Archive for category Personal

Time to Talk

I'm taking part in Time to Talk Day

I’m supporting this campaign by Rethink, to encourage people to talk about mental health.  Because it’s hard to speak about it publicly, because there is a stigma attached to mental illness which does not apply to most physical illnesses, because it feels like a weakness, because you think you’re the only one, because you’re afraid (of what you’re experiencing, and of how other people will react).

I wish I could say that ‘coming out’ in this context is always met with outpourings of support and love and help.  There’s a lot of that.

But there’s also – telling your boss you’re having treatment (medication and counselling) for depression, and her (a) telling other colleagues to keep an eye on you, (b) telling the management board that you have mental health  problems and (c) generally treating you from there on in as a problem, not a colleague who’s having a problem.  That was about ten years back – would it be different now?  It depends on the workplace, on the boss.  It’s risky, and if now I would (and do) say things publicly it’s because in the time since that dark episode I’ve gained in strength and confidence and because what happened to me then made me angry and determined to challenge those attitudes.

Of course there’s also the whole ‘pull yourself together’ thing that will surface, explicitly or implicitly.  Especially if your life circumstances don’t ‘justify’ your depression.  If bad things have happened to you, and your illness seems to be a result of that, the sympathy will probably be more straightforward.  If your life is outwardly fine, then some people – including kind, loving people – will feel that you should be able to sort yourself out.

But a lot of the stuff that deters one from talking openly is internal, not external.  No one told me I didn’t have a right to feel depressed because I was physically healthy, employed, solvent and had people who loved me.  I told myself that.   No one told me I was a failure and a mess, because, since I left the house every day washed, appropriately dressed and apparently functioning,  only I knew (for the most part) that I was a failure and a mess.    No one told me I couldn’t be really depressed because I kept leaving the house every day washed appropriately dressed and apparently functioning – that was me, telling myself that – as I read account after account of depression, hoping to see myself in there – I obviously didn’t have a serious problem and should be able to sort myself out.

How do you measure the seriousness of depression?  I was never hospitalised, I had very little time off work, I was never unable to get up and go through the motions of life.  But for a long time I had that nasty little mantra in my mind throughout my conscious day and every time I woke during the night, and for a long time I only smiled when people could see me.  For a long time I saw my life as trudging on, up hill all the way, fog and gloom all around me so that I couldn’t see where I was heading, or even see that I wasn’t alone on the path.   I wrote a poem along those lines, a very bad poem, long since deleted, but at the time it helped to write it down.  People who didn’t know me really well didn’t know – but they sensed something, or perhaps the lack of something, a spark .  I had a few job interviews during this period and the feedback suggested a lack of enthusiasm or interest in the post, a lack of dynamism and energy.

Partly, you realise how bad it’s been when it starts to get better.  When the mantra stopped.  When my smile stayed on my face after I’d shut the door, when no one but me was there.  When the fog cleared and I could see that however far I still had to trudge on uphill there was a beautiful view from where I was, and there were people alongside me.

I’m talking about this now – more publicly than I ever have before – because I’m prompted by the Rethink campaign to share my story.  And because I know that some people who know me will be surprised, and may think I’m ‘not the type’, but may therefore rethink their assumptions.   As you look around you, in a lecture or a meeting, at a party or a gig, there will be people there, talking and laughing and making decisions and relating to those around them, who are or have been in the grip of depression or anxiety, who are struggling with or have struggled with obsessive compulsive behaviour or eating disorders, who are experiencing or have known the intense highs and lows of bipolar disorder.  You’ll never know, unless they dare to share it with you.

It’s a part of me, I think, that propensity to slip into the pit.  I stay out of it mainly by being busy enough, with lots of things I care about and that bring me joy, but not so busy that I succumb to anxiety and sleepless nights and feelings of panic.  I know the signs now, and can usually take preventative steps before I start to slip.  Once you’re in there, it’s hard to get out, as Alyssa Day’s blog vividly and powerfully describes.

It shouldn’t be so hard to talk about this stuff.   It is, still, and I will press Publish on this post with more trepidation than for anything else I’ve sent out into the blogosphere.

But it really is time to talk.

 

http://alyssaday.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/on-one-writer-and-depression-aka-life.html?m=1

http://www.rethink.org/?utm_source=email&utm_medium=informz&utm_campaign=blank

http://www.mind.org.uk/

http://www.depressionalliance.org/

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2013 – the best bits. And some of the other bits.

