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Sunday, 21 August 2016

Postcard from Home: The people for Corbyn

Kentish Town, NW5 (last week)

It's a strange one. Earlier today, in a newspaper interview, the London Mayor gave his support for Owen Smith (the other contender for Labour leader) joining about 80% of the Labour parliamentary party who don't back the current leader. Meanwhile, last week, Camden Labour members voted to support Corbyn, despite the local MP vehemently backing Smith. And it's kind of a given that Corbyn will be voted in (again).

Whatever happens, it's not ideal and it's going to get messier. There aren't many ways to resolve this and get to dealing with external issues without big compromises, but there's too much anger involved.

Meanwhile, I know at least half a dozen friends who've joined the Labour party in the last 6 months who would like to vote and can't... Interesting times!

Thursday, 11 August 2016

UPDATE: Keith, we care about you and your memories...

Just over a couple of weeks ago, I followed some of my attention-seeking friends* and wrote a statement on Facebook along the lines that I'd be logging out for a while, but I'd still exist in real life somewhere (although probably not at a poetry gig). Largely, after deleting the app from my phone, I've stuck to it, and I've gained about half an hour per morning where I'm not scrolling through other people's lives.

Talking about social media use is not particularly interesting, nor is being sanctimonious about switching off (look up, anyone?**) but, after relaying this a couple of times to mates, I thought I'd share some of the build up to me leaving.

The One Where I Sound More Than a Little Neurotic 

First up, I hate being told what to do, what to like or share or think. Or who to be friends with (especially when people from my phonebook mysteriously appear on my 'People You May Know' list). This particular social platform has been rubbing me up the wrong way for a while now and it was only a matter of time before I needed a break. 

But it was this whole EU Referendum that did it for me. The world has not ended (yet) but, since the end of June, there's a whole lot of pessimism coming from some of my friends and I, already a dedicated pessimist, don't need more encouragement! 

Being a stereotypical liberal North London urbanite... (or whatever you want to call it), I was in a bit of a funk the day after the vote. No one yet knows what leaving the EU means, despite the enthusiastic but still unhelpful 'Brexit means Brexit' comment from the new Prime Minister. Even so, it had an immediate effect on a couple of friends of mine who lost contracts the day after because of the uncertainty, and the mood around my local university campuses was particularly heavy. All for a decision that is by no means clear. But, hey...

So, in a show of europhile solidarity, I emptied the contents of a tote bag I'd been using for my unpaired socks, which I'd been given at some kind of EU-sponsored fair. Needless to say, it's bright blue with 12 golden stars and says something vague about the EU Commission for something yawny. I topped it off with some jeans and my Italia hoodie (with four stars - one for every World Cup win) and left home to see what deals were on at a supermarket which I shall not name.

I pretty much go to this supermarket every week, maybe once or twice, to see what's going on in the reduced section. If I'm lucky, there'll be an item with two yellow labels - i.e. reduced for a second time - and I'll try to nab it before someone else does: 9p bread, 50p vegetables, a £2 whole free range chicken.... On a few occasions, there's a crowd hovering behind some poor member of staff who's been entrusted with the labelling. Sometimes, no sooner have they stuck the new price on, a pesky shopper will snap it right out of their hand. I'm not quite at that level yet - I usually wait a couple of seconds after an item has landed on the shelf - but I've been seen to hover and pounce.

All that said, I'm known to the security guard. I know how to lurk in a shop until the food I want comes down to the price I want (and I don't know where I got that trait - I was brought up to be proud) and that doesn't go unnoticed. The guard will often chat to me, we'll punch fists, we'll exchange pleasantries while I have the corner of my eye focused on the reduced shelf... 

On this particular day, I entered the supermarket in my Europhile fuzz, feeling hungover from referendum blues. I wasn't in the mood to talk to anyone, I just needed a bargain fix. Needless to say, the security guard was waiting for me as I entered. His usual grin froze as he saw my bag; it contorted into a grimace. 

'Ha! What are you wearing that rubbish for? You lost! Get over it'

I was shocked into silence. And he continued. 

'I voted to Leave and we won...'

I was shocked into rambling something about recklessness. 

And then he continued. (He rehashed the 'Britain is the 5th largest economy' line...)

And then I countered with something about geography.

And then he said something about the Commonwealth being full of potential.

And then I got louder, saying something along the lines that Britain's current elevated economic position has more to do with colonial exploitation than anything else.  

And then our voices must have raised a little more. Because everything else around us seemed to stand still and it was just us and our angry voices taking up space in the middle of the bakery aisle. 

