Out of Focus

Last year on my Blog Birthday (which I have just discovered is today) I made a load of promises to make my posts more writing-centric and shorter.

As I dismally failed in that, I will be making no such ridiculous pledges this year.

Instead, my ramblings on a whole host of random subjects, mixed with few rants will undoubtedly continue at around 2-3000 words per post.

Except this one.

Which is short and is sort of related to my writing journey in that I’m writing it.

Though I may change the name of the blog from Writeaway to Random Ramblings and Rants…

Focus, Joanne. You really must have more focus.

No, nope. NO pledges I just said!

Jeeeze.

Happy Birthday me. :)

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Love Letter to The Past

If you’ve been following me on Twitter or reading this blog, you’ll know that lately I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia trip. It all started with re-watching The Bounty and re-reading about it, before I moved on to looking at some of my old diaries and finally finding out a pile of old letters. I have these months from time to time, but I think I’m having a more prolonged period of it this time round, possibly because I hit forty this year and so often at these milestones we start to look back more, perhaps to try and see how far we’ve come.

Anyway, having dug out a shoebox full of handwritten letters I’d received, mostly from the period 1994 up to around 1998 I’ve wanted to write a blog post about the lost art of letter writing.

Yes, here she goes again, harking back to the ‘good old days’ through her rose tinted spectacles. However, it’s not going to be that kind of blog post. I’m not necessarily going to bemoan the modern age we live in or the technological advances we have made since paper and pen were invented. Oh, who am I kidding? Yes, I probably will.

So to start with I am always incredibly grateful that I am not 18 now or indeed was 18 at any point in the last fifteen years – in the age I will call the ‘mobile’ age. 1998/1999 will always be the turning point to me. It is when I started a full time career. It was when I bought a house. It was when I became aware of something called ‘the Internet’ and ‘world wide web’ whilst having not a Scooby-Doo what it was and thinking it was just another fad which would fizzle out. Like blogging. Well how wrong was I?! (The same amount of wrong I always am with regard to technology as it happens). It’s also the time I got my first mobile phone. It was a Panasonic one (my dad always rated Panasonic and I always listened to him where technology was concerned), and it looked like this:

It sent texts and you could call people on it. It was a phone. That was it. I got a free portable TV with it too, which was my main reason for purchasing this particular one!

But really it was much more than that, because the mobile phone, and in particular texting, ended an era. It ended the era of letter writing.

Which may seem a bit weird, because surely e-mail would end letter writing, not text messaging. Well, no you see because I didn’t get a personal e-mail account until 2010. (See, this is how far behind the times I always am). I had an email account at work, but that rarely got used other than for internal memo type communications. No, you see being able to text my friends became an immediate thing. It became the way to communicate with them because sending a text message was cheaper than phoning them and cheaper than a first class stamp. Prior to texting my friends, the only options were to a) phone (land line – mum putting limits on as it was expensive or the other 6 members of the household were clogging it up) or write. Writing won. But then text messaging became not only available and cheap but it was also more instant. But you all know this, this is not a lesson on the history of mobile communications.

No, but you see, despite all this wonder of technology, the thing is, the mobile age makes me sad in may ways. It makes me sad because everything is transient because of it. Nothing is static. It doesn’t stick around (despite what we are told about the Internet and it all ‘hanging around in clouds’). It may be there, but we don’t go back to access it and the worst thing is we are not the only ones who *can* access it. Texts (back in the day) had to be deleted once you got to twenty in your inbox. Yes, twenty! So any texts you wanted to keep, well you couldn’t really, otherwise new ones wouldn’t come through. I know times have changed in that respect, but a device will still only store so many before it begins automatically deleting them. Letter writing was never like that. Yes, of course you could choose to get rid of your letters, but most people don’t. I’ve been surprised over the years to know the people I sent letters to back then, have kept them. I think we all realise and value the written word. We know these small historical documents give an insight into a place and time which we’ll never get back. I think the mobile phone and internet, social media in particular, is going to kill the type of history of the ordinary person on the street. There will be a plethora of political, entertainment and cultural global history more readily available because of the internet, but the small, real life stories, the anecdotal stuff, like the love letters between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn which give us the human story behind the political history, they will be lost.

I imagine there is already a generation of teens who have never given or received a love letter. How utterly sad and depressing I find that. I mean, there may possibly be some who still send them simply to be romantic or for posterity, but sadly the reality is there is no need to send them any more. Long distance relationships can be conducted through Skype and across the social media waves. ‘Free’ phone calls and unlimited texts and WattsApp mean it doesn’t cost the earth to communicate. E-mail is free. There are now so many ways to communicate, it is quite astounding. (It’s also kind of ironic that despite all these ways to communicate, we probably do so less than say back in 1994.) It is also sad that communciaction has to be so instant and rapid. Back in the day (was only going to be a matter of time before I used that phrase), I might not speak to, or hear from my boyfriend in any form in over a week. I didn’t worry about it though. I’d send a letter and wait patiently (ish) for a response. When going to visit him I’d have to get a coach or a train. I’d write and tell him what time it would get in and hope he’d be there to meet me. There was no way to inform him if it was late. He’d just have to rely on the information boards at the station to tell him. I find it hard to believe sometimes I’m only talking about twenty years ago.

So anyway, back in the ’90s I had reasons to write letters and I am actually so glad I did. Reading some of the letters I’d sent to my sister which she showed me to match up with the ones she’d sent me give an insight even my diaries didn’t fully give  into the past. The letters added new dimensions to the diary entries and of course gave different viewpoints of the different senders. My letters (and I’d be intrigued to read more from others I sent) show how I communicated with my sister, how I hid certain aspects of what was going on in my life, or over shared, how much I’ve matured since then and how much my spelling and grammar has improved! As historical documents they are quite fascinating. But post 1998 there is nothing much like this for me to look back on and get that sense of my own history. Which is why I still keep diaries. I may not write and receive letters, but my diaries provide me with an insight into my life at certain points.

