I could be a genius
If I just put my mind to it
I could do anything
If only I could get around to it
We were brought up on the space race
Now they expect us to clean toilets
When you’ve seen how big the world is, well
How can you make do with this?
In the spring I won the Higher Education Academy Student Essay Competition, which paid for my Kindle. Hurrah! Anyway, below, my winning essay on “What do English or Creative Writing have to say to an age of austerity?”
When the recession first bared its teeth a literary friend of mine was blasé. Writers are used to being poor, she said, what’s new? She was right. The age of austerity is simply the rest of the world getting a glimpse of life as lived by “lifetime English majors” (as Buddy Glass called us) and creative writers since – oh – just about forever. Writers ranging from George Orwell to Hunter S Thompson, Oscar Wilde to Mavis Gallant, have lived in – and written some of their most exquisite, lacerating prose on the subject of – abject poverty.
You will have to have another job, Italian novelist and poet Natalia Ginzburg noted matter-of-factly in her essay, My Vocation, a love-letter to the art of creative writing. Few writers are fortunate enough to be able to prove her wrong. Even when times were good for the rest of the world: when hedge funds grew into dense money-thickets and credit was easy, when house prices rose and investment portfolios swelled with promise, writers shared little of the bounty. There were – and are – exceptions, of course. Some writers sell enough to buy a house in the country, a few nab movie deals, or churn out novels regularly enough to enjoy life in a certain style. Once in a while, a six-figure publishing deal makes headlines. For most, though, the act of writing, even for publication, is so remote from any prospect of financial reward as to render money virtually meaningless. The best advice I can give you, a literary agent told my course-mates and I, is to marry someone with money. She was only half joking.
Writers take for granted that talent, education and dedication do not necessarily lead to material success. This particular reality has come as an ice-water shock, however, to those who followed the beaten path from A-levels to university assuming it would lead them right into a secure job in their chosen field. During the boom years this progression seemed irrefutable; like two-plus-two equalling four. All you had to do, in order to have a comfortable life, was learn something useful like business, banking, marketing, or management, and then sashay into a comfortable office, regular paid holidays and the eventual promise of a respectable three-bedroom semi somewhere on the commuter belt. When there were plenty of well-paid jobs available choosing to pursue English or creative writing was seen as at best frivolous, and at worst a dangerous brand of stubborn, self-defeating stupidity. Writers, like other artists, were asked: “Why don’t you get a proper job?” Now, there is no such thing as a “proper job”. Graduate unemployment is at a record high and it isn’t just humanities students who can’t find jobs. According to the BBC more electrical engineers are unemployed than are modern languages graduates, and fine arts is no worse a course, in terms of employment potential, than economics or civil engineering. The promise of the proper job turns out to be hollow.
Because English students and writers have never really participated in the collective fantasy of eternal satisfaction through consumption we are uniquely placed to help our stunned compatriots make necessary adjustments. Creative writers and English students don’t make calculations based on salary packages; we choose differently. We don’t talk about how much money we will be earning in five years, but about the novel we’re writing, our next article, or the screen-play we are going to adapt. Since we have no corporate ladder to climb, no water-cooler politicking to do, we spend our time reading, writing blogs, publishing journals, running workshops or teaching. We define ourselves by what we create in a world where the phrase “creative type” is commonly used as a pejorative. Compelled to question the petty orthodoxies about what we should or shouldn’t do with our lives, creative writers develop the habit of asking questions, of deciding for ourselves – day by day – who we are and how we want to live. “Freedom is a choice,” Hunter Thompson said, “You decide who you are by what you do.” Because writers have typically fallen outside of society’s casual assumptions about money and success we have learned the art of self-definition.
