jude the Obscure’ by Thomas Hardy.  I have, however, seen the 1996 film adaptation starring Christopher Eccleston, Kate Winslet and Rachel Griffiths.

I had rented it from Ritz video store in 1998 when I was 14, my Mum’s friends came in as I was watching it and thought she was letting me watch porn.  No, she was letting me watch classic literature and a ’90s film that Kate Winslet was in, but Mum was horrified at the thought of it for years afterwards.  I won’t talk of the film any further as I don’t want to spoil anything for first time Juders, like Michael.

I came across the podcast via an ad in ‘Unspooled’ and thought “That’ll be right up my alley,” and indeed, it is.

I have enjoyed Michael Ian Black’s work since ‘Ed’ was regularly screened on Channel 4 and was re-introduced to him when my university flatmate told me that I had to watch ‘Wet Hot American Summer’.  I agreed to watch it because Janeane Garofalo is a badass, and now it’s one of my favourite films.  Also, if you’ve not watched ‘Burning Love’ get on it.


So what’s the appeal of listening to someone reading a book aloud for the first time?  LITERALLY EVERYTHING.  Obviously MIB’s delivery is excellent, as an English person I appreciate the accent work and pronunciation of tricky words – I grew up near Bicester and Towcester and people really struggle with saying them out loud.  I enjoy his asides and commentary on the book.  I now want to try a cruise to New Jersey and can’t wait to hear what he thinks as the book progresses.


So if you find you have half an hour to spare, settle in and join Michael Ian Black, coming to you from the Jill Schwartz Memorial Library and revel in the Obscure.

This is me.

“Something has changed within me, something is not the same, I’m sick of playing by the rules of someone else’s game…”



If you’d said to me a few years ago that I would spend a hot, Summer evening sitting naked with two strangers in one of their living rooms, being recorded for a podcast talking about my body image, having been abused physically and emotionally and various other things for a podcast that anyone anywhere in the world could listen to, I probably would have said that that is bollocks.  But a couple of weeks ago I did just that, I headed to Jenny’s flat to record for The Naked Podcast, having put myself forward to do it.


Just after recording my episode of ‘The Naked Podcast’ for the BBC with Jenny and Kat. And yes, all totally nude. Photo from The Naked Podcast.

For most of my life I’ve had a difficult relationship with my body image.  For a long time I thought I was fat and how could anyone like or love that, but in the last 6 months I’ve actually found a peace within myself and a comfortableness with myself that I could not have imagined before.  The beginning kernel of this change in attitude started in February when I sent out a request to some of the women I know from school.  I messaged them saying that I’ve been thinking of writing something about body image, this is how I thought of myself back then, what are your memories of me and how did you feel about yourself when you were a teenager?

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They said it on the air on the radio

The other night, cutting it a bit fine before the cut off deadline, I started to listening to a BBC Radio 4 Extra programme by Jessica Fostekew called Motherhood: Bump, Birth and Beyond.

Here’s the description from the BBC website:

“Made for 4 Extra. Jessica Fostekew charts the horrors and highs of the nine months of life with a bump, the moment of reckoning with birth, and the chaos, or not, that lies ahead.

We have clips from over 50 years of Woman’s Hour, programmes on pregnancy and childbirth from the 1960s and 1970s, and archive interviews about coping with parenthood – and we’ll be speaking to the comedians Jenny Eclair, Cariad Lloyd, Sara Barron, Richard Herring and Catie Wilkins, Caroline Mabey, Jen Brister, Hatty Ashdown, Kirsty Newton, Katie Mulgrew, Taylor Glenn, Robin Ince, Laura Lexx, Sindhu Vee, Diane Morgan, and Holly Walsh about their experiences with fertility, pregnancy and motherhood.”


I was listening, sitting in bed, in the dark, on my own, late at night and it made me quite emotional.

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A tram at night

I sat on the tram opposite an older woman. Her face was turned to the window and tears streamed silently down her face. I took out my headphones and asked her if she was ok, she just nodded. I smiled at her and put my headphones back in, listening to funny women being clever.

