Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Back To School

"Conkers lying on the ground, the air is cooler. And I feel like I've just started uni."
Zorbing by Stornoway

Every late September I can't help but remember the autumn that I was 18. Seeing the streets of Leicester suddenly clogged with excited, fresh-faced students takes me back to the year I was one of them.

1996. I'd dyed my hair black over the summer, listened to too much gloomy indie music, and been suffering from what I now recognize as crippling anxiety attacks. I hid in my room when the phone rang; I panicked if I received any post. The world suddenly felt too big and too wide and I was about to go out into it.

I went to university in pursuit of adventure. My most fervent hope was to find my people, which at the time meant slim-hipped boys with floppy hair and eyeliner; girls in Manics t-shirts and glittery nail polish. I thought that if I could just find these people I'd finally be happy (conveniently ignoring the fact that I'd spent the previous two years hanging out with people who exactly matched that description, and it hadn't got me anything except a self-harm problem and the editorship of a mildly successful indie fanzine).

I was nothing short of devastated, then, to meet the students at Leicester University and discover that they were so far from being my people it was almost laughable. My fellow halls of residence, erm, residents were genuinely nice but, from the rugby-playing law students downstairs to the Home Counties public school girls on my corridor, I had nothing in common with them. For their part, they viewed me as something akin to an exotic animal in a zoo: something to be gazed at from afar, but not got too close to.

Having been planning my escape from Bradford since the age of ten, the reality of life at university was a disappointment to say the least. I'd sincerely hoped that, after years of being the brightest kid in class, further education would finally provide me with the challenge and intellectual debate I so sorely wished for (and yes, I do realise that makes me sound like a particularly pretentious Adrian Mole). My hope was quickly dashed against the rocks of a dull curriculum taught by indifferent lecturers. I'll readily admit that I gave up, decided not to bother trying, and emerged a few years later with a 2:2 degree that I barely deserved.

So it's with no little trepidation that, this week, I start a Masters degree in Gender Studies at the University of Leeds.

My first assignment is to write about a text that inspired me to study this course I'm struggling. I was born into a family in which political activism comes as naturally as breathing. My mum raised me as a feminist and I grew up in a house lined with books by Germaine Greer, Audre Lorde, Sheila Rowbotham and numerous other feminist luminaries. When I was at school (and later, during my undergraduate degree) I was the person who brought every discussion back to feminism or queer theory. Whether discussing the works of Charlotte Bronte or the sociology of the city, my preoccupying thought was always, "what's the feminist perspective on this?"

It's difficult, therefore, to pinpoint a single text or moment in time that made me think, "Aha! I want to study gender!" Honestly, as long as I can remember in my adult life, this course has been my dream. I still have, stashed away somewhere, the Gender Studies MA prospectus from 2001. And every few years since then I've opened the Leeds University website and idly looked through the course content thinking, "If only." But it always felt like an impossible goal - too far away from my work in Leicester, too competitive for someone with my crappy degree and, most importantly, too expensive.

As with so many things in our unfortunately couple-centric world, what seemed impossible when I was on my own became within reach once I met a partner. Since Thomas moved in I've been able to put more into savings than was possible before and, because he now has a three year contract at Loughborough University on a very decent salary, we're able to take the financial hit of me cutting my hours at work. More than anything, though, he has been my cheerleader and chief encourager, telling me that of course I should apply, that of course I'd be accepted, and that of course I'll manage the work. Whenever I have wobbles about the huge reading list or the added stress, I have an actual academic on hand to talk me down, find the journal articles I need, make me cups of tea, and remind me just what the hell Harvard referencing is.

I have no doubt that the next two years will be challenging. That at times, between the workload and the six hour weekly commutes, I'll feel like giving up. But for now, at least, I'm looking forward to being one of those excited and fresh-faced (ahem) students again. Because how many people can say that their dreams come true?

Friday, 15 September 2017

A Public Saying To All Our Friends: Our Wedding Ceremony

When you're planning a wedding ceremony from scratch there's so much to think about. We wanted ours to be entirely different from the traditional legal wedding ceremony, both in wording and in structure. We wanted it to reflect our values, as individuals and as a couple, and to be explicitly feminist. Most importantly, we wanted it to be fun.

We'd chosen Leicester's Guildhall for our ceremony for a number of reasons, chief amongst which was OH MY GOD JUST LOOK HOW BEAUTIFUL IT IS! It was also, being a council-run venue, reasonably priced, and the staff were amazing and totally on board with our plans for a quirky, untraditional ceremony.
Having greeted all our guests together (which was lovely and something I'd highly recommend, as it gave me a chance to say hello to everyone - and admire their outfits - instead of sitting somewhere 'backstage', as brides usually do, feeling increasingly nervous), everyone was seated ready to begin. Instead of entering separately or, god forbid, me being 'given away' by my dad, we walked into the ceremony hall together to the strains of Sam Cooke's You Send Me.