Writers have valuable truths to share in an age of austerity. We can encourage people to stop chasing illusive financial gains and focus on building a life around work they love. We are here to testify that creative work is a vital and satisfying life choice, not a privilege of rich dilettantes. Most of all, writers are proof that poverty is not fatal. We know from experience that there are many ways to take the sting out of a scant bank balance. Our leisure time is different: most writers don’t spend Saturday afternoons shopping, or own the latest flat-screen TV. Instead of going to restaurants we have friends round for dinner. We cultivate gardens, learn to sew or cook, take the time to bake home-made Christmas treats or make our own marmalade. We are familiar with frugality, with library cards, discount vouchers, charity shops, battered trainers and hand-made gifts. Rather than feel deprived, writers and “lifetime English majors” embrace the challenge of freedom and creativity, and can help show society that there is more to life than scrambling up the property ladder, or wearing the latest fashion. As Henry David Thoreau, a writer who knew a great deal about austerity, so beautifully articulated: “It is life nearest the bone where it is sweetest…. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”
The media loves to tell us what to do. We absorb advice and values from TV doctors, faceless web commentators, celebrity Tweeters, and the front page of the daily papers almost without thinking about it. We are so used to this that we routinely mistake hectoring for empowerment. When faces on the TV tell us how we should dress, what we should feed our children, what kind of car to drive, and where to go on holiday, we accept the underlying message that: you’re not smart enough to figure this out on your own. The expert bullying has been around for a while. Back in 1965 Mick Jagger snarled about a man on the TV telling him how white his shirts could be and the barrage of advice has grown faster and more furious since.
It is a sneaky form of authoritarianism, where social imperative is dressed up in the guise of helpfulness. Like the old US Army sloganeers, the media promises to help you “be all you can be” but in doing so undermines your ability to think and choose for yourself. The problem is that the media does not look out for the best interests of anyone apart from the corporations who profit from it. If we are to absorb what is useful from the media without being brainwashed we need to reclaim the courage of our convictions. We need to start asking: “What’s right for me?”
When in doubt, saying “no” is often more important, and more definite, than saying yes. Sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote: “There are a thousand ways of hitting the bull’s eye, only one of hitting it.” If we entertain all possibilities it becomes almost impossible to hone in on what it is we want. Philosophically, this raises the question of whether it is better to be in a perpetual state of anticipation, or whether we prefer simple fulfilment. This is a matter of education, preference and, to a large extent, personality. Whatever one’s tolerance for uncertainty and imprecision, we all have to make decisions. In order to make decisions that are right for us, and not made out of a sense of social duty, we need to have clear priorities. We need an ordering scheme – call it morals, values, goals, or a life plan – but we need something meaningful to inform our choices.
JD Salinger’s precocious creation Seymour Glass suggested that: “Every man, woman, and child over the age, let us say, of twenty-one or thirty, at the very outside, should never do anything extremely important or crucial in their life without first consulting a list of persons in the world, living or dead, whom he loves.” It is a mild prescription, hardly the antidote to a lifetime of advice-taking, but it is subversive in a small, gentle way. Replacing the anonymous buzz of cultural imperative with the specific voices of people who do know us and care about our happiness is a baby-step towards autonomy. A step that, once taken, puts us on a path not in relation to a particular decision, but towards a way of being that has the potential to transform our decision-making process and, by extension, our lives.
Originally published at Snipe
I look as if I’ve just killed someone with my bare hands. It’s only paint but the dark brownish-red dots splotches on my palms and nails ringed in non-cosmetic scarlet are suggestive. Part of me wishes it were true. It would open up a range of new employment opportunities. Bodyguard. Assassin. Ninja. Gun for hire. Cage fighter. Maybe I could get a job as a prison officer. Or work for a private security firm in Iraq or some other high-risk location where wages are inversely proportionate to the value of human life. An unsqueamish woman with lethal fists could have a job for life with the CIA, or star in a Quentin Tarantino film. I could freelance as a butcher; become a safari guide, or a stunt woman, or…
Not that I want to kill for a living but in the current economic climate it’s important to pursue every opportunity. In the last 30 days I’ve applied for 66 full-time jobs, 24 freelance posts, and sent 30-something pitches to newspapers or magazines. I haven’t asked to be an astronaut, elephant trainer, sommelier, CEO or pop star. I have soberly and responsibly applied for roles as reporter, web editor, deputy editor, sub-editor, proofreader, copywriter, personal assistant, executive assistant, administrator, online journalist, copy editor, report writer, and research associate. Jobs that all have two things in common: a) they require specific skills, education and experience, and b) I have the requisites. I’m not trying to waste anyone’s time, not trying to blag it; not getting ideas above my station. I have highly respectable undergraduate and graduate degrees and international work experience. At 31 I am young enough to be a good long-term employment prospect but mature enough to be reliable. I am willing to relocate; to consider part-time, contract and temporary work. I am flexible, personable, and well-presented. I speak two languages. I have management experience, recruitment experience, teaching experience and customer service experience.