Now I always loved writing letters. Not everyone does, but I enjoyed sitting down with a fresh piece of (sometimes fancy, sometimes A4 lined from my study notepad) paper and sharing all the news of what was going on through stories. I guess really this is where my story writing began. I wrote long letters which used to prompt the recipients to always reply with “sorry this letter is so short/crap” as though I expected them to have the same love for it. The point was though I loved receiving letters too, however short, and always appreciated the effort people put in.

But why as late on as the mid ’90s was letter writing still fairly prevalent? Well for me it was quite simple. My boyfriend at the time and most of the friends I had made during my time studying for my A-levels had all moved away to university. My sister too moved away to work in Devon.  With phone calls from landlines being expensive and Halls of Residence in Universities only having pay phones (and thus requiring expensive phone cards which my friends and boyfriend only sometimes had if their parents had sent them one), letter writing was the way to go. Weirdly though one of my friends who only lived a couple of miles away and who I used to see, if not every day, at least a few times a week, used to write to me and I to he. We all just liked getting mail I think!

Anyway, I was reading the letters from my first boyfriend from at that time the other week, and I’d forgotten how absolutely brilliant a letter writer he was. I was crying with laughter at some of them, and crying with sadness at the loss of what we had when I read others. I was cringing at our teen angst and laughing at it in equal measure. I would love to see the other half of those letters; the ones I’d written, though maybe I’d be doing a lot more cringing! But they were brilliantly funny letters, a personality on a page, and reading them transported me back to Leeds instantly and all the characters he met, and ultimately I met, at that time. For the way he wrote letters, these real people become characters in a two year saga. It is wonderful to have that and to be able to relive it in a way. He also wrote quite hopelessly romantic things but never in a slushy way, outrageous things (usually on the envelope to shock the postman or my mum and dad), and I am convinced his unique way with words must be attributed to his love of Morrissey! There are random song lyrics quoted, his hatred for Oasis rears it’s head in a brilliant anecdotal way, and a plastic sheep called It Right Up, which all had me crying with laughter on re-reading them. Through the letters I see how our relationship grew and how we destroyed it, and though that makes me feel sad and guilty (for it was I who ended it), it’s so long in the past now (and we are still good friends) that we can both laugh at it all.

One thing he wrote really stood out though when I was reading them which was the catalyst for this post. In one he was clearly feeling down and a bit homesick. He would always take ages to write a letter, and he would write the day at the top of each section when he’d start back up again from where he left off. In one letter, he wrote that he needed to write rather than phone me because he needed to feel the permanency of words on a page. That for me sums up maybe what the current generation will be missing out on. The permanency of words on a page. Not to mention the long form of communication which is also disappearing. If you can’t say it in 140 characters, folk can’t cope and they move on. We’re told blog posts need to be short. Novels can’t have description and need an instant hook in the first sentence. No one is willing to invest a bit more it seems. No one has a long attention span any more. Everything, as I say, is short, snappy, transient. Blink and you’ve missed it. I am glad to have those words, permanently here with me. I am glad he, my best friend, my other friends, my Grandad and my sister all took the time to write letters to me. They all tell the story of times long gone, but which because of them will never be truly forgotten. My Grandad died in 1994. I have all the letters I’d sent him (as he’d kept them) and the ones he sent me during the 1991-94 period we wrote to each other. They help me remember his voice. I am glad to have them, but who these days of the younger generation will have that?

I have no such letters from any of my other romantic relationships after my first or from any subsequent friendships made, as by the time my next one came round or the next set of friends were found, the mobile phone was there. I have been known, however, to sit and write down text message conversations just so I can feel some kind of permanency in the words spoken. It’s too easy in this day and age for people to forget that at some time in your life these people, whether friends or romantic partners, or family meant something to you. They usually meant a great deal. You shared good times and bad and have shared memories. It’s all too easy to forget and delete them from your life. Yes, life is transient and we should move on, go forward. But I don’t believe we should ever forget where we came from and the people we loved.

As for e-mails and anything written on the internet, I still don’t trust to keep it there, so even personal emails get deleted eventually, as who owns it? I own those letters sent to me. They were like gifts. But who owns the e-mails and text messages and Twitter and Facebook messages. It’s like music and photos now. None of it feels very permanent. You can’t keep everything of course. I couldn’t keep every phone conversation I had at those times, but the letters gave me something permanent. I guess we could copy e-mails and keep them. Print them. But it’s not quite the same. At least not for me.

As I say, I’m glad I was born when I was. That I got to experience what it feels like to have love letters, or letters of any kind. That I know how to read a map and can concentrate on reading a novel even if there are long passages of description. That I know what it feels like to listen to an album all the way through.

But I’m glad for technology too. I’m glad I get to write a blog and get to share that with as many people who wish to read it. I’m glad the 80,000 words of my novel have been word-processed not handwritten, as editing is so much easier!

See, now  I told you I wouldn’t bemoan technology. Well not completely. ;)

Times move on, yes, but that doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally grieve for the past now, does it?

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Happiness is… Easy?

“What do you want out of life?”

“Oh, you know, just to be happy.”

But…happiness is an emotion, the same as the other seven broad emotions: sadness, disgust, anger, fear, trust, excitement and surprise (all of which sit on their own continuum) and so how do you be an emotion? It does seem rather odd that in modern times we humans have developed a preoccupation with acquiring one of these emotions above all others, as though we actually have a choice in the matter.

The simple fact is we cannot BE an emotion. We cannot BE angry, we can only FEEL anger. We cannot BE disgusted, we only FEEL disgust. But the misuse of the verb to be over so many years seems to have convinced us that we can BE happy. There is even a whole (very lucrative) business attached to convincing us of this. The fact is we have or feel emotions, usually without our (conscious) say so. It has been long proven that the emotional side of the brain is stronger than the logical side of the brain, but there now also seems to exist the notion that it (the emotional brain) needs to be kept in check and under control. This in itself is pretty absurd. Without emotions we become mere machines and lose much of what makes us human.