 

It has been a funny old year.  Funny peculiar, though not without the odd moment of mirth and merriment along the way.

 

I came back from one secondment to my regular job in January, and went off on the next secondment in December.  This new one is a major change – working for HEFCE, based at home when not attending meetings in various exotic parts of the UK (oh, OK then, Croydon, Birmingham, Manchester, Dorking…).  It’s a fantastic opportunity, and challenges the way I organise my life as well as requiring me to acquire new knowledge and new skills.

 

I graduated, again.  Did the whole gown and mortar board thing which I hadn’t been fussed about when I was 21 and graduating for the first time. And then, with barely a pause, on to the doctorate.  Studying part-time, it’s going to be a long haul, with who knows what possibilities at the end of it, but I’m loving it.

 

In February, a beloved friend and colleague died, and we – his family, friends, colleagues, students – grieved but also worked together to put on an amazing event in his honour, the 24 Hour Inspire.  We raised money for local cancer charities, and have raised more since, through an art exhibition, plant and cake sales and various 10k runs/marathon bike rides, etc.   And we’re now planning the 24 Hour Inspire 2014, and the publication of Tim’s diary.  He will continue to inspire.

 

Culturally, my high points in 2013 have been:

 

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Showroom, talking about Americanah, and Half of a Yellow Sun
  • Peter Hill premiering newly discovered/completed Messiaen at the Upper Chapel (and playing Bach, Berg and Schoenberg too)
  • Arnie Somogyi’s Scenes in the City, playing Mingus at Sheffield Jazz
  • Tramlines – the Enid in the City Hall, Soukous Revelation in the Peace Gardens, Jim Jones Revue and Selecter at Devonshire Green. (And more, but those were the absolute top bits).
  • The 24 Hour Inspire – 24 hours of lectures on life, the universe and everything, including Ed Daw’s blues piano, Rachel Falconer on poetry and birds, Jenny Saul on implicit bias, Claire McGourlay on the Innocence Project, and personal narratives from Brendan Stone and Elena Rodriguez-Falcon.  Plus John Cockburn’s rendition of (What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace Love and Understanding, and my favourite Beatles B-side, Things we Said Today, and more busking from Mike Weir, Graham McElearney and Eugenia Chung.  And more, lots more.
  • Fabulous Beethoven quartets/quintet from the Elias at the Upper Chapel
  • A magical Winter’s Tale at the Crucible
  • Two awesome Britten operas (Peter Grimes and Death in Venice) from Opera North at Leeds Grand
  • New (to me) authors enjoyed this year: Maggie O’Farrell, Louise Doughty, Lucy Caldwell, C J Sansom, Alison Moore, Edward St Aubyn, Rebecca Solnit, Wilkie Collins,  Jonathan Franzen
  • Wonderful new books from authors I’ve enjoyed before: Stephen King’s Dr Sleep and Joyland, Lynn Shepherd’s A Treacherous Likeness, Jon McGregor‘s This isn’t the Sort of Thing…., Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy
  • Finally finished Proust’s Sodome et Gomorrhe.  Allons-y, to La Prisonniere!
  • I’ve learned to love Marvel superheroes (Avengers AssembleThorIron ManAgents of Shield!), and have thrilled to The Walking Dead, Orphan Black (virtuoso performance(s) from Tatiana Maslany), Utopia and, of course, Dr Who.
  • Speaking of which, not only an absolutely stonking 50th anniversary episode, but also a fascinating and very touching drama about the show’s early days, with David Bradley as William Hartnell, the sweet and funny The Five-ish Doctors, with Peter Davison, Sylvester McCoy and Colin Baker sending themselves and everyone else up with great affection, and Matthew Sweet’s Culture Show special.  And the Christmas episode
  • Other cracking telly – Broadchurch, Homeland, Misfits, The Fall, Southcliffe, The Guilty, The Americans…  And from across the Channel, not only another masterclass in French profanity from Spiral, but the wonderful The Returned
  • And other top films – Joss Whedon’s Much Ado, Lore, The Hobbit Pts 1 & 2, Lincoln, and Patience (after Sebald).