Our friend Richard was officiating the ceremony for us - as a teacher, he had the perfect voice to fill the hall and the confidence to stand up in front of 70 people. Although he confessed later that he'd felt anxious about it, you'd never have guessed.
Richard opened with a beautifully written, and very funny, speech, and was followed by Julia, Thomas's sister, reading the Marge Piercy poem that I shared in my last wedding post. We'd decided to have all the speeches within the ceremony, rather than at the party afterwards, so two of Thomas's best friends - Bart and Tim - gave what became the equivalent of a best man's speech (I certainly wasn't expecting the word "balls" to be bandied around quite so much!). My mum also spoke, beautifully and movingly, and two friends - Cara and Mathijs - both gave readings.
"In my opinion the best thing you can you do is find a person who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you, the right person will still think the sun shines out of your ass. That’s the kind of person that’s worth sticking with."
From the film Juno

We'd chosen our readings carefully - of course, who doesn't - because we wanted them to reflect not just the ethos of our day but also the person reading. So Julia, one of the bravest and most awesome feminists I know, got the Marge Piercy poem. Cara seemed perfectly suited to the extract from Juno (plus it has the bonus of being short, as she wasn't wild about having to speak in public). Finally, Mathijs read a quote from the film Frida which we knew would suit his oratory style and, for us, summed up everything we hoped for about our marriage.

"I don't believe in marriage... I think at worst it's a hostile political act, a way for small-minded men to keep women in the house and out of the way, wrapped up in the guise of tradition and conservative religious nonsense. At best, it's a happy delusion - these two people who truly love each other and have no idea how truly miserable they're about to make each other. But, when two people know that, and they decide with eyes wide open to face each other and get married anyway, then I don't think it's conservative or delusional. I think it's radical and courageous and very romantic."
From the film Frida
My strongest memory of my whole wedding day - but particularly of the ceremony - is of laughter. We'd wanted it to feel relaxed and joyful, and for people to feel more involved in proceedings than  the traditional ceremony usually allows. Having a friend officiate and therefore removing the legal stuff meant every single word was meaningful and personal to us. But we retained some bits of a traditional ceremony, for example exchanging rings and saying vows, although our vows were ones we'd written together:


"I commit myself to our life together because I love who you are now
and who you are yet to become.
I promise to stand with you and to fight with you for everything we believe in.
I promise to support your freedom to be, to grow and to do all you wish."
And then, all too soon, it was time for Prosecco and cake in the Guildhall courtyard, and a chance to properly catch up with people (I recall a lot of hugging and squealing, most of it from me).

It's been wonderful, while writing this, to reflect on our ceremony and I'm very glad to say that with the benefit of hindsight there's nothing we'd do differently. We had so very many lovely comments afterwards, saying how much people had enjoyed and been moved by the ceremony. I'm going to end by quoting our friend Rose who, the day afterwards, wrote the following on Instagram:
"I'm not a fan of weddings [preach!]. They are largely tedious exercises in conspicuous consumption in the services of an archaic institution. But Janet and Thomas's was utterly joyous and felt totally authentic to them as a couple." Wedding goals achieved.
All photographs by James Mottram Photography

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Buyer's Archive: July & August

Since February 2015, inspired by Elise's Buyer's Archive project, I've been keeping a record of all my clothing purchases in an effort to track what works and what doesn't and - in theory - cut down on my spending. 

July and August were two months in which I, once again, managed to rein in my spending. I'm really not sure what's becoming of me... could I (whisper it) actually be getting good with money? Or is it just that I'm having a massive style crisis and don't know what to buy?

Mint green top, Sue Ryder Vintage £6
Something which looked better on the hanger than on my body, but I bought anyway for some reason. I love mint green, I love this kind of vintage shell top, but because of my gigantic basoomas it ends up being a really weird length on me. This may find itself on eBay before too long.

Polka dot midi skirt, Sue Ryder Vintage £10
The vintage gods were smiling on me when I went to Nottingham with Becks. Having been on the hunt for a navy blue, pleated polka dot skirt for a while, I was thrilled to find this in my size. It ideally needs taking up a bit, but I've already worn it a few times.

Primark black denim skirt, via eBay £4.40
I bought this exact same skirt in January in the Primark sale and have worn it literally to death - the stitching is all coming out on the front darts - so when I saw a brand new one on eBay I leapt into action and nabbed it.