Anyway, here we all are trying to attain happiness.

However…

Saying we want to be happy is kind of like saying: “I just want to be angry,” or “I’d love to be more sad,” or “I just want my children to be excited. That’s all I want for them.” Pretty silly really when put like that.

Because on any given day we humans can soar through a whole plethora of emotions, and so to seek out just one to reign supreme above all others is, really, quite impossible. It is impossible to find or conjure up an emotion. Yet we seek to do it anyway. (Silly humans that we are.) We seek the ‘happy’ emotion out – digging and digging for it like an elusive precious metal – yet we never actively seek out the rest of the emotions, or we rarely do. Understandably enough, I suppose though, as unlike many of the others, happiness feels so good. And, okay, wanting to seek sadness or anger would actually be bonkers, as they are classed as negative emotions. (Though I believe anger can be a positive emotion as it may spur us into positive action in some cases; Sadness is something we need to feel to enable us to process grief and loss. Disgust (shame perhaps?)  is useful, as is trust and fear).

The fact is, think about the last time you felt happy or sad or angry or even excited.

I’ll just give you a moment to actually do that.

Yes, there may sometimes be a catalyst for the more extreme ends of these emotions. E.g: Being given a gift = happiness; hearing something awful on the news = sadness; the driver who cut you up at the traffic lights = anger; going away on holiday = excitement. But actually we go through this range of emotions on a daily basis without any external catalyst whatsoever.

Take today. I felt happy. Not all day. That just doesn’t happen as the brain is constantly processing a variety of emotions from one minute to the next. (For example, despair when some children in my class continued to display their argumentative behaviour after already having spoken to them two days ago!)

But driving to work this morning I felt happy and I recall identifying it as such at the time and smiling to myself.  Many people may well try to look for a reason for it, but there was none. (I was going to work for goodness sake and we all know what I think about that at the moment!) And that is my point. Sometimes you just feel happy. No rhyme nor reason, no link to the logical side of things. You just feel it. The same as the other day my little boy told me he felt sad and said he didn’t know why.

I can, at certain times of the month, feel angry. For no good reason, and I’m sure there are many women who can identify with this. Something which, ordinarily, would be laughed off suddenly, inexplicably, grates on me in a big way. That’s hormones and emotions for you.

Now some people may argue “Ah, but there are some people who are just always happy.” You know the type. Always a smile and a cheery wave. No. They aren’t. They are simply positive people.

My belief is that we are either positive or negative, or we sit somewhere in the middle of the two. Positive people probably feel less anger, sadness or the other negative emotions because they can see the positive in situations or people more often than not. Therefore, I conclude, it follows they probably, by default, feel more happiness. They are not happy, they just feel it more than those with a negative mindset. But show me a positive person who has not felt sadness or fear or anger at many points too, and I’ll show you a liar.

Now emotions can’t be changed as such or ‘kept in check’, and neither do I think should they be, in most cases. Other than in the context of things like extreme anger or depression which can have a dreadful impact on others if not managed. Though people who have anger management therapy or CBT for depression are looking at changing their behaviour rather than the emotion itself and it is incredibly hard for them to do due to the inherent strength of emotions. Some would argue that depression is not an extreme case of sadness, rather an illness, a chemical imbalance, as it causes an actual lack of feeling anything much at all, but I cite it as an example here as depression is so often linked to how we feel or don’t feel. But the point is I don’t think anyone can ever help the way they feel. I know I certainly can’t. However, I do think we can control and have some say on what type of mindset we employ. I believe we can train our brain to be more positive or change the way we think about things. (E.G in the case of recovering from an addiction or as I say using CBT to combat depression or PTSD.) But, this is HARD work. Take it from someone who has often seen the glass as half empty! The fact remains, some people are just more miserable than others. Misery seems to be self-inflicted through a negative mindset, and so it follows, I believe, that happiness is an emotion gained by having a positive mindset.

Over the last year, I have been trying to work on having a more positive mindset (I wish I naturally possessed one, but for whatever reason I don’t), and changing things in my life that will hopefully lead me to experiencing less of the extremes of the more negative emotions I sometimes feel. I wrote a blog post last July saying how I was convinced my low mood was down to not having a partner. I said in that post that I believed I would be happy if I had one.

But I know upon reflection this is nonsense. I know this because I have now been properly single (ie no romantic complications whatsoever in my life) for 19 months (4 years if we count actually not having a proper boyfriend)  which is the longest period of time I have been single since I was 18. And I have realised that I have always felt the same, relationship or no relationship. I have always been prone to a range of emotions, and periods of ‘happiness’, have only ever been fleeting. As have periods of sadness, or anger or any other emotion. Because I cannot BE those things, I can only FEEL them. It is only by adopting a more positive outlook I will experience less of those more negative emotions.

So I think what I’m saying here is, most of what I wrote last year was rubbish. I have had a period of enlightenment and everyone should stop trying to attain happiness because it is a load of tosh and can only lead to disappointment. Instead, get out there and find ways to train your brain to be more positive and the rest will fall into place.

As the Serenity prayer says:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.”

No one can change how they feel, but we can change how we think.

So how about we all just be. Feel what we feel and be what we want to be.

I for one am feeling much more comfortable and ‘happy’ in not worrying about whether I am happy or not. When I feel happy (as today on the way to work), I am going to enjoy it. When I feel sad, I will now try to embrace it as just another emotion, and I will use anger and disgust to write blog posts! It’s win win.

NB: I have absolutely no qualifications to spout all this. I have done no research whatsoever, this is all just stuff I’ve been musing over lately. :)

Thanks, as always, for reading.

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Get Some Perspective (Part Two)

No, I didn’t know there was going to be a part two either! Until after I’d written this and decided to call this post that. ^

No one should ever know too much about their own future,” so says Doc to Marty in the Back to the Future movies.