 

About the blog itself.  It’s been less focused on my areas of research recently, and that will continue to be the case, as I’m working on the PhD.  The odd digression will find its place here – as Tim used to say, tangents are there to be gone off on, and the blog is a good way of nailing those (to mix my metaphors somewhat) and stopping them from distracting me for too long.  I shall be continuing to go on about all sorts of other things that pique my interest.  In particular the blog will continue to be a place where refugee stories are foregrounded, as a riposte to the mean and dishonest coverage which those stories tend to receive.

 

Over the last year, my posting has been somewhat erratic.  I note that I didn’t write anything between March and June (I made up for it in June, however, with a Refugee Week blog-blitz, as well as a piece about Last Year at Marienbad which I still intend to follow up.  That hiatus may have had something to do with being in the final stages of my degree – finishing off my dissertation, and a last batch of essays and presentations.

 

There are so many fantastic bloggers out there, too many to do justice to.  We lost one this year, as the great Norman Geras passed away.  But I’ll continue to enjoy, and to share/reblog That’s How the Light Gets In, Nowt Much to Say, and Futile Democracy, amongst others.  For my research interests, I will no doubt continue to find lots to think about and follow up in blogs from Decayetude and Vertigo.

 

So, thanks to the aforementioned bloggers, to the various people with whom I’ve shared the cultural delights enumerated above, to friends and family who’ve supported me in my ventures and refrained (mostly) from telling me I’m mad to try to do so many things.

 

Thing is, I have a history of depression.  I know that the best way for me to fight that, to avoid sliding back into that dark pit, is to do lots of stuff I care about.  So, not just the job – which I care about, passionately – and my wonderful family, but research, writing, ensuring that we do Tim proud via the charity, and so on.   I am very aware that there’s a tipping point, that if I do too much stuff I care about, given that I also have to do stuff that I have to do, just because I have to do it, the anxiety of having so much going on can itself lead to sleepless nights, which make me less able to cope, thus leading to more worrying and so on and on… It’s all about balance, and about having support when I need it.  So, to all of you who, whether you know it or not, provide that support, and help me to keep that balance, a heartfelt thanks.

 

In particular, over this last year, I’d like to thank:

 

For unstinting support and encouragement through the part-time degree and especially as I reached the final stages – tutors Sophie Belot and Annie Rouxeville, and classmate Liz Perry.  And a special thanks to Chris Turgoose for ensuring that my graduation gown stayed put via an ingenious arrangement of string and safety pins.

 

For support and encouragement to go on to the PhD – the aforementioned Sophie, Annie, and Liz, plus Rachel Falconer, Helen Finch, and my supervisors Amanda Crawley Jackson and Richard Steadman-Jones

 

For their contributions to the work of Inspiration for Life, and the 24 Hour Inspire, and their support in commemorating and celebrating Tim – Tracy Hilton, Ruth Arnold, Vanessa Toulmin, Chris Sexton, John Cockburn, Lee Thompson, Matt Mears and David Mowbray

 

My family, of course, without whom…

 

And, finally, Tim.   I’d have loved to share this year’s triumphs and tribulations with him.

 

Have a wonderful 2014 all of you.

 

fireworks

 

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Inspiration for Life

For the last eight years, I’ve been lucky enough to know this bloke called Tim.  He was a colleague, and a friend.  Each time he passed my office he’d put his head round the door and offer some truly awful joke, or a greeting in French, Spanish or Latin (or some mix of the three).  Occasionally, just a rude noise.  He made me laugh, but he was also one of the people I knew I could turn to for support, if I needed it.  He was warm, generous, open and positive.   Tim was a physicist, an artist (his work regularly featured at the Physics & Astronomy Art Exhibition – idiosyncratic semi-abstract paintings, and an installation involving apples at various stages of decay), a poet and a writer (as will be evident when his diary is published shortly), a musician, a gardener and passionate lover of the natural world – and above all a communicator.

Tim had terminal cancer.   He was diagnosed back in June, and told that as the cancer has spread to his liver there wasn’t any chance to operate.  Chemo could give him a bit of extra time.  Tim reckoned he could beat the odds, that the time estimate the doctors gave was skewed both by the desire to not give false hope, and by the inclusion in the statistics of those whose life expectancy was already shortened by old age or other frailties.  He found, along with despair and grief, a way of living in the world more intensely:

I’m looking at everything differently with a renewed intensity and concentration, as if to draw out of every image all the information I’ve never ‘seen’ before. The deep colour of the leaves of trees, the vivid green of grass, the happy laughs of children playing, the clinking of tea cups in a café accompanying the chat and the laughter. I remember that I am still part of this world and no tumour is going to defeat me without a fight. I’m sad, yet I’m happy; I’m angry yet I’m calm and I’m scared yet I’m brave for this new challenge that lays ahead.