If you are an employer advertising an editorial job and took the time to read the CV I sent you’ll know I write for national magazines including Mixmag, Real Travel and Mslexia; I write opinion columns and blogs; my essays win awards and my work appears in literary journals. I am a contributor to The Nervous Breakdown and a highly praised ghostwriter. I write about music, travel, media, literature, politics, food, fitness, pop culture, economics and women’s issues. I have worked in consumer and business to business publishing. I have managed websites and commissioned writers. I know InDesign, CMS, SEO, and social media. I can administer budgets, write reports, handle internal communications and external suppliers, deal with celebrities, clients and contractors.
For those employers seeking a proactive, organised, “good at liaising” executive assistant I have highlighted my organisational skills and project management background; they will know that I am good at multi-tasking and never miss a deadline. I have noted that working in different countries has made me flexible, open-minded and adaptable. I mentioned my dedication, drive, loyalty, and ability to get along in a team, and my work for leading brands.
Maybe you are looking for a food server, or someone to stand in a shop and smile when the doorbell jangles. Then you’ll know I have waitressed in casual and upscale restaurants; I have tended bar; run a coffee shop; and done silver-service catering. I have worked in shoe-shops, call centres, estate agents, warehouses, fast-food joints, schools and bakeries. I’ve been a football steward, a pet-minder and a babysitter. I can paint, too: houses, garden gates, and garage doors – that’s how my hands got all bloody-looking. I’m not persnickety. I’ve cleaned toilets and filled out marketing questionnaires for ten bucks a pop.
The one percent doesn’t support shit. Millions of people doing boring, repetitive, unrewarding, disregarded work is keeping this stove-hulled economic ship afloat. All those mediocre jobs that cover the mortgage and credit card minimums, keep food in the fridge and pay for broadband (though maybe not all in the same month) are holding off the deluge. Trouble is there are more hands than there are pumps and water is pouring in. It isn’t that people are too lazy, uneducated, inexperienced, fussy, or inflexible – there just aren’t enough jobs. I know. I’m looking.
Yesterday, I huddled beside the espresso machine at work and watched plump snowflakes slather themselves across parked cars, fences, hoods, pushchairs, scaffolding and an abandoned bicycle. Thick and clotting like poured cream, it smoothed the glaciers creeping across pavements and drew lacy gloves over the trees’ naked fingers.
I step out prepared for impertinent cold to slap me and run away giggling. Impertinent was yesterday. A new beast wraps around my legs as if my jeans aren’t there and holds my hand like death. Five minutes later I fumble keys and wrestle the black steel portcullis. Each routine gesture has new significance. Muscles contract like tormented snails. If my stomach could hide behind my spine, it would. Nerves tremble at destiny. I am 60% water; I should freeze.
At minus 12 the condensed breath of the city is pinned, molecule by molecule, against the brittle milkblue sky. It is illusive-soft as a whorl of liquid nitrogen. Put your hand to it and flesh crackles as if in flame. We huddle in the cupped palms of this inhuman splendour. Twitch gluttonous eyes at the frosted parabola of a hill, the wink of an stalactite. Behind ice’s poor imitator, we burrow for warmth in slabs of chocolate cake, chase it in creamy coffee swirls.
Posted by Cila Warncke
Experts say “The Scottish population seems to be living dangerously”. Unfortunately, not in a Aston-driving, sky-diving, lady-killing kinda way, a la favourite son Sean Connery. Instead, risk-taking Scottish style involves scoffing burgers, downing “the equivalent of 46 bottles of vodka each in a year”, smoking furiously and not taking any exercise (apart from walking to the offie).