I was sitting directly opposite her but tried not to keep looking directly at her, but because I felt she didn’t want a witness to the still falling tears. She turned back to the window, clutching her carrier a little closer. I could see her wipe at the tears from the corner of my eye, in the reflection of the windows. I wanted to check again whether she needed help but I didn’t want to draw attention to her.

The tram rattled on, halting at each stop, unusual for this time of night. When the woman and I locked eyes briefly we smiled at each other. I looked away and focused on the voices being pumped into my ears.

My stop was announced, I gathered my things, stood and gave her a gentle squeeze on the shoulder and another smile as I headed towards the door. Another year fell and she smiled again wearily, putting her hand over mine. I left the tram, stepping to the pavement and the dark night. After a few seconds the tram rolled past me, the lights inside harsh and garish compared to the muted streetlight ahead of me. She was lit up, once again looking out of the window away from me. The tram sped on, carrying her further into the night and whatever awaited her at home.

Build me up, don’t get me down, weather the storm, because life goes on.

“This band behind me’ll tell you that that trophy means more to me than owt else in the whole world. But they’d be wrong! Truth is, I THOUGHT it mattered. I thought that MUSIC mattered. But does it bollocks? Not compared to how people matter. Us winning this trophy won’t mean bugger-all to most people. But us refusing it – like what we’re going to do now – well, then it becomes news, doesn’t it? [flurry of press camera shutters] You see what I mean. That way, I’ll not just be talking to myself, will I? Because over the last ten years, this bloody government has systematically destroyed an entire industry. OUR industry. And not just our industry – our communities, our homes, our lives. All in the name of “progress”. And for a few lousy bob. I’ll tell you something else you might not know, as well. A fortnight ago, this band’s pit were closed – another thousand men lost their jobs. And that’s not all they lost. Most of them lost the will to win a while ago. A few of them even lost the will to fight. But when it comes to losing the will to live, to breathe, the point is – if this lot were seals or whales, you’d all be up in bloody arms. But they’re not, are they, no, no they’re not. They’re just ordinary common-or-garden honest, decent human beings. And not one of them with an ounce of bloody hope left. Oh aye, they can knock out a bloody good tune. But what the fuck does that matter?”  Click on the quote for Pete Postlethwaite in his full glory.

Well, it’s been quite a week hasn’t it?

I can’t say I was particularly confident of a major shift towards something that I would have seen as more positive than the last government, but, as I believe was the case for many of my friends, the last thing I was expecting was a Conservative majority.  I am saddened, I am disappointed, I am angry, I am frustrated, I am filled with dread with what is to come.

I have mixed feelings about my national identity.  I am both English and British.  I was born in a cottage in Buckinghamshire.  I have one Scottish grandfather who died 10 years before I was born and one Irish great grandfather who died 75 years before I was born.  We’ve traced branches of our family tree back over a thousand years and, as with many English people, our family has come from all over Europe – France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Norway, Germany, Turkey, Hungary – and that’s just the people we have records for.  When I was abroad I think I ended up saying either depending upon how I felt on the day.  I haven’t visited Europe recently so I’m not sure how we are currently being perceived over there.

I have real struggles with national pride and nationalism.  I can see why people want to have a sense of pride of where they come from.  People can be house proud, proud of their hamlet, village, town or city, their county, their region, their country, that’s fine if it brings them some happiness.  What I really hate is when that is then used as an excuse to say “I’m this, so I’m better than you!”  Just because you were born in this time and place doesn’t make you better than anyone who wasn’t.  Perhaps you are a better person than someone else, but that has nothing to do with an accident of birth, that’s to do with how you speak to people, your actions and your intentions.

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What a piece of work is man

Warning: This post contains images and information you should find disturbing and upsetting.

I took GCSE history and in that we covered world events that took places from 1945 to 1989, essentially The Cold War but we focused on Britain, the USSR and America, because there’s a lot to fit in in a short amount of time.  We skimmed over the Korean War, Vietnam War and learned nothing about the Khmer Rouge and their treatment of their own people.  Why is this?  Perhaps, again, it’s a case of time constraints, perhaps it’s because Britain wasn’t overly involved and if it doesn’t contain our own, we don’t really care.  We have too much going on of our own.