When we heard of Tim’s diagnosis we had to think about how to tell people.  Because it wasn’t just me whose life was enhanced by Tim being part of it, it was everyone in the department, staff and students.  And Tim was adamant that the students who were about to graduate, all of whom he’d looked after during their first year at University, mustn’t have their celebration spoiled by this news.   Some already knew he was ill, and already feared the outcome, and we had to tell them that it was pretty much as bad as it could be.   Students came back in September to find that he was no longer in the department, that he wouldn’t be returning.  That was hard, and there were tears.    As the news spread, people have wanted to do something, to show their love and gratitude.

Initially this was expressed through messages of support for Tim and his family – it wasn’t easy to see what else we could actually do.  The impetus to do something more, something different, came, of course, from Tim.  On the day he was told that the cancer was terminal, he said that he’d been keeping a diary and wanted to use it in some way to help other people.  The obvious thing was to publish it to raise funds for the specialist cancer services that he and so many other people rely on – and we will.   But Tim’s vision went far beyond that.  As first year tutor and PhD supervisor, Tim supported and inspired generations of students in Physics & Astronomy.  And he wanted that to continue – to encourage people to believe in themselves, and to carry on learning throughout their lives, to revel in the possibilities that life holds.

So we set up a charity, called Inspiration for Life.  Tim wasn’t sure about the title, didn’t think it was catchy enough.  We were sure.  The title sums up everything that we hope to do, and more than that, it sums up the impact Tim has had on so many of us.  We’re working towards our first big event, 24 hours of lectures, on a host of topics, from physicists, philosophers, zoologists, historians, psychologists, lawyers and more.   We’ve got musicians who’ll be busking around the building through the night, and people across the University baking biscuits and cakes to sell.  And the wonderful thing is that we haven’t had to beg or cajole people to do this.  The response – from speakers, and bakers, from students and staff – has been so enthusiastic, so generous, that it’s often moved me to tears.  It’s going to be amazing, I know that.

The only thing is, Tim won’t be there.  We knew he was unlikely to be well enough to attend, but we did hold on, for as long as we could, to the hope that he would be able to enjoy it vicariously, to watch the recordings afterwards and see the funds mount up for the causes we want to support.

But Tim slipped away on 5 February, after several weeks when it was clear his strength was failing.  He died at home, with his family around him, as he had wished.

He didn’t beat the odds, as he’d hoped he would.  But he’s in our hearts, in our memories.  He’s made such a difference, touched so many people’s lives, given them, yes, inspiration.  That’s been evident in the messages since he died,  so many expressions of loss and grief, but also so many heartfelt thanks, so many debts of gratitude, and so much love, for him and for his family in their heartbreak.

From all of us, who’ve been privileged to have had you as part of our lives, thank you Tim.

Atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale.

http://www.justgiving.com/forTimRichardson

http://www.inspirationforlife.co.uk

And, brother, for all time, hail and farewell (Catullus, 61-54 BC)

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2012 – the best bits

2012, for me, has been the year of the blog.  The year that through this medium I found a creative outlet, met some fascinating people and discovered some wonderful writers, engaged in some stimulating and unexpected discussions, and generally had my optimism about the internet reinforced.  I’ve been uplifted, fascinated and inspired on a regular basis by bloggers such as Diana J Hale, Vertigo, The Fife Psychogeographic Collective, That’s how the light gets in, Weaver’s Journal, Steve Sarson and Decayetude.  And my blog on the US election led to a mutually respectful encounter with Rick from Billerica, with whom I would disagree about pretty much everything, except the principle of mutually respectful encounters with those who hold different views.    On the Our Island Stories blog, set up in the aftermath of  the Olympics to talk about questions of national identity, we’ve had contributions from some of the above, and also from Kate Elmer, Mike Press, Emily Wilkinson and  Diane Magras.  To all of those people, and so many others, thanks!

