The Wasteland of the Learning Mountains

My 11 year old niece Maisie heard me doing typical teachery education-system-bemoaning to her parents the other evening. “Oh,” she said. “EVERYONE hates Michael Gove. Here. I did this with my friend Magda.” And she showed me this series of drawings. Awesomeness is clearly genetic.

approaching foot collagestarting to be crushed collagethey are dead collagethe wasteland collage

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Winterwood Lessons

brown spaniel

Me: We need to take Brown Spaniel out somewhere – he’s bored.
Spouse: Ok.
Me: Where shall we go?
Spouse: Dunno. Let’s just get in the car and see what happens.
Me: Well… wouldn’t it be better to have a plan…? I’d like to go somewhere interesting…
Spouse: No. Too much kerfuffle. Let’s just go.

[after  15 minutes driving]

Me: Oh. We’re not going to Tehidy woods are we?
Spouse: Yeah…
Me: Oh… we ALWAYS go there… that’s boring… can’t we go to a beach instead? Somewhere we’ve never been before?
Spouse: I like trees best.
Me: Yeah, but woods equals puddles equals filthy brown spaniel, and it’ll be me that has to bath him when we get back.
Spouse: It’ll be fine. We’ll go in the North Cliffs way so it’s a bit different.
Me: Hmph. Boring. There’s nothing to photograph in woods. Just trees and mud.
Spouse: Well, it’s too late. We’re here now.

[out of car and trudging through trees]

Me: I suppose that fern is quite pretty.

fern smAnd those trees are acceptable. But I like photographing things with a bit of visible human input.

Oh! Someone’s tied ribbons in that tree. I suppose that’s something.

ribbon sm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOLD on… what’s that in that clearing? I’m SURE I saw a ticket booth! Right in the middle of nowhere! Hang on… come with me through these trees a minute.  THERE! Look! A ticket booth!

tickets tiny smI’m going to look at it.
tickets med cp smIt’s brilliant! Just look at it! Sitting there all on its own in the mud!
tickets close cp smSpouse: You should see what’s through here as well…

…and come and see this!
Me: What’s that ringing noise?
Spouse: Come and see.

Me: Christ. Don’t ring it in case something weird happens.
Spouse: There’s more down here… come on.
Me: Do you think it’s supposed to represent a snowy bit?

white sm
Spouse: Maybe. Look, you’re supposed to follow where the bunting goes.

Me: There are keys everywhere…

key 2 smSpouse: Look, they’ve made mushrooms…

glass mushrooms 2 smMe: Yes! Out of gran ornaments!

glass mushrooms smAnd there are things hanging everywhere…

Spouse: Even better things round the corner…
Me: Ha! Gran lampshades!
Spouse: I bet the charity shops couldn’t believe their luck getting rid of those all in one go.

lampshades 5 sm
… And look over here. Your mum would like this…

hearts smMe: Bloody hell. That is amazing. This is the best trip to the woods EVER. It’s made my week. Or month.

Spouse: And you didn’t want to come here.

Me: Yes, well I’m very glad we did.

Spouse: So the moral of the story is that even the ordinary can be brilliant if you look at it from a new perspective.

Me: No it’s not. The moral of the story is that going to the same old place is only fun if someone goes there before you and hangs up a load of hearts.

spaniel sm

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Bulloverman made me some things

overmanThank you Bulloverman.

 

 

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Aha!

I’ve finally worked it out. It’s a clever conspiracy to halt the exponential increase in the stupid population of the West!

This is how it works: Use the media to create a generation of boys who gasp in horror at the sight of a normal female body with all its hairy bits on and if possible gasp in horror at the sight of their OWN bodies with the hairy bits on as well. Then, when the generations who remember actual bodies have died out, cause some sort of natural disaster in which there is no access to electricity, pube shavers, wax, muscle inflating powders or boob implants for a couple of years. The entire population will become impotent with horror, and touche. We die out. It’s brilliant!

 

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The Gwelhellin Experience

trumpet sil 3Weeks ago I was contacted on my other blog by a singular human being by the name of Jonathan Xavier Coudrille. Coudrille introduced himself and sent me a photograph that I, with my fondness for eccentricity and facial hair, could not have resisted even if I was inclined to try.

Coudrille saw in my blog a chance to promote the work of his band Gwelhellin, and after some chat, he invited me to a lunchtime gig they were playing at Amelie’s in Porthleven, and despite the fact that I have no particular attachment to jazz, rampaging stallions could not have kept me away from a place where bonkers moustaches would mingle with hats and cups of tea practically on my own doorstep.