Glasgow seems a poor place for a vegetarian long-distance runner to set up house, but this isn’t the first time I’ve spent in a city awash in cheap booze, bad food and hard drugs. I lived in Philadelphia for three years. If anything, West Philly is far less salubrious than the west end of Glasgow. If you wanted fresh veg there you had to go to the over-priced salad joint on campus. The only local supermarket was a hot, crowded, piss-scented emporium surrounded by iron bars. Grocery shopping usually meant going to the 7-11 on the corner and buying bagels, Kraft Singles, and breakfast cereal. The native delicacy is the Philly cheesesteak: fried steak, smothered in cheese, served up on foot-long baguettes drenched in mayonnaise. Makes Irn Bru ice cream floats look like health food. Glasgow, in fact, has health food stores. Within metres of my flat is an array of shops including Roots & Fruits and Waitrose where I can merrily fill my basket with fresh veg, oat milk (really), quinoa bars, posh olive oil, dense rye bread and all the things dear to my health-geek foodie heart. And you can go for a run here without worrying about crossfire, which is something of a luxury.
The difference: the west end of Glasgow is relatively upper-crust, West Philadelphia isn’t. The Glasgow University study reporting 97.5% of the Scottish population has at least one of five “major risk factors to health” – cigarette smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, poor diet, physical inactivity, and overweight – tersely notes “The most important determinants for multiple risk factors were low educational attainment and residence in our most deprived communities”.
Education is even more important than economics. Eating nutritiously is cheaper than eating processed food. I’ve fed five a homemade feast of sweet potato & cashew curry with rice, salad and chapatti for less than the price of a Supersize Big Mac meal. Yet people persist in thinking that eating well means spending big. A basic problem is that deprived areas lack access to fresh fruit and veg, or reasonably priced basics like rice, flour and pulses. Why? Because retailers don’t see a market there.
This is where education comes in: shop owners need to be educated that being poor doesn’t automatically mean wanting to live on crisps and cola. They need encouraged to open shops in poor neighbourhoods, otherwise people have no choice but to eat badly. Consumers need education too. Part of the problem is the machismo in British food culture. Men eat meat, salad is for girls, etc. Perhaps there is an argument for letting troglodytes who buy into that crap eat themselves into an early grave. But it wouldn’t hurt to get into schools and persuade the younger generation there is no glory in being a fat, wheezing, heart-attack-waiting-to-happen. If we (the government, parents, the medical community, volunteers, whoever has the opportunity to pitch in) could make that happen perhaps future health statistics won’t be quite so dire.
Posted by Cila Warncke
London is about to have its first dalliance with a North American-style free newspaper in the form of Snipe and — I’m pleased to say — yours truly will be writing a media column for the bi-weekly publication.
Check out their pre-release website. Then look for the launch issue, out 15 May. I won’t be home yet, quite, so grab me a copy please!
When Britney’s life went into a flat spin two years ago, the tabloid knives came out, not just for her, but also for ‘stage mom’ Lynne.
Anytime anything goes wrong with a child (even a grown-up child) bad mothering is an instant blame button and Britney’s hard-drinking, head-shaving, fanny-flashing antics were taken as classic delayed teenage rebellion.
The tabloid press had a field day when Britney served her mother with a restraining order in 2007. Obviously it was Lynne’s ‘pushiness’ that finally sent Britney to the brink. After Britney was twice-sectioned in early 2008, the courts made dad Jamie her conservator and Lynne, once a constant presence at Britney’s side, pretty much vanished from the scene.
Jamie’s absolute control over Britney’s finances, property, business ventures and person (she reportedly isn’t even allowed phone calls without his permission) has been widely lauded as a very good thing. “Too bad he didn’t step in years ago when Lynne was in charge. Britney might not have been this much of a mess!” is a typical fan-site comment.