The internet comes in for some harsh criticism – and I read ‘below the line’ often enough to be brought almost to despair at the bigotry, the hatred, the cruelty that’s out there, only needing the anonymity of an internet forum to come spewing out.   But my own experience has been entirely positive.  Through blogging, through Facebook and Twitter, I’ve made friends, had fascinating conversations, shared enthusiasms, learned stuff.  I’ve connected with people I would never have encountered at all  otherwise, and connected in unexpected ways with people I already knew.  This obviously doesn’t invalidate the experiences of those who’ve been subjected to the viciousness of trolls and the deceit of sock-puppets – but it needs saying, that it can be, and often is, an enormous force for good , and that connections made via the net are not intrinsically less ‘real’, less worthwhile than those made by other means.

So, looking back at 2012, these have been some of the best bits, culturally speaking:

  • John Akomfrah‘s extraordinary The Nine Muses
  • Watching the ever elusive and enigmatic  Last Year at Marienbad twice – to be the subject of a later blog.
  • TV : Homeland –  plot holes wide enough to swallow up the odd aircraft carrier, but the degree of ambiguity in all of the main characters has been wonderfully sustained, and the denoument was unforeseen.   Line of Duty and Good Cop shared the best of those characteristics.  Misfits and Being Human somehow survived a brutal cull of main characters to emerge still witty and surprising.  The Walking Dead kept us on the edge of our seats, where we must remain until February, and anxiously awaiting news of Daryl’s fate (and the others, obv, but hey, Daryl!).  Oh, and Dr Who continued to be marvellous, moving and magical.
  • I’ve been reading Proust.  A statement which will probably feature in my summaries for 2013, 2014 and possibly beyond.   I’ve been fascinated by two particular elements recently – the constant referencing of the Dreyfus Affair, and the theme of sexual ‘inversion’ – and rather less fascinated by some of the aristocratic dinner parties that one has to endure almost in real time, such is the detail with which they are described.   There have been moments when I’ve wished Robespierre had been a little more thorough.  I’m about at the halfway point in the whole A la Recherche project.
  • New great stuff from Stephen King (11.22.63), Hilary Mantel (Bring up the Bodies) and Jon McGregor (Even the Dogs)
  • First encounters with writers I should have read before and will read more of  – Hans Fallada, Alexander BaronHaruki Murakami  and Wilkie Collins.
  • Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s – I approached with caution knowing that she was riffing on my favourite novel of all time, Bleak  House, but I need not have worried.   Indeed, I went straight from Tom to her earlier novel (Murder at Mansfield Park), and have her next on pre-order – and she led me to The Woman in White as well.
  • Theatre –  Geoffrey Streatfeild in both  Macbeth at the Crucible and Copenhagen at the Lyceum, Betrayal (lovely John Simm) at the Crucible
  • Tramlines festival – Screaming Maldini and Early Cartographers in Weston Park, The Third Half at the City Hall, Soukous Revelation in the Peace Gardens, Jim Ghedi & Neal Hepplestone at the Cathedral, and Frankie & the Heartstrings, Field Music and We are Scientists on Devonshire Green.   Three days of music spilling out of every bar and coffee shop, of sunshine and people dancing in the streets – literally – and generally being nice to each other.
  • Music in the Round – a fabulous Quartet for the End of Time, an introduction to Louise Farrenc, and the early polyphony of Pérotin and the Notre Dame composers in Sheffield Cathedral.

2012 has been the year that the Hillsborough families were vindicated, utterly and unconditionally.  The year that the truth was not so much revealed – it had been in plain view all the time – as spotlit, so that there were no shadows in which the lies could continue to lurk.  And that justice seems finally to be within reach now.  Massive respect to all of those who fought this battle when it must have seemed hopeless, when everything and everyone seemed to be against them.

And it’s been the year of Inspiration for Life.  The year a dear friend and colleague, Tim Richardson,  was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and a whole community came together to support him, and to help him set up a charity to do the things he believes in – supporting living, giving and learning.  We’ve been both devastated and uplifted.

So – onward to 2013.