Well, indeed. I completely agree. If I’d know what was to come in life, with the mindset I had back then, I’d have probably never have got out of bed after 1994! But let’s have some fun and play devil’s advocate for a moment and imagine I could now go back in time.

Having recently read my old diary from exactly twenty years ago, I’d love to be able to go back  and give my 19 year old self a great big walloping dollop of  advice. She wouldn’t take it of course, because she knew better. Doesn’t every 19 year old? *sigh.

However, let’s ignore her and press ahead with:

Advice I’d give me at 19 based on the stuff I wrote when I was 19. (a 26-step plan). :)

a) When your mum loses her dad at the age you are now, (just think about that, 39 year old me) don’t spend all the preceding days of the funeral stopping out at your friend’s houses, not having dinner at home and, when you are home, spending most of the time on the phone organising your social life. Be more sensitive for goodness sake.

b) Enjoy university. For crying out loud, you are privileged to have got in to one, given your socio-economic background, a Tory government and the measly 2 a-levels you managed. Stop whining about it and bemoaning every minute you are there and everyone who is there. These will be the easiest (well some of the easiest) years of your life. You love history and you find it interesting. If someone told you at age 40 you could go and sit in a 6 hour history lecture, you’d jump at the chance.

c) Stop using the word depressed/depressing so casually. Remember when you were a kid and your mum used to tell you off for using the word starving when you were merely hungry? It’s kind of like that. You have no idea. Yet…

d) Really! Stop drinking so much alcohol and fizzy pop. And eating so much junk food. You’ve let it become a habit. I know, I know you’re a size 8 now and fit and healthy, but…old habits die hard. Just saying.

e) Don’t let your life revolve around one person (man/bloke/boyfriend/object of affection). You are more multi-faceted than that.

f) On that note, don’t be so needy and insecure. Yes, you are. Stop arguing with me. No-one wants to spend 24 hrs a day/ 7 days a week in anyone else’s company. Not even you do if you’re honest with yourself. Don’t expect it from them.

g) Be nicer to your best friend. All that weird acting up he’s doing and not wanting to come out on nights out. He fancies you, you twerp. But you’re going out with someone else, so it’s hard for him. Be kinder.

h) When your dad goes into hospital in August with quite a life threatening complaint, go and visit willingly before your mum has to step in and tell you to do so, and then you feel bad for not doing so in the first place. Save yourself the hassle and the heartache.

i) Stop bossing your younger siblings around, especially brother number 1. If you end up with a hot cup of tea poured over your clean white blouse don’t be surprised. He’s 17. He will bring girls and friends back to the house and make a mess when your mum’s out. Remember when you were 17 and the family all went on holiday except you and you had all your friends over without telling your parents? Oh yes…stop being a hypocrite.

j) Realise that boys/men will fancy you and will flirt with you and some, some will even try and take advantage of your trusting and friendly nature. Don’t be so naive as to think no one finds you attractive because you don’t look like a supermodel. They do. You might try and pretend they don’t because it makes you feel uncomfortable or you don’t believe them, but they do.

k) Save some of that wedge of money you’re earning from working at the umbrella factory. And the stints of babysitting and random other sources of income from interviews in a teen magazine or from odd jobs at the college. Save some. Just a bit. Your mum and dad really aren’t taking that much from you for rent, even if you feel hard done by. Your record of shopping sprees, nights out and trains up and down the country testify to that.

l) When your mum and dad have their two married friends round for meals, hang around. All night if need be. Make it awkward and uncomfortable for your dad. It might not change anything ultimately, but at least you’d have tried.

m) Do keep spending some/most of your spare money on CDs and music. (the bits you’re not saving) You need it. It’s good for you despite the jealous accusations from your boyfriend. He doesn’t mean well, he’s actually being a bit of an arse.

n) That bloke who’s new in the factory? Steer clear of him. Don’t accept lifts in his car, even with your boyfriend in tow, or invitations out for work’s drinks or breakfasts at greasy spoon cafes before work on snowy days. None of those things. Just say no.

o) Go to a doctor about your extreme period pains and wild pendulum-like mood swings. These are not teenage hormones. Believe me. They are not. You need some medication to sort those. Really.

p) Keep writing all those letters and making all those phone calls and keeping your friends together. They may moan sometimes and may let you down about going out, but they do and will always appreciate the effort.

q) when your sister’s boyfriend’s mum turns up at the house and has a slanging match with your mum on parenting, DO NOT GET INVOLVED. Your mum is perfectly capable of fighting her own battles and your sister doesn’t need to feel like her sister isn’t on her side. You are not the goody-two-shoes you try and portray so stop pretending to be and trying to win favouritism. It won’t work anyway, your mum finds you all equally troublesome and irritating! Er… I mean loves you all equally, yes that’s what I meant. :)

r) Nothing is boring about Much Wenlock Priory or the churches/abbeys/cathedrals you are shown in France on the history degree field trip. In fact nothing about your life is boring. Be grateful for every second, every experience you have at this time. It’s your time.

s) You have to actually have had sex to get pregnant, so when your period is two days late, stop panicking about it and making plans in case you’re pregnant. Really, I know you were raised as a Catholic and the sex ed wasn’t up to much, but you’ve read enough copies of Mizz and Just 17 by now to know you won’t get pregnant anyway else.

t) When your boyfriend asks you to marry him after yet another drunken row, saying yes is probably not the best idea.

u) Don’t drink gin. If you do still insist on drinking, don’t drink gin.

v) All your friends are going through all the same confusing, emotional shit as you are. Remember that. Stop wondering what’s wrong with them and dismissing them as moody. Instead ask them what’s wrong and listen.

W) Stick to your guns about not moving into that student house. You may wish at some point you had, but your instinct here is right. Always. always trust your instinct. It’s better than you think, Miss Dilly Dally.

x) When your best friend discovers a new religion to follow she is not becoming part of a cult. Don’t fear. And she needs your support, not you playing diplomat and talking with her mum behind her back to try and dissuade her from joining a different church.

y) It’s okay to find other blokes attractive even when you have a boyfriend. It’s normal. And its normal for him to find other girls attractive. Flirting is also allowed. Neither of you should feel guilty about this at your age. Quit being so serious.