Did I live to regret my hasty decision? I did not. And nor did my family who I forcefully dragged along with me. Gwelhellin are a revelation. They describe themselves as ‘an eight piece trio’, partly for the sake of absurdity, but partly also because between them they play at least eight instruments during a three hour set, and they do so with heart bursting aplomb. NOW I understand what jazz is all about. Clearly it’s not a genre designed to be listened to on the radio – it’s all about being there. Dangerous (“yes, that’s why they hide me at the back”) Dave, the gentlest drummer you could ever imagine, held everything together unassumingly in the background; Tony Apple, an accomplished jazz musician (even I could tell that) was doing that gently weeping guitar thing that excellent musicians can do, and when he wasn’t beaming all over his magnificent beard, was resurrecting Louis Armstrong right there on Porthleven harbour with his emotion seizing vocals. And the star of the show, of course, was Coudrille himself who is one of those human beings you only get one of. Ever. “He won Melody Maker International Soloist of the Year, once you know”, whispered Dave like a proud father. “And he lived with Cossacks for years – that’s where he learned to play the balalaika.” And play it he does – wondrously. He energised the whole place with the force of his personality and the speed of his blue-fingernails on the strings of the balalaika, banjo and his beautiful guitar. AND he wears Russian boots and changes his accents and hats at intervals throughout the set, AND he plays the trumpet with one of those muffling things on the end, AND he sings Cossack songs in Russian, AND he tells genuinely amusing anecdotes, AND he sang me a romantic song like an olden days troubadour (I am far too British to know how to deal with that of course, and my son found it too much to handle, but it was great fun).  Not bad for someone 23 years older than me – I have to have a bit of a lie-down after a particularly strenuous conversation. Not only that, Coudrille is an extraordinary Surrealist painter, too (it’s obvious there’s no God, because if there was he’d have shared the talents out a bit more evenly).

So, I can’t recommend seeing Gwelhellin enough. Frankly, it should be made compulsory for the sake of the nation.

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Weltschmerz

http://www.jes-galery.de/images/Weltschmerz-web.jpg

I received an email from a friend a while ago saying:

“Whoops. A student cried in my lecture today because the world is so unfair and we can’t change it. We were only doing the media representation of crime but we started talking about politics and the effects of everything on everything else. She’d NEVER realised that media is biased. She hadn’t questioned stuff. Her whole understanding of the world just shattered in my lecture. She got so totally overwhelmed by how difficult it is to know what’s right and also how dangerous irresponsible media is that she literally sobbed out loud.”

My friend wasn’t sure how to feel about the effect her lecture had had on this student, and nor am I. The part of me that still believes in education as a liberating force thought, ‘that was a powerful, eye-opening lesson. That’s what education is for – to make people more aware of the world around them and then to hopefully give them the wherewithal to make wise choices.’ This was the leftover idealist in me speaking – the tiny bit of me that still hasn’t been smashed to splinters on the shipwreck that is our current education system.

But the thought of this student sobbing for her lost certainty is actually a very sad one. It’s been rubbing like a pebble in my welly ever since I received the email because I had a sore spot there anyway. Part of what had been bugging me for a while was the question: what has knowledge ever done for me? When I was young I read a lot. I read about the slave trade, the (then) nuclear threat, the world wars, Hiroshima, Vietnam… and I took it seriously, that knowledge. I absorbed and pondered it. I let it affect me emotionally. And if you take this stuff seriously it does affect you. It probably should affect you.

So what then are you supposed to do with the emotional detritus this kind of knowledge creates? How do you cope with the monumental sense of powerlessness you’re left with when you finally understand that most things are a bit insane? It seems there are three ways to deal with it. The first way is to go into politics or education or whatever is your particular interest and try to change things from within. The second way is to ‘drop out’ and try to change things from without by attempting to build a life outside the mainstream and engaging with protest movements. The third way,  (the way my friend took when she boycotted all forms of news because it made her sob to the point of meltdown), is to hide from it all and try to spend your life in your happy place (or just live your life perpetually off your face on drugs/alcohol).

