This is not a travel blog: Italy

As you might have guessed from the title this isn’t a travel blog. It is more a platform for me to communicate what is on my mind. But that said, I have spent the last two weeks in Rome and Catania thinking and writing (also relaxing) so there are a few things I’d like to share with you.

No matter what country you are in you’ll still be a geek…

This wasn’t the first thing I wrote in my diary when in Italy. The first thing I wrote was a nervous scrawl about having no idea how the hell to validate my train tickets and being worried that a guard might come over and shout at me in Italian. Strangely enough, three years ago I wrote something similar about the Polish train system. Basically, I had no I idea how get the ticket machine to work and ended up travelling to Warsaw illegally (without a ticket). It seems that while I remain completely ignorant of other languages I’m doomed to begin my non-English speaking holidays stressed and confused about public transport.

Our tendency to only learn English in the UK doesn’t make us too popular abroad. I found the fact I am monolingual often coming up with other tourists and dancers. Reactions ranged from exasperated to genuinely shocked, and although I made my excuses about the education system and doing Spanish night lessons at the wrong time in my life, it wasn’t an issues that easily slipped into the background. It is weird that we are only really exposed to one language in the UK and that most of us are monolingual. The rest of the world is coming together and England is starting to look like an arrogant dick.

It is a shame that being English following Brexit, the monolingual thing and how English tourists behave in other countries, puts you a bit on the back foot with other countries because in youth hostels you feel a real sense of internationalism. The world is hanging out together. Everyone wants to know where you’ve come, from where you’ve visited and even to see your photos providing you then agree to sit through a 64 page slideshow of where they have had lunch for the last two weeks. It makes me proud of my generation which I feel is a genuinely international one. But that said these kind, liberal open minded people I met in the youth hostel are most likely not going to be running the world in the next 30 years.

They definitely weren’t reflective of society, being almost exclusively privileged and middle class. I worry that a lot of people I met seemed to be “travelling” as an alternative to living, working in their homes, and to political activism. A common topic of conversation seemed to be how badly things were back home, particularly for young people and how they were going to start saving up for their next trip as soon as they returned. I have no right to judge how people spend their money but at the same time I worry that parts of my generation are choosing to travel rather than make things better for the next. Will our children accuse us of squandering their inheritance choosing to holiday rather than save and politically agitate for their future?

Absurdism

It wasn’t just being monolingual that made write “no matter what country you are in you will still be a geek”. It seems wherever I go there is inexplicably a group of beautiful people in fashionable clothing, laughing with each other and doing shots. I meanwhile spent much of my down time in the hostel drinking Yorkshire tea (I brought tea bags) and reading Albert Camus.

Absurdism was the right philosophy for my holiday. There were moments, such as when I had to be helped out of an Italian supermarket after 5 minutes because I didn’t realise you need to scan your receipt to get out, or when I couldn’t find my Bed and Breakfast for an hour despite it being meters away, that made life is nonsense a nice get out clause for my own stupidity.  But I’m also starting to think that absurdism might be the right philosophy for me more generally. Absurdism is the idea that life is essentially meaningless and all we can do is carry on in contempt of how ridiculous everything is. Unlike Christianity which says life has inherent meaning or existentialism where we find our own meaning, absurdism is about living with the void and making the most of it.

Wikipedia gives a pretty good summary below*

Camus

I used to think that absurdism implied that there was no point doing anything but enjoy yourself but like all things it is a lot more nuanced than that. Camus talks about how we need to work with the historical circumstances we were born into and how picking sides is an essential part of being a man. Indeed, Camus himself was an anarcho syndicalist who took part in the anti-colonial movement and French resistance against the Nazis. But at the same time absurdism makes clear that it isn’t enough to live for a cause. You are free, there is no meaning and have no excuse not to live as much as possible. It is a terrifying prospect.