Z) 1995 was not a “crap year” as you say on December 31st. Don’t “Thank God” it’s over. Really…you don’t know what 1996 has in store…yet! ;)

 

Ah…hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? :)

 

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Get Some Perspective

I’ve often heard people say: “What’s the point in studying history?” This, to me, as someone who did study history at university (and who still studies it to a certain degree), is rather a stupid question, but then I would say that wouldn’t I? This is not, however, going to be a post about why there is a point to studying history as such. My GCSE history teacher answered that for me long ago in one sentence. “To know about the future, you must understand the present. To understand the present, you must learn about the past.” Simple. I like simple, what with my brain been so crowded and confused about 99.99% of the time.

No, this post will kind of touch on that, but more it is to blog about how knowing about history, and learning certain aspects of it, can help us to understand ourselves as humans. Which in a global society is, I’d say, pretty important.

Now history, as a scholarly pursuit, probably has a bad name because it was so often a subject in which dates were to be learned and committed to memory for no apparent reason. Fortunately we trashed this idea of what teaching history should be a while ago, well until Michael Gove stuck his oar in and decided to go all Victorian on us, wanting 10 year-olds to learn dates, facts and figures and understand the parliamentary constitution. Snore. Now, I love history, but even I find certain aspects of it as dull as dishwater. I certainly can’t be doing with the whole reeling off dates of battles thing. What is the actual point of that, other than to feel smug when you can answer a question in a pub quiz?

Anyway, I haven’t geeked out on any history for a while, but a few weeks ago, on the back of writing my V post for the A-Z blog challenge I watched The Bounty (the 1984 movie depicting the notorious mutiny on HMS Bounty in April 1789). Now, I’ve always loved the film, it’s simply a very good film. But it’s the real story which is fascinating for me, from a historical perspective. The circumstances under which it all happened and would things have been different if X hadn’t happened and Y had?  The consequences upon far flung lands and cultures; the story of the people and their motives and the consequences of their actions. Isn’t this always what is most interesting about History? And what does it mean for us now and in the future? The history around how Christianity came about is a perfect example of this, or of how and why Henry VIII started the Reformation. These parts of history, the small human motives and ultimately actions behind things which then become so big without the people who were involved ever realising it, are far more interesting than knowing that Nelson won the battle of Trafalgar or that William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings. Isn’t this the difference between good history teachers and the not so good ones? The ones who pepper their lessons with the human stories behind these big events?

Anyway, on the back of watching the film, I dug out a history book I first read about twelve years ago by Caroline Alexander entitled: The Bounty: The True Story of The Mutiny on The Bounty. And here the geek out began in order for me to compare the reality with what was portrayed in the film. Yes, I know, I know, films are there for entertainment and there will always be embellishment, but still, this is what I started off doing.

However reading it again became a revelation in different ways. First off ‘characters’ (they were real men after all) I had long held sympathy for in the film, I found I loathed having read the wealth of historical documentation presented, whereas others I was spot on about. It seemed the film did portray most of them as they really were. Moreover I realised this one thing. No one will ever know the entire truth of those events because, despite the historical documents presented (letters, diaries, biographies, ships logs, court martial records), most of these things are written from one person’s perspective. And humans always strive to cast themselves in the best light, even if guilty of terrible acts. William Bligh, the captain of the ill-fated ship, was for years cast as an ogre. A man who harshly disciplined his crew to the extreme. However, when you read the words of his log or of his personal journal, you realise Bligh was simply a man of duty. He was doing his best in the circumstances he was given. Whether right or wrong, he sought only to do that one thing; fulfill his duty. It turns out he never was one to like the floggings and took pride in the first leg of the journey to only have had to do so once. No, it seems it was his verbal rants which gave him such a bad name and this in the days corporal punishment was acceptable and expected, especially in an institution such as the Royal navy. My own view in reading the book was that perhaps he had been too lenient in some respects and when he did finally have to put his foot down, resentment grew. (Why teachers always say they start off hard on new classes and work their way down!) Some documents in the book support that view of Bligh, the duty bound, peaceable, humane officer whereas others give the view that he was an impatient, overbearing, tyrannical captain. And there’s the crux. Everyone he came into contact with would have had a different opinion. Some would have sympathised with his actions and ways. Others would have resented him for it. Everything we read or see (think media or even the work colleagues you interact with) has some form of bias attached. Yes, some forms will bare out the hard, raw facts, but even with those everyone will form their own conclusions as to what went on and why.

The other thing which was made clear to me from reading this book was that there has never been equality in terms of wealth and never will there be. In any society. This is something history can teach us. It won’t stop us striving for it I don’t suppose, but we are foolish to think we will ever achieve a world where all men are equal in terms of material wealth. (I use the word men as in mankind before any feminists start an uprising.) It fascinated me that the mutineers who were picked up off Tahiti two years later and faced court martial back in England, of those who were tried it was the ones from wealthier families, those with connections who received the King’s pardon and were not hanged. It was the poor and illiterate who were hanged. Money is extremely powerful. Words and the ability to use them in the right way is also very powerful. This was true then and it’s true now, and it will continue to be true. Depressing as that is. The historical documents bear this out undeniably. All of us who strive to gain equality in this way would be much happier in accepting there will always be a hierarchy. There I go simplifying things again to suit my own brain!