I tried the second method for many years until I finally realised there really is no way to build a life truly outside the mainstream in the UK if you have no resources. I also realised that protests have very little effect unless they are gigantic and relentless and, again, you have resources. Nobody listens to the truly powerless. So I decided I’d join the education system and try to help things from within. Ten years later I, along with many wonderful colleagues, am battered, broken, disillusioned and exhausted. I have never developed the capacity to turn my mind away from things I think are wrong and just get on with life. I’ve never developed the capacity to shut my gob, either. And you can’t just live in your happy place when you have to go out into the wrong every day and earn a living. So that’s where I am now: stymied. I can’t change things, I can’t run away from things, and I don’t have it in me to ignore things.

So I UNDERSTAND my friend’s student’s response to the horrible realisation that the world is not as manageable as she first thought, and I hope she finds somewhere in her brain to file this stuff so she can walk the tightrope between unhappy knowledge and ignorant bliss much more confidently than I do.

http://www.bareknucklepeoplemanagement.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/tightrope.jpg

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Conjugal Footwear

I had the very good fortune to attend a wedding this weekend. It was my favourite kind of wedding – the kind where it’s palpably evident that the bride and groom are best friends and spend more time than is decent having a damn good laugh together. My marrying friends demonstrated this happy kind of love amply when they only just controlled their giggles at the word “sustain” in the vows. “It’s a funny word,” said the English-teacher bride later, “it makes you think of cows being milked.”

They spent part of the evening before their big day making giant dinosaur Top Trump cards for the wedding tables and they had a cake made of cheese with Lego people and knitted mice on. It was that kind of wedding. Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus Rex and Brachiosaurus all made an appearance, but there was no sign whatsoever of Bridezilla.

Usually, of course, I love a wedding not only for the reminder of the bond humans can share, but also for the photo opportunities. This time I spectacularly failed in the human-snapping department for some reason, but consoled myself instead with accosting people for photographs of their feet. You get excellent shoes at weddings, and through feet I met some very pleasing people indeed. I recommend this method if you ever find it difficult to mingle at parties – all you need is a pocket-sized point and shoot and you need never feel socially awkward again.

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Learning to listen

miner and moustacheI haven’t been writing lately. I’ve been reading the Internet too much again and I’m not sure why, but for the last few months my brain has not been processing the data I’ve been inputting effectively enough to produce any writeable trains of thought. I think I may be suffering from Toffler’s ‘infoxication’, or information overload. Someone may need to invent a new idiom to cover this state of affairs because I bet I’m not the only one experiencing it. How about: Too many opinions spoil your convictions…?

Ok, that’s embarrassingly lame, but it’s a start.

Anyway, while I have been unable to settle on any firm opinion about anything, and have also been wondering what the hell I want to do with my last 30 odd years on the planet, I have been working relentlessly on my other blog. This blog involves me walking around Cornwall with a camera permanently glued to my hand and a notebook and pen in my back pocket, accosting innocent passers-by and forcing them to talk to me.  As I’ve relaxed into the process of approaching a stranger, explaining what I’m doing and then asking their permission to photograph them, I have become more and more addicted to the whole thing. Only a few people say no, and these people usually have a very good reason to want to remain private, although the occasional older Cornish person still has a fear of the Internet based on not quite understanding how it works. One man today explained carefully to his wife, that if he had his photo on the blog, it would be seen by millions of people all over the world. If only that were so.

A serious and elegant lady I met in Falmouth this week

But what is so compelling about the whole thing is learning firsthand how almost everyone has something interesting to say if I can relax them enough to talk to me, and how moving even the most seemingly ordinary lives actually are. Although I tend to approach people who stand out to me in some way, often those who are more discreet in their appearance are just as interesting as the more noticeable ones, and on more than one occasion they have been much more interesting. I have always been someone who has faith in people, but doing this project confirms every single day that human beings are fascinating, funny and innovative. I met a man who is building a replica in his garden of one of the first planes to ever fly successfully, a homeless man who writes jokes on William Hill betting slips and keeps them in his rucksack, a woman whose husband accidentally asphyxiated himself on the back of a door and a man whose job it was to clean up drowned animals from Cornwall’s beaches. To name a few.