Tan Saltwater sandals, £34 (not pictured)
Having had a black pair that I didn't wear much but found really comfortable, I was desperate for a tan pair but not keen on paying £60 in this country. So when my cousin booked her flights for the wedding I cheekily asked if I could order them from Modcloth to be delivered to her place in Brooklyn, for her to bring over. I'm so so happy with them - they really are incredibly comfortable and hard-wearing - and I'm already planning how many pairs I can buy in Canada next summer. I also sold my black pair on eBay for more than these new ones cost me, so I'm taking them off the total for July.
90s midi skirt, charity shop £3
I seem to be on a mission to collect 80s & 90s midi skirts that remind me of ones my mum and her friends owned: this one is on the nose.

Striped ringer t-shirt, H&M £6.99
Another one of those purchases where I liked it more on the hanger but bought it anyway. Doh. It's fine tucked in but, thanks to my boobs (again), an awkward length when not tucked: not really cropped, but not a proper t-shirt length either.
In July last year I bought a ridiculous amount of stripes and spent a total of £55.97 (an improvement on July 2015 when I spent £159.38). Of what I bought in 2016, most of it has been well worn. The denim skirt was a staple last summer that has only recently - thanks to stretching out - made its way into the charity bag. Meanwhile, all the striped tops were worn regularly although again, the Sainsburys and H&M t-shirts have both been donated as they stretched until they were too big for me.
In August 2016 my total spend was £50 on yet more stripes - all three of those tops have become the centre of my stripes collection and continue to fare well, being worn on a weekly basis - a pair of jeans that I wore until the thighs gave up, plus a Dorothy Perkins skirt that I ended up selling unworn on eBay.

I'm pleased to see my annual total dropping further compared to last year, although whether I'll keep that up as we transition into a new season's offerings in the shops I don't know.

Total for July: £16 (thanks to selling my old sandals for more than my new ones cost)

Total for August: £13.39

Total so far for 2017: £321.08

Total this time last year: £440.06

Look out for the #buyersarchive hashtag on Twitter and Instagram to see the other bloggers taking part.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

A Great Excuse For A Party

We didn't want to call it a wedding. We avoided using that word on the invitations and, in conversation and social media posts, opted for phrases like liefdesfeestje and celebration instead.

Our motivation when planning was simple: to get all our friends and family together for a big party. Why not just do exactly that, I hear you ask. Just throw a party and not bother with the wedding stuff? It'd be easy, right? Well, for most people maybe. But not if your parents are immigrants so you don't have any relatives in the UK, and your partners best friends all live in other countries. Then, it's less easy to get people together for 'just' a party. We had to ask ourselves, what would motivate people to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles? Only a wedding, a celebration, a liefdesfeestje, would do.

Still, though we continued to avoid the W-word (although we also got annoyed when my mum and step-mum said "It wasn't really a wedding" - go figure). For reasons both political and personal - weddings, lets face it, aren't very cool or punk - both Thomas and I resisted until, a few months before the celebration, we came across a poem that ended up playing a central part of our ceremony. Read beautifully by Thomas' sister, Julia (a fellow kickass feminist), I'm going to reproduce it here because, for me, there's nothing that better explains how we came to be at peace with the W-word and, indeed, with the notion of marriage.
Why Marry At All by Marge Piercy

Why mar what has grown up between the cracks
and flourished like a weed
that discovers itself to bear rugged
spikes of magenta blossoms in August,
ironweed sturdy and bold,
a perennial that endures winters to persist?

Why register with the state?
Why enlist in the legions of the respectable?
Why risk the whole apparatus of roles
and rules, of laws and liabilities?
Why license our bed at the foot
like our Datsun truck: will the mileage improve?

Why encumber our love with patriarchal
word stones, with the old armor
of husband and the corset stays
and the chains of wife? Marriage
meant buying a breeding womb
and sole claim to enforced sexual service.

Marriage has built boxes in which women
have burst their hearts sooner
than those walls; boxes of private
slow murder and the fading of the bloom
in the blood; boxes in which secret
bruises appear like toadstools in the morning.

But we cannot invent a language
of new grunts. We start where we find
ourselves, at this time and place.

Which is always the crossing of roads
that began beyond the earth’s curve
but whose destination we can now alter.

This is a public saying to all our friends
that we want to stay together. We want
to share our lives. We mean to pledge
ourselves through times of broken stone
and seasons of rose and ripe plum;
we have found out, we know, we want to continue.

"A public saying to all our friends," isn't that beautiful? The poem brought us round to thinking about the purpose of weddings, of the ways in which they can be a positive declaration and, yes, a celebration. Ultimately, we found ourselves realising, we could call it whatever we liked but, if you're both wearing fancy clothes and saying vows and there's cake and confetti, it's probably a wedding. And a really great excuse for a party.