But the biggest point of this ‘delve’ into the history of this story became for me all about perspective. We are all wrong and we are all right, because we all hold our own view and opinion and really, if we are honest, we are all out for ourselves. Self preservation. I mean not all the time obviously, but if we find ourselves in the pooper as, say, Peter Heywood did, a few good connections and the right words would no doubt help us out of a sticky situation and hang the truth of the matter. Enough people gave evidence against Peter Heywood yet despite being found as guilty as, say, Thomas Ellison, Heywood was pardoned, whilst Ellison wasn’t. Both used their young age and inexperience as a form of defence for their actions in 1789, yet Ellison, poor and illiterate with no legal representation and no good connections, hung. Justice? Well that would depend on your point of view. When I watch the film, Heywood is portrayed as young and innocent, a likable character, somewhat in the background, on the fringes, but swept away by all events as they unfolded. I liked and sympathised with the character in the film, but when I read the historical documents I couldn’t stand him. Rich and privileged and embellishing facts to cover his own back. But would any of us be much different if faced with the hangman’s noose? I wonder.

The historical picture of the events of 1789 are still blurred because we rely, not on facts, but on the perspectives of human beings to tell the story and this is in itself fascinating. You ‘hear’ every man speak with their own biases and judgments, (James Morrison’s accounts are some of the most thought provoking as are what happens later on when Fletcher Christian’s brother publishes his own take on things bearing in mind he has money and interviews the pardoned mutineers), and you are left to make your own. Which only goes to prove it is never the facts of history which are interesting, more why these men did as they did, said as they said. The accounts from Pitcairn island are also deeply fascinating and accounts from just one person differ wildly which shows we often adapt a relating of events to suit our audience or our needs. What we can learn from this is that everything we see and hear even now in the present, in the media, from our friends, is presented with their own bias. That is what we can learn from studying history about ourselves as human beings.

This idea of bias and perspective then hit me again head on yesterday, when I was at my sister’s house. She had dug out some of her old diaries from around 1993-94. We were having a good old giggle at them. Unlike many diaries they were not full of really personal revelations about thoughts and feelings, but actually read more like a ship’s log detailing mainly events and facts. Interesting to me, as I remember that time in our family, but to anyone else it would be dull as dishwater in all probability. The same as Bligh’s log would have been without the mutiny and the subsequent navigation undertaken in the ship’s launch when the Admiralty, in 1790, and historians ever since have tried to look for clues and explain the actions of Fletcher Christian. My sister says she wrote like this as she was worried at the time I’d have a nose and read them, but only because she used to sneak and read mine and so tarred me with the same brush! What I found interesting about my sister writing a diary in this way is how, even when people are writing in something privately, they can write with an agenda. They don’t always write the whole truth down and of course they always write with a bias.

Anyway, looking at her diaries prompted me to look at my own from that time in order to compare. Would we record the same events? Would our perspective be the same? Well of course not. We were teenagers and teenagers are notoriously wrapped up in their own very ego-centric world. So other than a few key events and logs of what was at number one in the charts, you’d hardly think we lived in the same house. Or indeed that we had three brothers and parents! Her diary is all about her and her boyfriend (nothing dodgy, damn!) Mine is all about the intricacies and gossip of a very complicated network of friends and my pursuit of boys. Every now and then my family got a mention but not often.

Then this morning I read the back end of my diary from 1995. Wow. Talk about intense. Now I keep diaries because I don’t trust memory much. Memory is a truly fascinating thing. How it alters and changes and blurs things over time, or how it changes from person to person even when at the same event. Now having read about Christmas 1995 I’d love though to see (if the rest of the family had kept diaries) what they would have written. My sister had had a night away with her boyfriend. She was 18 at the time, I was 20. My mum went a bit mad about it and there was a whole slanging match between my mum and my sister’s boyfriend’s mum. It seems I’d taken my mum’s side, outraged by my sister’s behaviour! Gosh really? Who was I to judge? Here, in my own words from 20 years ago, I heard me, the oldest sibling, full of duty; Captain Bligh, ever duty bound even if misguided. (Actually if we’re going to assign Bounty characters to my family at the time we’d have to say Mum was Bligh: pretty verbally tyrannical, but having the whole picture in mind, trying to do her best with and for a motley rabble in the long run with no back up from the Admiralty, ie, my dad. I’d have been the insufferable John Fryer; wanting to be in command, always thinking I knew better than the captain and always eager to point out the faults of those below me, ie, my younger siblings. My sister would have been Fletcher Christian. Liked by everyone, but quietly rebelling against the captain with piercing her ears and off out clubbing with the natives; generally disillusioned and discontented, ready to jump ship any moment. Brother Number One would have been Quintal or Churchill or Purcell, the carpenter. A rebel without a cause and getting himself into fights with authority or picking them. Anyway er…that was a digression from what I was saying. Where was I? Oh yes..

Of course my sister’s point of view of the whole incident would be very different, and naturally so. My mum’s would be different still. Among all this going on apparently, around the same time, my brother hit my dad (unrelated I think) and my mum and dad were constantly rowing. (I’d imagine by this point my dad was having the affair which would split the marriage six months later). Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how they all related events around that time? Though only I, to my knowledge, have any written form of thoughts and they are all very much about me and how I felt or what I saw from my perspective. (Where my, at the time, 10 year-old and 15 year-old brothers fitted into this drama I have no idea as they don’t get a mention!) But this is the point. Seven people (plus others) would mean that, if any other written accounts of that time exists, there would be seven, eight, nine maybe more stories to tell and historians would have to build up a picture which would never really satisfy those involved. It would tell people something about our characters and how human beings react in different circumstances, but the truth of the events would always be clouded by bias and perspective. The chaos of the events and each individual bias, like that of the accounts of the morning of the mutiny on HMS Bounty, would cloud  any account of what actually happened, so no one could ever really know. There would of course be things we would all agree on, but our own perceptions would be wildly different and the way we would report it would be wildly different. Even in diaries or letters.

So studying history is important, in my opinion of course.  Understanding the bias of documents is important to help us navigate our way through this media saturated world for a start. However it also serves to help us understand, not the facts about what happened in any given event necessarily, but to understand human nature. To find out why and how we think and act as we do; to think about the consequences of past actions and how that may help us in the future and to find out if we, as humans really do ever learn from our past mistakes and glories.