The home-made Penny Whistle of a busker in Penzance

The home-made Penny Whistle of a busker in Penzance

But I realised today that although I have been listening to the stories people have been telling me, I maybe haven’t been really listening. I mean listening in the sense of actually drawing things from these stories that could teach me, or remind me of, things of importance. I’m not the sort of person to start getting all I-Ching or anything, but it struck me today that I could draw things from what people are telling me. Last night, for example, I couldn’t sleep until very late because my brain was exploding with thoughts about what I want to do with my life. I have some business ideas that seem very difficult and out of reach, and I haven’t really focused my brain on making them into something real. So I (like everyone else probably) am feeling trapped and frustrated creatively which is making me lethargic. I woke this morning, tired and confused and went out to do some food shopping for the family. As usual, I had my blogging kit with me and ended up talking to two people. The first was a lady who told me about how her grandmother brought up four children all on her own while running her own small business and ended up owning three houses through sheer determination and hard work. The second was a man who talked about the ways he had come to terms with life in a Czech prison.

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Now, if I WAS a New Age type or spiritual person, I could start thinking some sort of higher power is trying to tell me to get off my arse and grab life by its testicles. Or at least its handlebars. I’m not one of those, though – but what I do think is that if we listen – really listen – to things people are saying to us, our brains can focus in on bits and pieces that we need to hear.

So I’m off out tomorrow with my camera and notebook. I wonder what the people of Cornwall have to teach me next.

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Why I support the ‘No More Page 3′ Campaign

page+3When I was a young girl – several thousand years ago – I was heart-clenchingly embarrassed by the newsagent top shelves and their smear of pouting, arching, private female flesh. I’d been taught that sex was a special, intimate thing that was shared by people who loved each other, so the cold public displays of female-only secondary sexual characteristics were a cringing mystery to me.

As children, we are learning machines, and as pubescent children we are fascinated by sex and relationships, so what was I to learn from this first glimpse of the way the world outside home and school treated sex? That ‘sex’ was synonymous with female display, for one thing. The mainstream magazines that were available to the average buyer did not show male display, nor did they show male and female interaction, so I was learning that the consumer of sex was male, and that the female was a product to be consumed.

But I understood this only on an emotional/unconscious level, of course. How it manifested was in embarrassment and a feeling of vulnerability. My child-brain wondered about the images of female nudity in the newsagent and how they seemed to waft sexual responses to female meat into the air around them. When men were looking at those images, I wondered, were they more likely to think about what was under the clothes of the women in the shop? As an awkward young girl, still coming to terms with (and feeling a little horrified by) ‘developing’ as a woman, it made me feel as if I was as much on display as those women who had chosen to be photographed. It made me feel exposed. It also made me feel as though I didn’t have full ownership over my own body. This may be difficult to understand if you’ve never been a trainee human in this situation, but it’s how I felt, and since I’ve been an adult, I’ve met other women and girls who also felt the same way.

I’m not, of course, saying that adolescent embarrassment is a reason why Page 3 should be finally and peacefully euthanized. But I do think it should be, and the reason for this is that it – along with other freely available mainstream ‘pornographic’ imagery – actually limits and restricts human sexuality. I know this seems counter-intuitive, and most pro-page 3 people argue that removing it from The Sun is a ‘feminist’ plot to repress straight men’s natural sexuality. They also argue that porn is an expression of sexual freedom, and in some ways I think they probably have a point. When porn is something that adult people seek out to suit the tastes they have developed individually, I can’t see it as a problem. But I think that mainstream, see-it-everywhere soft porn is quite the reverse of liberating because it squishes the vastness of human sexual expression into a tiny box of what is possible and causes insecurities that limit people’s sexual confidence. We unconsciously learn from it that to be a sexual being you must be of a certain age, size, skin colour and shape and present yourself in a certain way. Anybody who isn’t or doesn’t is some kind of asexual freak. Pubic hair, for example, now only features in niche pornography because it’s seen as a fetish.

Anyone who says porn doesn’t have any effect on our attitudes, feelings or behaviour must also believe that advertising is a complete waste of money. All media affects us. It must do, otherwise there’s no point in it. Huge industries spend millions on it and it can’t all be a mistake. Jehovah’s Witnesses have developed a printing empire based on the fact that if you keep people reading material with the same underlying messages, then they will keep believing it’s reality. If we keep absorbing repetitive underlying messages in our sexual material then we will keep believing that they represent real sexuality. In fact they’re even more powerful than religious indoctrination since they carry a sexual charge that seems to validate them as ‘truth’.

The essence of why I think Page 3 should go and that soft pornographic material shouldn’t be displayed where it can be seen unintentionally is to do with the way I think we learn our sexualities. Freud (who I often disagree with, of course, but I found this idea interesting) argued that humans are born what he called “polymorphously perverse.” What he means by this is that we are born capable of experiencing sexual responses and feelings, but that these are unfocused on any particular stimuli during childhood.