Luckily dear old dad, a big, silent, crumple-faced man whose only previous public role was standing at the back of the occasional family photo-op looking awkward, has done what any good paterfamilias would and stepped in to set things straight
The minor matter of Britney’s human rights, or rather her total lack thereof, is accepted on the basis that the conservatorship is ‘working’ and that she is ‘stable’. The courts said as much when they made the situation permanent in late 2008, meaning unless Britney – who isn’t allowed to hire her own lawyer – is able to challenge it, Jamie will be her legal guardian until he dies.
This ties up the loose ends in a neat, patriarchy-approved package. According to the script, Britney is a flighty, irresponsible female who cracked under the strain of overzealous mothering. Luckily dear old dad, a big, silent, crumple-faced man whose only previous public role was standing at the back of the occasional family photo-op looking awkward, has done what any good paterfamilias would and stepped in to set things straight….
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Originally published in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Autumn 2000
Columbine. I remember the day that name became a national byword, much in the same way I remember the day Princess Diana died or the way those slightly older than I remember the Challenger disaster.
They didn’t know, at first, how many were dead; estimates ran up to three digits. There were no commercials, I recall. And the images didn’t change much, as they obviously couldn’t get cameras inside the building. As the afternoon trickled on they began interviewing survivors, weeping schoolgirls, football players still trying to be macho through their residual terror.
Fifteen dead, including the two kamikaze killers whose innocent-seeming faces would stare posthumously from the covers of every major newsmagazine in the country. Faces whose secrets the world would try, too late, to understand. Blame TV, heavy metal, black trench coats, video games, lax parenting or poor social skills. Invoke the word “evil,” so long out of fashion until now.
Whatever you do, though, don’t blame guns. Guns don’t kill people, people do. To take the guns out of peoples’ hands, to prevent mere children from purchasing weapons, that would be an unreasonable — unconstitutional — infringement of civil liberties.
Americans are not the only ones, though, who have seen hell break out in their schoolyards. Just three years before Columbine, in the little Scottish town of Dunblane, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school with four handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Minutes later, 16 kindergarteners and their teacher were dead. Hamilton committed suicide.
Stunned, shattered, the nation and the government were determined it would never happen again. The parents of the murdered children threw themselves into a campaign to ban handguns. “Impossible,” an American would say. “Unfair!” cried the sport-shooting lobby in Britain. Yet the government implemented a ban on high-caliber handguns, resulting in more than 100,000 weapons being surrendered to the authorities. By early 1998, the ban was extended to all .22-caliber and lower handguns as well.
This legislation was in no way universally popular. Shooting aficionados were outraged at having to give up their weapons. Gun enthusiasts rightly protested that they — the responsible sportsmen — were not the problem. But in the end, despite their feeling that injustice had been served, they handed over their guns and got on with it.
Nearly four years have passed since Dunblane and nearly two since the legislation banning handguns came into effect. The shooting fans are still grumbling, yes. There is still gun-related crime, yes. However, there has been no second Dunblane.
Will we be able to say the same thing four years after Columbine? I doubt it.
Because it wasn’t just Columbine. It was Jonesboro, Ark.; Springfield, Ore.; West Paducah, Ky.; Pearl, Miss. A trail of blood and anguish, the children with guns in their hands and blank eyes. And every time it happened we were horrified, the images running together in a montage of huddled parents, weeping children, stone-faced politicians.
Those were just the disasters epic enough in proportion to become catch phrases. In mild-mannered Portland, Ore., a boy was stopped outside my brother’s school, the trunk of his car full of guns. In South Dakota, my friend’s sister got the day off of school because of a bomb threat. Multiply that by thousands, the number of incidents that border on the knife-edge between near miss and front-page horror show.
This is all because Americans cannot live with the idea that their precious right to bear arms might be infringed. Even if it means that the litany of names will continue into a new century — the names of the dead, the names of the guilty, the names of the communities devastated by violence.
In Britain there is one name — Dunblane — and there was one reaction: banning handguns. A knee-jerk reaction, some have said, but since then no one has turned on the BBC evening news and seen blood-soaked children fleeing out of schools — unless they were watching the Columbine coverage, of course.
Like it or not, the ban seems to have worked, and it stands as a rebuke to America’s selfish unwillingness to make radical change in the face of tragic persuasion.