As my last post was May the 1st, please forgive the epic length of this. Quietness clearly clogs me up! :) Thanks for reading. If you did manage to get to the end :)

 

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Sing Your Life: April A-Z Blog Challenge: Post-Script

Hello music fans!

Well, we made it. We started our journey around my musical history a whole month ago in Sweden and have since travelled in space and time from the 1960s through to the present day, across the Atlantic a few times, over to Ireland, to Norway as far afield as Australia and done a pretty comprehensive nationwide tour of Britain all from the confines of out digital devices. Phew!

It’s been fun delving back into my musical memories over the past month, and I’ve remembered things that I’d forgotten until I began writing something. However, it’s also a little sad that it’s now ended. So… I thought I’d wrap this series of posts up by sharing a few of my more recent finds in music, just so you don’t all think I’m totally stuck in the past with my life and music!

I’d also like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to all of those who have read all these posts, and shared them and most importantly enjoyed them. I set about simply writing this for myself. I’ve only shared the posts a couple of times a day on Twitter, but other than that not given them much publicity, as to be quite honest, I didn’t think anyone would want to read them! However, proof that music is a big part of bringing people together and quite often of shared memories (not so much the personal ones of course, but certainly the cultural ones), I’ve a had a hard core audience follow me on these exploits this past month, which has been really lovely. With that in mind, I’d like to spread the love, and of course the good music as a thank you. It’s been lovely to have people say they are going to check out an artist after reading my blog. It’s that bringing people together thing which makes writing all these things worth it, even if I did only set off to write it for my own benefit.

Anyway. The following are all bands and artists I’ve discovered in the past four years. There have been more, but here are my top 10, listed alphabetically (of course), along with a small taster of what each has to offer via our friends at You Tube. Most of the artists here are fairly new to the music scene, though a couple are more well established and I just happened to cotton on to a bit later. Some are more obscure, but all are on my playlists. Enjoy, and adieu mes amis!

1)All We Are

Check out their eponymous EP from 2011 and the 2012 EP We Hunt for a decent flavour. Sooner or Later, my favourite ‘train’ track of theirs, along with Trainspotting of course are well worth a listen. :) Then there’s this more recent offering:

2) Broken Bells

Probably my number one favourite find of the past few years. Two albums in to their career – 2010’s self titled debut and last year’s After The Disco – Both flawless.

3) Courtney Barnett

Australian cooler than cool rock chick who I happened upon after Tim Burgess shared a link to this video below. Saw her live last year at a small gig. Very cool, very quirky, great sound. 2013’s Double EP (basically her debut album) is fantastic, if you want something a bit different. Listen to Anonymous Club –she didn’t do it live and I was so disappointed. Also check out her new one: Sometimes I sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit.

4) Django Django

Scottish band discovered after they did a blinding remix of a Tim Burgess track (I’m NOT obsessed with Tim, honestly), but loved their sound and so checked them out. This is great but you may have to Google the lyrics, as they are super fast! :)

5) Dancing Years

Mentioned already in my D post. First time I’ve listened to this since that birthday I talked about, and just wait til about 2 and a half minutes in. Beautiful.

6) Field Music

I have no idea how I came across this group, however, writers – great writing music. Atmospheric. This from the same titled album one of my favourites.

7) Foals

Most commercially successful of this bunch – again discovered them when Tim Burgess was Dj-ing on Radio 6 Music back in February 2013. Heard My Number and as a result checked them out. Amazing, amazing band (from Oxford, which you’d never guess really, listening to them.) Saw them live last year. Even better live. Blew me away.

8) Pond

Already expounded their greatness in my P post. Here’s one of my favourites.

9) Stealing Sheep

Trio of lovely ladies from Liverpool with the voices of angels. This, one of the highlights from their debut album, Into The Diamond Sun, which I’d highly recommend.

10) Warpaint

Been around a while, though I only discovered them the back end of 2012. Female four piece, again with the most beautiful voices. This track in my top 5 of theirs.

And that really is all folks, for this series of posts. Catch you soon, on what topic I’ll be rambling on about is anyone’s guess.

And in the words of The Charlatans…

or if you prefer…

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Sing Your Life: April A-Z Blog Challenge: Z

Well comrades, we made it. I almost feel zombie-like having finally reached Z! I must say, there was that mid point slump all writers go through, when you want to close down the project, but like any Wednesday of the week, or middle section of writing a  novel, the hump must be overcome, and once it is it can feel like plain sailing the rest of the way. The middle ‘slump’, FYI, hit at about Q which technically is over half way, but hey, who’s counting?

Well ME as it happens! Here we are…letter 26, the letter Z. Oh and it’s always going to be tricky isn’t it? Actually…no. I knew what Z would be for at the start, I mean I didn’t see I and U coming and how tricky they would prove. The rogue letters of Q, X and Z have been easy in comparison.

So for all of those loyal readers wondering what curve-ball I’m throwing out there today, I can rest your weary minds assured that Z is not for ZZ Top. Or The Zutons, who are the only Z options I can think of other than my choice for Z which is…

Zero 7

Zero 7’s sound I guess would be described as ‘ambient electronic’ yet there are strings galore with guitars, bass and violins, as well as trumpets, various percussion, and even flutes weaved in with the keys. The group hail from here in Britain, although their sound is probably more European, in keeping with the club scene of Ibiza, though the more chilled, relaxed, early hours Ibiza, than the raucous upbeat up all night Ibiza. Consisting of the nucleus duo of Sam Hardaker and Henry Bins, both are former sound engineering students who started their musical careers in studio engineering. It is no surprise therefore that they delved into this electronic, synthesized genre of music even if it is overlaid completely by more classical instruments. A win – win music situation in my opinion.