For example, news reports.    Whenever there is a disaster of some kind, for example a plane crash, the report might say something like ‘Two hundred and eighty seven people were killed in the crash, including 4 Britons, 2 Americans and 1 Australian…’ Now I know that the fact that British  people died will be important information for their families, but I feel that by pointing out the nationalities of 7 people makes it seem that the other 280 don’t count, they aren’t worth mentioning further but now that we know our countrymen were affected, we’ll sit up and listen.

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Response: A Teacher’s Tale

I just read this on my friend’s facebook status and decided that from the other side of the world I should write about it.  As usual, this will be a stream of consciousness so hopefully will make sense! 


“So… Some of you will be aware that, between Acting jobs, I work as a Supply Teacher. This past week I’ve been back at a school I regularly work in – no names – teaching a variety of subjects. Wednesday it was PE. Now, PE is a strange one to cover because the kids are not used to me being in anything but a suit and tie however, at least when I teach PE they get to have a practical lesson rather than just sit in a classroom.

“Lesson 3 was a Yr11 (5th year in old money!) lesson in which a number of boys were playing football. Still more boys had “not got kit” (for which they were not reprimanded at all!) but spent the lesson leaning against a wall. At one point, noticing movement out of the corner of my eye, I turned to see the non-participants clustered over at the fence (a tall steel affair with a spiked top – to keep the paedos out! …or, in truth, to keep the kids IN!) One of the boys – a ruddy-cheeked, pretty-boy – had climbed up the fence and as I watched, hawked a great mouthful of phlegm which he then spat at a woman walking past!

“As you can imagine, she was disgusted – as was I! I ushered the boys away from the fence and apologized profusely to the woman – who spoke no English – while the boys jeered and made racist remarks! On taking them “in” I spoke to the Head of PE who had me point out the spitter, who – to my face – refuted the accusation with “He’s a fucking liar, Sir!”
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Responses to the last post..

I put a link to this on a facebook community page and it sparked off an interesting debate.  Eventually it got into a very heated discussion about the use of the word ‘pikey’ to describe members of travelling communities.  People were stating their views very strongly and some others were getting offended and hurt by it so I decided to delete the post and all the responses.

I did have email alerts set up with each reply sent to me, so I thought I’d put a few up here, names of contributors removed please let me know what you agree or disagree with in the comments below. (I will give each person a colour instead of a name so that you can see some of the back and forth).

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Coal Not Dole – It’s people that mater

I was born in 1984, just before the miner’s strike.  I was given my nan’s middle name – Margaret – by parents who were more Labour supporters than anything else.  I started school the year that the National Curriculum was introduced, something that many teachers disagreed with that was implemented by a Thatcher government.

I grew up listening to all sorts of music and folk is one genre that has stuck with me.  I love being able to listen to songs written by people to tell the tales or make comments about their everyday lives.  One song that stuck with me that I decided about 3 weeks ago that I would really like to learn properly and start singing out was ‘Cole not dole’ by Kay Sutcliffe.  It was written in response to the closures of pits in Kent and across the country.  I wanted to learn it because the voices of 30 years ago can still be heard echoing today and are being joined by more and more voices of dissent when people see that the current government is continuing the dismantling of the country that began during Thatcher’s government.  I don’t agree with the current government’s policies and wanted to add my voice to the crowd.

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RE: Degrees of Folk

Facebook’s a marvellous thing sometimes. This morning it alerted me to a post written on another blog talking about the degree I studied. I felt I should probably reply to it…

Here is the original post:

Just lately I’ve been listening online to what’s been emerging from Newcastle University’s Folk Music degree course. Here’s a typical example of some of their third year students in action.