In order to explain fetishes, Freud argued that our experiences as we grow into fully developed sexual beings lead some people to attach sexual feelings to unexpected objects, like shoes or bannisters or the Eiffel Tower. But those of us who have more usual sexual experiences and input learn to attach our sexual feelings to more mundane things like other people. And we learn our preferences from the things that stir our sexual feelings in our early stages of development. That’s why some people find beards attractive and others hate them, some people like blondes and others don’t, some people like foot massages and others don’t, and so on. We’re learning from everything around us including the representations of sexuality we encounter in the media. In fact, in our much-vaunted media-saturated society, we probably now learn much more about notions of sexuality from the media than we do from anywhere else, especially when we are young.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, until we examine whether the messages about sex we are learning from our media are a real representation of free human sexuality, or whether they depict only one version of what sexuality is all about. Many claim that non-mainstream porn exists specifically to depict the entire cornucopia of human sexuality, and is thereby liberating, and that may well be true. For the sake of this discussion, however, I am looking only at mainstream, freely available soft porn such as Page 3 and lad’s mags, because it’s those that we are most frequently confronted with and therefore those that will have the biggest impact on our learning about sexuality. What these media seem to be teaching our young people is that no human is sexually desirable unless they are preened and pumped and smooth and flawless and firm and their sexual doings are as perfectly performed as the edited cavortings of the stars of an MTV music video. Media representations of sex seem to encourage people to see it as all about performance – how they look – rather than how they feel. I don’t see any real signs that the sexual expectations on young people are making them any more liberated than former generations who were, at least, free to have sex (or not) in their own actual skins. They were not led to believe they had to mould themselves into some sort of impossibly perfect (and expensive to maintain) ideal before they got their kit off.

So, the reason I would like Page 3 out of the papers along with the removal of soft porn from the newsagent shelves is because I feel it is part of a culture that is just as repressive about sex as it was in earlier times. Instead of hiding sex altogether as earlier generations perhaps tried to do, we now put it on display everywhere – but we put such a sanitised, tacky, shallow, prescriptive version of it on display that it confines and limits young people’s ideas of what sex is.

I don’t want to ban porn at all, I just want it to be something people have to seek out rather than something that appears in front of our eyes whether we want it to or not. I want our children to learn about sex mainly from talking openly about it and experiencing relationships with other young people with real, lovely, imperfect, varied bodies and minds. I want them to understand that sex is fantastic and intimate and all about sharing your actual real self with another person (or people if that’s your thing), not about putting on a performance of an ideal imposed from outside. I want them to grow up knowing that sex is about feelings and not about how you look when you’re doing it. I don’t want our daughters to grow up feeling that the ultimate accolade is to look good naked so that men they would never want anywhere near them will drool over them. If our young people want to look at porn, it’s fine, but the act of having to go and find it in and of itself would show them that it is something different from everyday human sexual experience. Not wrong, just different. Doing this would hopefully lessen the influence of mainstream soft pornification on people’s individual sexualities and create more not less freedom of sexual expression.

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Heartbreak Motel

Today didn’t start off well. I received a letter out of the blue from Dorothy Perkins saying I owe £144 on a store card that I thought was all paid off. I’d received no statements and they’d been gradually piling on the charges until they were three times the actual debt. I felt like wailing with rage as I paid £90 I can’t afford, and spouse stomped about declaiming ‘usurers’ because he basically lives in the Middle Ages. So yeah, minus 30 happiness points for this morning.

But then, you know. The sun was shining. We live in Cornwall. We still had enough money left for a breakfast at the Beachcomber Café on Praa Sands where they top up your teapot for free. There’s not too much to complain about.

beachcomberBut the universe, clearly in a good mood with me today, knows what cheers me up. It very kindly dropped a lovely derelict building in my lap just as we’d decided to go home. There’s not much I like better than a bit of dereliction to photograph after a beach breakfast.

The building we found is along the road that leads from Helston to Penzance and was once a motel, apparently. I looked it up online and found an article about how worrying it is that the Olympic torch would have to be run past ‘Heartbreak Motel’. Clearly the world ought to be tidied up for the torch so its little Olympic eyes aren’t burned out by the realities of Cornwall.

I, however, can’t resist an eyesore and have been smiling all day since. It made up for the happiness deficit caused by Dorothy Perkins, and then some.

 

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