Their debut album Simple Things was released here in 2001, and I cottoned on quite early to them, though I cannot recall exactly where I first heard the group. It might have been from hearing the song Destiny on the radio. It may have been that I’d heard remixes of a Lambchop track or Love Theme From Spartacus on an Ibiza Chilled album I had and decided to buy it. It’s maybe that I was still reading music magazines at that point and read a good review as it had been nominated for a Mercury Music Prize (usually a good sign in the UK an album’s any cop.) Whatever, it’s all a bit hazy.

Anyway, unusually for me, I did buy it either having only heard one track or none at all, but it was an album which had instant appeal upon first listen. It is startlingly beautiful, haunting in many places, and features the female vocals of Sia Furler and Sophie Barker on a few of the tracks. Most of the tracks are instrumental though, being as the brains behind Zero 7 are sound engineers and not singers. And  it is the instrumental tracks which hold more appeal to me in actual fact. Many of you may be more familiar with the track Home from the follow up 2004 album When it Falls; another superbly produced album, but never held the same sway with me as the debut. The debut is very much like a film score, (think American Beauty theme, but with strings added), particularly End Theme, which fittingly ends the album and is a plethora of strings, bass and percussion to transport you somewhere else. The wonderful thing about the music here is that you make the movie pictures in your imagination rather than associating it with any known film. I guess I liked Zero 7 because I liked such artists as Vangelis and Camel. This new wave of classical electronic ambient music sweeping in during the late 90s bought some of that back but with a modern twist.

And just in case you feel as though you want to know what the heck I’m yabbering on about…

Now of course, as with all of these posts there has to be a specific memory attached to the music , not just the film I think I see in my head when I hear it.

There is an entire decade of my life (possibly slightly more) that is a bit of a haze for me and almost feels as though my brain is trying to shut it out and not remember it, and with very good reason. The years 1998-2008, saw me really concentrate on my new career in teaching and then try and climb the proverbial ladder (before crashing back down in 2009), whilst at the same time navigating my way through the waters of two successive, very difficult, romantic relationships which were actually far from romantic. Music at this time (if you’ve been keeping up) was quite sparse in my life. You’ll notice the posts (with the exception of K and Y) are from my childhood, teenage years or post 2010. Those wilderness years of my twenties seem to be just that, even though lots did happen, but I have little in the way of music to hang memories on. For that I am a little grateful. My twenties were not the highlight of my life. I discovered little new music and in fact listened to a lot of chart and dance and club stuff for much of the first decade of the 21st century unless I was delving back into my comfort zone of the past. Anything I did discover I rarely listen to anymore, maybe because there seemed nothing of any note about or maybe I just wasn’t focused on music as much after I started teaching. Looking back though, maybe it’s because I seemed to always be trying to blot something out, forget about the crap that seemed to surround me, whether it be my parent’s divorce and their woes, my emotionally abusive relationships, my brother’s mental breakdown and the subsequent fallout or work itself. The lack of depth and emotion in club and dance music probably helped with that, everything back then felt unreal and superficial, as it was with my choices of music.

The funny thing with Zero 7 though is that I do still listen to them quite often and, whenever I do listen to that first album, it does transport back to a specific time in 2001/2002. By then, I’d been in a relationship with this older man for five, nearly six years. I worked full time teaching, but I also used to help him out in his job, which at the time was a milkman. Yes, he delivered milk in a milk float, though upgraded to a petrol van pretty quickly!

Anyway, to cut a VERY long story short, I used to help him because he emotionally blackmailed me and I was too stupid to realise that’s what it was, and probably too nice to ever tell him to sod off. (You’ll remember this guy from my U post – same one who took me to the dodgy dive bars in the back streets of Birmingham – yep, him.) In short back then I was a mug. A complete and utter mug.

So there would be times when I’d get up at midnight after maybe 4 hours sleep, then do a milk-round until 7am, go home get ready for work and do a day’s teaching. I didn’t do this every day of course, only occasionally, but I did help him out most of my school holidays on a daily basis. I must have done. I could still do that round in my sleep and I recall all too readily the silence of the air on freezing cold autumn, winter and spring mornings, dew on the grass, frogs in the gutter, hedgehogs scuttling past, all of us waiting desperately for the sun to rise.

But no matter what week it was, I would get up on a Saturday morning and go out collecting the money from his customers. This would start at 9am and I’d usually finish about 4pm. He’d be doing the milk round of course and collecting some too. Often I’d go out on a Friday evening as well and collect, especially in the summer when I’d want more time on a Saturday.

When I think back, I have to wonder what the heck I was doing, even if it means I have the ability to carry 8 glass bottles of milk without dropping them. You live and learn. Always.  Anyway, where do Zero 7 fit in to all this? Well this bloke had a nearly new Vauxhall Vectra at the time and it had controls for the CD player on the steering wheel, which I thought was super cool. Which it was. Even cooler was that when I was out collecting money on his behalf I got to drive around in it, which when all you have is a 12 year old 1 litre Vauxhall Nova ‘Life’ then a Vectra seems height of luxury to drive.

Of course when I bought Zero 7’s album I used to pop it on in his car when I went out collecting money. It was an album which instantly transported me away from the mundane. For everything was mundane and hopeless and sad. That album allowed me to almost forget where I was. I am sure I listened to many other CDs too, but for some inexplicable reason whenever any track from that album is playing it takes me back to those days. Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t happy memories. They link up to a whole host of other memories which make me want to build a time machine out of a Vauxhall Vectra and go back and give my twenty-something year old self a good telling off for being such a sucker – such an idiotic fool.

However, the music is too flaming good to not listen to, and I suppose if my conscious brain actively blocks all that time out perhaps, just occasionally, it’s good to be reminded subconsciously of it all, so as to ensure I never make that mistake again.

On the bright side, I met some lovely senior citizens on that round and used to enjoy many a chat. :)

And that’s it folks…!

It’s over…

Or is it?

Look out for a special edition post-script blog post for the challenge tomorrow as I don’t want to end on a sour note, but knew this post always would!

Thanks, all, for reading.

Goodnight.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. :)

 

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