(For videos, please see Andy’s original blog)

I worry a bit about endless cohorts of students forking out nine grand a year and thinking there’s a living as a folk musician waiting for them at the end of it. (I worry about my Religious Studies students too, but at least they come out able to write an essay). But mostly, while the standard of musicianship is obviously high, I worry that it’s all so excruciatingly nice. Wouldn’t you rather go and see the old guy singing down the pub than something so…polished?

If folk music has a place in the academy then perhaps a bit of competition would be good for business, maybe somewhere down South. I’ve had some fun trying to think of what my folk syllabus would look like.
Obviously students would need to learn about the tradition and how to play their instrument.

But I’d get them to read up on carnivalesque theory and go hunting misericords. I’d get them to see some traditional folk customs and write an essay about it. I’d get them to jam with musicians with whom they shared no language, and then try and copy the style of another instrument entirely. I’d send them to the Glastonbury dance tent with instructions not to come back until they’d fallen to the floor in a delirium of sweaty ecstasy. I’d get them to shut the fuck up and listen. I’d make them sleep a night or two under the stars. A passionate love affair and a heart-break or two would probably be character-building. And for their final practical, I’d pack them off to France for the summer with nothing but fifty quid, their instruments and their wits to see how they got on. A bit of enforced busking does wonders for performance skills I find.

Oh hold on a minute, that’s what I did. Forgive me. I’ve committed the unpardonable sin of thinking that my life could provide a template for everyone else. Please accept my sincere apologies. Utter hubris.

But there’s a serious point here. If folk music is as relevant as we claim then it has to have something to say. It has to have arisen, unbidden and insistent out of the sheer messy fact of being alive. It has to have come up through the feet, to have lingered in the loins, rolled around the heart and soared out from the belly. It has to give voice to what the Welsh call the hwyll and the hiraeth – loosely, joy and sorrow. That’s not something you can teach, nor something you can buy. No wonder it all sounds so clean. The poor sods haven’t had a chance to live yet.

Here’s some folk music straight from the source. It’s from Gyimes in Transylvania, and is I believe a style unique to that area. The wild intonation of their fiddles may be too tart for Western ears but for me this is the pure drop.

It makes my fingers tingle and my feet itch in a way that, sadly, nothing I’ve heard from the Folk Degree ever does. If I were eighteen with nine grand in my pocket, I know where I’d go.


And here’s my response:

Hello Andy.

I’m Ellie, I studied the Folk Degree between 2003 and 2007. I graduated with a 2:1, major in performance, and now work as a primary teacher in Tanzania, having studied a PGCE and passed at Masters level. I CAN write an essay, mainly because of the practise I had in writing them on the folk degree… Just thought I’d clear that bit up.

I was in a year group that included many mature students and many, like myself, who were 18 or 19 when they began. Before I moved to Newcastle, the only contact I had with other folk musicians was with my Mum’s Morris team. I lived in a small town in South Northamptonshire, there was very little public transport – none after 6 at night and I can’t drive. I applied to study at Newcastle, but I also applied (and was accepted) for Ethnomusicology at Queen’s in Belfast, Norse, Saxon and Celtic at Cambridge and Music combined with English and Folklore at Sheffield. I chose to study at Newcastle because I felt comfortable in the city, I wanted to learn from the tutors available and I wanted to study folk music. For me, it was the best choice I could have made.

I ended up living in Newcastle for 9 years, making friends with other students, getting to make music with them, being taught by some amazing singers and having opportunities that I doubt I would have had if I had chosen one of the other courses.

But should I have been allowed to sing folk music at 19? I had barely lived! What had I done by that point? I’d worked since the age of 14, I’d stayed up all night in the happy hardcore tent at Gatecrasher and put in an 8 hour shift in the morning. I’d had my heart broken, I’d been stalked, I’d been a witness in a rape trial, my parents had split up, I’d been to Brittany and Normandy to play with musicians there. I’d had work experience in two, rather large, West End productions, and auditioned for a third. I’d volunteered with children with learning difficulites. But I couldn’t sing a folk song properly becuase I hadn’t lived.