No resolutions as such.  But anticipations and aspirations -

  • Graduating (again), and planning the next stage of my lifelong learning, and publishing (if I can, in real, proper, academic journals) some of my work on Michel Butor
  • Fundraising for Refugee Action – having hung up my trainers, I’m not sure yet how I can best do this, but their work is vitally important and I want to do what I can
  • Reading Proust, and lots of other stuff.  Lots and lots.
  • Enjoying to the full Sheffield’s rich cultural life – theatre, arthouse cinema, Music in the Round, Tramlines, Festival of the Mind, Arts-Science Encounters, Site and S1 and Bloc, and more
  • Blogging, about Butor, Sebald, French cinema, refugees, Dr Who, national identity, and whatever else is buzzing around in my mind at any given moment
  • Enjoying working with physicists, astronomers and other scientists, and facilitating what they do, through what I do
  • Continuing to be an utter geek
  • Listening to as much music as possible,  with as eclectic a range as possible
  • Getting Inspiration for Life going – with the 24-hour Inspire at the end of Feb (24 hours of lectures, activities and entertainments), the publication of Tim’s diary, and the art exhibition in May, funds from which will go to local cancer charities (Weston Park Cancer Hospital Charity, St Luke’s Hospice and Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice).
  • Going on about stuff that matters – refugees, environmental issues, injustice, inequality, that sort of thing.  Going on and on.
  • Doing all the above whilst being a good-enough parent, partner and friend

Phew!  No pressure then.

Thanks to all who’ve enriched my life  in 2012, and with whom I’ve shared the best bits.   Here’s wishing you all good things in 2013.

 

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Running for Refugees

Above:  A Runner, Another Runner, Me

Well,  I never said I’d run the Great Yorkshire fast.  In fact, I quite distinctly and explicitly said I’d run slowly, and I did.   Slightly more slowly than last year, in fact.   However hard I try, I find myself falling back towards the rear of the last wave of runners, alongside people who are in fact walking, and people in cumbersome fancy dress.   If I’m honest, I do mind that, a bit.

I don’t expect to cross the finish line to a ticker tape welcome, cheer leaders waving pom poms, reporters queuing up to interview  me about the experience.  But for the stragglers, those last few runners to stagger over the line, there’s a bit of a sense of anti-climax as we stumble on suddenly jelly like legs to grab the last few goodie bags, and head home, as if we’ve arrived at a party after the booze has run out, and the music’s been turned down low.

I like to think, however,  that there’s something a little bit heroic about my continued efforts in a field where I am so clearly not gifted.   I like to think that the kind and cheery people who still line the route to the bitter end, who call out ‘Well done Catherine, keep going, you’re doing fine’, recognise a certain bloody-minded determination, whether or not they recognise or value the cause for which I run.

In recent weeks there have been cheers and tears for a Somali born refugee who’s proud to say that this is his country and to wear the British flag around his shoulders as he kneels on the track to pray.  And as we marvel at the Paralympics we remember also that it was a refugee from Nazism, Ludwig Guttman, who saw that people with spinal cord injuries who had been written off, left to die slowly and in despair could be given new hope, purpose and the chance to achieve through therapy and sport.  (And Guttman wouldn’t have been here without the help of the Society for Protection of Science and Learning, now the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics.)   This doesn’t prove anything, of course, except that amongst those who make their way here are some exceptionally gifted individuals.  But to me it says that a country that is confident enough in itself to be open and generous, hospitable and inclusive, will be enriched by that.    If we were to take away from our culture the contribution of refugees, we’d lose more than that gold medal, and more even than the Paralympic Games.  We’d lose landmark buildings, high street names, publishing houses, works of art  – in every field of business, politics, science, arts, sports, we’d lose.  The societies that drive people out because of their beliefs, their race, their sexuality, they lose.  And if the displaced and the exiled are not given sanctuary, then those people, gifted or not, destined to be famous or not, will be lost too, along with those who never got the chance to escape.

So, actually, I do like to think that I can use not only something I am quite good at (writing, communication) but something that I’m really
rather rubbish at, both for the same purpose, both to support the same cause, because more and more I believe that it is one of the most
important things we can do, to support refugees.

Refugee Action

If you’d like to help, you can sponsor me here: http://www.justgiving.com/Catherine-Annabel0

Find out more about the work of Refugee Action here:

http://www.refugee-action.org.uk/ourwork/default.aspx

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Isles of Wonder

Cover of "The Progressive Patriot: A Sear...

Cover via Amazon

There’s a conversation that’s been going on, here and there, across the blogosphere, since Danny Boyle blew our minds and melted our cynical hearts at the Olympics Opening Ceremony.  It’s not a new conversation for most of us, but it’s suddenly become more intense, more personal.

We – those of us who are having this conversation now, rather tentatively, almost apologetically – are generally of the left; our disposition is likely to be cosmopolitan and internationalist, and we’re likely to be sharply critical of current and previous government policies at home and abroad.  We’re highly unlikely to have celebrated the recent royal wedding, or the Jubilee, or to own or wear any clothing featuring our national flag.   We probably agree that the national anthem is a dirge even if we disagree about what – if anything – should replace it.