And then out of the corner of my eye - the corner that was usually reserved for the reduced shelf - I saw a member of staff running towards us.

And the colleague shouted the security guard's name.

We both froze, took a sharp intake of breath and I stared him down one last time before they both walked to the back of the shop, him head bowed, and the doors to the Staff Only area flapped behind them.     

And then I felt pathetic, looking at the empty reduced shelf and all my fellow customers who refused to meet my eye. I felt pathetic. I didn't know his name until that point, and there I was, in his workplace, arguing with the man and potentially jeopardising his job (though, to be fair, he was the one who jumped down my throat, fingers wagging and all).

I felt ridiculous with my blue EU bag which, until then, had only been good enough to store stray socks; my empty blue bag which would return home empty. 

On the bus home, I thought to relay this story on Facebook, where I'd be guaranteed a few laughs and likes, especially if I exaggerated a little. But my feed was full of more depressing rants and invites to events I'd be too busy to attend, and threats of terrorism. And I suddenly couldn't be bothered to engage. 


Two weeks later, I returned to the shop sheepishly, and he was still there, and he gave me his usual beaming smile, and we shook hands. 


Weeks later, there were so many other things going on around the world. A friend of mine was stranded in Istanbul after a bomb; police continued to kill civilians in the US and in Brazil; I continued to obsess over below-the-line comments: how can people think like this? How can people write this? What kind of a world makes people so ignorant/petty/arrogant/rude? 

I had a deadline to send work to my supervisor. I missed it. 

a safe place?

Meanwhile, I wrote a little poetry. I completed the first draft of what will either be a pamphlet or my first full collection (I believe I mentioned that in my last post). I continued to transcribe interviews. 

Interviews/ Testimonies/ Stories

I've been conducting interviews which last around 90 minutes. I have a series of questions I'm interested in but, primarily, I ask the interviewees to recount their 'testimonies'. I'm deliberate about the word 'testimony'. It has religious and/or legal connotations. It is vague, open to interpretation but works for setting the scene. 

My research is largely non-directive. It's about retelling stories and removing some of my own impositions, my own framing devices. There are so many books on conducting oral histories - which I'll have to reference in my research later - but I'm mostly concerned with the narrative. How can/does my research relate to literary form? How do I continue to conduct interviews and analyse them with one foot in the 'science' of it and another in 'creative writing'?

I've been writing down the voices in my head, at half the speed they originally spoke. The vowels stretch out further. Verbal tics are heightened - a propensity to say 'like' or 'sort of' or 'you know', or to leave the ends of sentences hanging (I wince when I hear my own voice, trying to formulate a question, sometimes stumbling, often very imprecise and emphasised by hand gestures which are almost invisible to the naked ear). 

The job of transcription, largely, is to write these verbal tics out and to concentrate on the intended meanings. But I can't help being taken back to the offices, the homes, the takeaways(!), the churches, the leisure centres(!) where I sat in close quarters with the interviewees - most of whom I didn't previously know - who told me their stories. 

The art of listening without prejudice is a tough one as opinions seem to be so entrenched nowadays  (and I'm not just talking about anti-EU security guards or internet trolls). Your interviewee may think you are simply going to hell because you do not believe what they believe. They may be appraising your presentation, your deliberately smart/casual attire (minus the Euro tote bag). They may be suspicious of your motive. They may be friendly and over-familiar, assuming the best or worst of you. They may be suddenly uncomfortable as a memory almost drives them to tears. 

You, on the other hand, are aware of the pressure on your bladder after an hour sitting still, the diminishing battery on your phone, the background noise you hope doesn't drown out their quiet voice, the sudden urge you feel to write a poem, the way your mind hangs on a particular word they say, their pronunciation of said word, your desire to not control the conversation, even as the 'testimony' takes unintended turns, which may or may not be of use to your project.

And at the end of that conversation, you realise how privileged you are to take someone's time and listen to their experience. You listen and you ask questions and then you listen some more. Sure, some of it will go into your research. Sure, you will clip their words and see how it fits with someone else's words, and the 90 minutes will be reduced to a 500 word fragment at best. In the meantime,  you'll realise how important these moments are, you'll realise how these relayed experiences are changing you too, sometimes challenging your preconceptions, sometimes strengthening your ideas, and just occasionally hitting an emotional nerve. 

*I was immediately asked, 'who are you trying to impress?' when I did this - apparently it's all a ruse

**if you don't get that reference, don't worry.