Whilst on the degree I had more opportunities, I got to work with musicians, singers and dancers of different styles, genres and ages. I worked at festivals both onstage and backstage. I ran a summer school with 120 participants. I went to Hungary to perform at an International Folk Dance Festival in fromt of 5000 people. I stayed up all night, each night for the week dancing and singing with Greek Cypriots, Turks, Hungarians, Italians, French, Aboriginals, Israelis…

I didn’t enjoy every single aspect of the degree, and not everyone I enrolled with completed the course. But, I have friends who have studied many different subjects at many different universities, and (surprisingly) they’ve not enjoyed every aspect of their degrees and not every member of their cohorts graduated either. Not everyone will – it’s a hard choice to make at any age, deciding what you are going to dedicate yourself to for the next 3 or 4 years. But I do not ever regret that I have done it.

My modules for the first two years were picked for me, to give me a broad musical knowledge alongside specific folk knowledge and specialised teaching in folk styles that I hadn’t had before. But in my 3rd and 4th years, I chose my modules, I chose my singing teachers. I studied Corsican and Sardinian traditional choral music, Medieval music, contemporary culture, popular music, jazz, music business and musicc teaching. It allowed me to get gigs, because I had an opportunity to meet festival organisers, folk club organisers, other musicians. My performances aren’t polished, I wouldn’t want them to be, I make mistakes, I forget words and re-write them on the spot, I talk nonsense on stage. But for others, they have the ability for excellence and want to show it.

I was never under the impression that I would have a professional career in folk music and this was never perpetuated by the tutors on the degree. If anything, they stressed the fact that very few of us would make a living from it and that we should diversify our skills. I was always going to train as a teacher, partially fuelled by a conversation with my secondary music teacher who, when I applied for the degree, said “It’s not proper music, but it’ll suit you.”

Enough people ridicule folk music and knock it down for being less worthy than classical, or jazz, musical theatre or even pop, that I think if you love the music you should encourage people for getting it out there. You may think that the performers you saw are overly polished, it’s not your taste, so what? They are doing what they enjoy, they are learning, they are developing, they have opportunities. I would not say that they are typical third years, I would say their performance is typical of them. I know them and I am very proud of them for what they have achieved (and I know that they certainly have ‘lived’ despite their young ages).

Sometimes I would like to see a bloke singing in a pub, but sometimes that can be utterly awful, out of tune and uncomfortable to listen to, but I suppose it’s allowed because he’s over 40 and being out of tune is more authentic.

I am not a fan of every performer that comes from the degree, but I wouldn’t expect to be. There is a range of style, genre and talent there (I would put myself amongst the less talented), but I am not a fan of every person I hear at a pub, folk club or festival. Variety is good, why knock people for doing what they want, if you don’t like their music, don’t go out of your way to listen to them again.

If you think that folk music has to rise unbidden then it will die away. I am teaching folk music of the British Isles to my Tanzanian students because I had an opportunity to learn about it, I am teaching here partly because I have studied it. Had I just relied on my music GCSE and A level to inform me about it (as most secondary music teachers do) then they would confidently know that folk music consists of ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor?’, ‘Scarborough Fair’ by Simon and Garfunkle and Bob Dylan songs.

I’m still under 30, I’ve still not lived enough to sing folk songs because I’ve not busked, I’ve never been to Glastonbury, I’ve not read up on carnivalesque theory (and probably can’t spell it), I’ve not had torrid love affairs, I suppose I had better close my mouth and stop singing.

P.S. These 18 year olds that started this September don’t have 9 grand in their pockets, it’s loans that they will probably never pay back, they start to repay once they are earning over £21,000 a year but that have no impact on their credit record, applying for mortgages, loans, credit cards etc. The repayments come out at source and so, like tax and NI, could be seen as a payment that you never had. I worked as a careers adviser for teenagers for 3 years, I did read up on this a little bit in that time. But yes, if I had £9,000 in my pocket I would like to go all over and experience different things, but I didn’t so I studied something I loved instead and it has since opened those doors for me.

Please feel free to add your own comments here. I realise that my reply is rather lengthy, but it’s what I felt I needed to say…