But we found ourselves recently coming over, as Mike Press put it, ‘a little bit Continental, even almost disarmingly American’, in the way we responded to that opening ceremony and the display of sporting excellence that followed.   Steve Sarson echoed this – ‘It was like I’d turned into an American, or something’.

A bona fide American, Kate Elmer of the ‘Yankee in Yorkshire’ blog,  mused earlier this year that ‘when I speak to English friends and colleagues about The Olympics they reluctantly agree that “Yes, I suppose this will be a rather large event won’t it?”  Some of them hope to attend events.  Most of them hope to keep their heads down until the whole thing goes away.’  Just the other week she wrote that: ‘I have never seen the British get so excited about their own success.  I have never seen them so patriotic.  The Jubilee didn’t do it.  The Royal Wedding didn’t do it.  The Olympics did.  It’s not an “In Your Face, World!” kind of pride.  It’s bone deep.  It’s real, true, forever love – the kind many of them perhaps thought might have been lost.  Every medal, every waving flag, every play of the national anthem has them physically on their feet and emotionally on their knees.’

Blake Morrison in the Independent was part of this too: ‘I didn’t expect to feel excited.  And as the opening ceremony grew closer, and the stories of mismanagement multiplied, I feared the worst.  I was wrong.  Most of us were wrong.  The last two weeks have been amazing.  I’m embarrassed to admit how many times my eyes have welled up.  And even more embarrassed that the cause has usually been a British medal’.

So our conversation has been about what happened to us and what it means for our perception of who we are.   There are two main threads to that, I think.  One is about the mood that prevailed – summed up in the opening ceremony – replacing our ‘seemingly eternal cynicism and negativity’ with the sensation that we are better than that, that we can be warm and open and welcoming, joyous and positive.    The other is about that tug of pride that we felt in the depiction of our ‘Isles of Wonder’, and in the performance of ‘our’ medallists.  The first is something we want to celebrate and nurture, the second, as another friend of mine said, is ‘complicated’.

It’s not a new conversation. Billy Bragg’s book The Progressive Patriot is an eclectic invocation of the history, literature and music of his homeland – one feels Danny Boyle must have read it – and a response to the BNP’s gain of a dozen seats on Barking & Dagenham Council in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings.  It’s an attempt to identify the narrative that explains ‘how we all came to be here together in this place, and how successive generations of those who were initially excluded from society came to feel that this was where they belonged … to reconcile patriotism with the radical tradition’.

That’s not straightforward, and it goes against a strain of radicalism that discards, as Gustave Hervé said in 1907, ‘a flag along whose folds are blazoned in letters of gold the records of so many butcheries’, that distinguishes the affection and loyalty we may feel for the place we were born or grew up, from love ‘for such countries of privilege and iniquity as are the great nations of today’.  Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks incurred the wrath of US patriots when she said, almost 100 years later, ‘I don’t understand the necessity for patriotism. Why do you have to be a patriot? About what? This land is our land? Why? You can like where you live and like your life, but as for loving the whole country… I don’t see why people care about patriotism.”

I agree.  With both of them.  And yet, and yet…   I  feel that tug of love without embarrassment or complications for another country, because of the place it holds in my childhood memories and because being there shaped how I see the world.   I’ve put Ghana’s flag on my desktop and my Facebook profile – I would never dream of doing that with the Union Jack.  I’d fail Tebbitt’s notorious cricket test if the England football team were to come up against the Black Stars.   So why is it OK for me to be gung-ho about Ghana, and not about the country where I was born, where I’ve lived the majority of my life, where my children have been born and raised?

What do we mean when we talk about pride?  What do we mean, come to that, when we talk about Britain?  Kenan Malik‘s response to the Olympics was sceptical.  He asked ‘What is the Britain in which we are supposed to have pride? The Britain of immigration and diversity, a diversity celebrated in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony and that has resulted in the gold medals of Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Nicola Adams and countless others? Or the Britain that is suspicious of immigrants and immigration, and whose politicians continually seek to limit it and to preserve ‘British jobs for British workers’? The Britain that went all out to stage one of the best Olympic Games in recent memory? Or the Britain of austerity and public spending cuts? The Britain of the Levellers, the Pankhursts and Red Clydeside? Or the Britain of Knox, Rhodes and Rothermere?’   Easy answers spring to mind, but he’s right, my Britain may not be your Britain.

And yet, and yet.   I think there’s something going on here.  I don’t want to wrap myself in the flag any more than I did a month ago.  I’m the same person that I was before, but along with many others, I thought I’d had a ‘glimpse of another kind of Britain’, of a ‘soft and civic’  patriotism that maybe I could be OK with.   Jonathan Freedland said that  ‘It will slip from view as time passes, but we are not condemned to forget it. We don’t have to be like the long-ago poet who once wrote: “Did you exist? Or did I dream a dream?”’

So, do we treat Boyle’s vision of the Isles of Wonder as a requiem for what we value about our country, or a celebration?  Or even, perhaps, a warning and a call to action? Do we allow our ‘normal state of being’ to be reinstalled in the British psyche, without protest, without attempting to hold on to what we briefly experienced?  As Billy asks in his blog, ‘Has the euphoria of the past two weeks has caused a seismic shift in the meta-narrative of Britishness? …Can a new spirit of engaged and transformational patriotism emerge from this experience? One that seeks to build a fairer, more inclusive tomorrow, rather than constantly rehashing a narrow vision of the past?’

We could just say, well, we got a bit carried away there, but it’s ok now, we’re ourselves again. But with the Paralympics just around the corner, what if we get a bit carried away all over again?  What if we actually rather like it?  I think we need to talk.

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This is my country

I’m not given to patriotic outpourings.  I have difficulty saying I’m ‘proud’ to be British – I’m too aware of our colonial history to feel that in any simple way it is a matter of pride.   But I’ve always resented the appropriation of patriotism by the racists of the National Front, the BNP and EDL, and whilst flags and royal weddings and the like don’t move me terribly I do feel lucky to live here, and I love my homeland.

I wasn’t expecting to find anything about the Olympics that would move me, any more than that wedding did.   I was wrong.   Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony celebrated my Britain, my home, in all its glorious diversity, in a way I hadn’t for a moment expected.  It was a delight – I was laughing with pleasure, and with tears in my eyes.   And last night I was moved by our own Jess’s triumph in the heptathlon – a Sheffield lass, after our own Arctic Monkeys had greeted the nation with a cry of ‘Y’alreight?’ – and by Mo Farah‘s triumph in the 10000m.

2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony (11).jpg

And so the whole thing, which I’d expected to be a massive bore, has turned out to be instead a massive, bonkers celebration of this marvellous, mixed up country, where the multiculturalism which a Tory idiot and the Daily Mail derided has brought us medals beyond all expectations, where the successes of a Yorkshire girl with a Jamaican dad, and a Somali refugee have been celebrated across all the boundaries that sometimes divide us.

Last night Mo was asked if he’d rather be running for Somalia.  His answer is powerful in its simplicity and confidence: “Look mate, this is my country. This is where I grew up, this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I’m proud. I’m very proud.”

That’s not a pride that requires disparaging or disqualifying anyone, it’s not a pride that is based on being white or being able to trace centuries of ancestors on British soil.  It’s not about believing that we as a nation have always been heroic or just, or that our policies at home or abroad are right now.

I’m proud that over centuries we’ve kept our doors open to people who’ve needed to find refuge here, from French Huguenots to Russian and European Jews, to victims of more recent conflicts and oppression.  That’s the Britain I love, and celebrate – whilst at the same time wishing we were more welcoming, less mean-spirited (see my series of posts for Refugee Week, and if you would, sponsor me to run for Refugee Action in a few weeks time!).   Our diversity is our strength, and I love and celebrate that too.

Danny Boyle’s vision for the opening ceremony was summed up in Tim Berners-Lee‘s gift of the internet to the world, a gift, as he said, that is for everyone.  That celebration of ‘the creativity, exuberance and, above all, the generosity of the British people’ had ‘a golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of a better world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. We can build Jerusalem. And it will be for everyone.’

Idealistic, naive – perhaps.  But that’s my country.  And I’m proud.

http://www.london2012.com/mm/Document/Documents/Publications/01/30/43/40/OPENINGCEREMONYGUIDE_English.pdf

http://olympicopeningceremony.tumblr.com/tagged/music

http://www.justgiving.com/Catherine-Annabel0

http://action.hopenothate.org.uk/page/s/this-is-my-country

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