Italy is a beautiful place to eat, travel, think and I recommend you go there. The swing dancing scene is young but welcoming and basically everyone I met when holidaying alone was kind to me. I have a notebook full of anecdotes, anxieties and people I need to stay in touch with, or at least fondly remember.

 

 

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdism

**Picture at the top credit to the Catania Free Walking Tour (really fun, check them out they even have virtual reality!)

https://www.facebook.com/freetourcatania/

 

 

 

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Pragmatism Boo!

One of the key conclusions Rubashov, the flawed protagonist of Arthur Keostler’s great anti-communist novel Darkness at Noon, draws is that maybe ideas shouldn’t be followed to their logical conclusion. Rubashov is shortly after shot as enemy to the people, his last act of service to the totalitarian state he helped create. Ideas are dangerous no doubt but too often pragmatism is used as excuse not to think about the bigger picture.

Ideology is seen in different ways and more than not is used as a kind of political club to batter you opponent with. Politicians are accused of putting their ideology above people. We condemn terrorists for subscribing to a toxic ideology – which they no doubt do. In this conversation ideology is more often than not dominated by it being a kind of political religion, that stamps out doing what is right or reasonably practical.

I don’t like this definition of ideology. It conveniently dismisses people who want big change as dreamers, extremists or stupid. It paints those who are quite happy with the political consensus as pragmatists, people who want to help but won’t promise the impossible by default. The other big definition of ideology is the Marxist one. Ideology is the system of ideas and assumptions underpinning the society we live in. Our belief in money, assumption that hard work brings success, the unwritten rules we don’t believe but follow anyway: This is ideology and it prevents the new society being born.

Of course it is easy to poke holes in political Marxism. It leads its followers out of the old ideology and into a shiny new one. It undermines the old institutions holding society together and replaces them with gulags and the state. But Marxism’s central thrust, that we shouldn’t take political common sense for granted, that we can and should expect more from the political deal in our country. This we should take seriously.

Too many people call themselves pragmatists because they don’t care about philosophy, or they don’t have a vision for the kind of world they want to live in. They call themselves pragmatists because they subscribe to the ideological assumptions that currently dominate politics. And its fine to be Liberal or even a Neoliberal, but beginning the conversation at “I’m a pragmatist and you are not” ends the debate.

The is  a huge problem because every generation needs to have a conversation about the kind of society it wants to live in. The reason Liberalism keeps loosing is because it would rather call its enemies names than engage with them. The Blairites didn’t talk about the achievements of New Labour or the dangers of making capitalism less efficient in a globalised world. They told Corbyn supporters to get a new heart. I think it is important that we think seriously about philosophical ideas, that we have a vision for the kind of society we want to live in and that we have a debate.

But not if you are a Civil Servant, because Civil Servants need to be pragmatic.

Not Being Sure

In pubs and bars it isn’t too unusual to see beautiful women.  Beauty is a complex thing. There is something beautiful about the paternal love between a child and their mother. There’s beauty in tragedy, poetry and in filming a plastic bag swirl round and round if you are the weird character from that 90’s Kevin Spacey film. However, there is also a very specific beauty prescribed in men, but more intensely in women. The kind in movies and adverts, that promotes eating disorders, unrealistic body image, plastic surgery and drives drunk men crazy in bars. That kind of beauty is everywhere on a night out and more often than not it is trying to sell you a shot.

Bar

A few weeks ago I was talking to a shot seller. I thought it was strange that every women who tries to sell you shots in the big clubs looks like a model. Isn’t recruiting full time bar staff on the basis of looks against some form of employment law? It is and the reason most shot sellers look like models is simple, they are.  It is illegal to hire someone on the basis of their looks,* but it is also perfectly fine to subcontract work to an agency that supplies self-employed models.  I can’t go into the full economics, but in many ways the business model for shot sellers is simple. Sell a £3 shot you get 60p, the bar and the agency get the rest. No sick pay, holiday pay or minimum wage, it is all commission.

To me this seems like a raw deal. I wouldn’t enjoy badgering people to buy shots and objecting myself for the same reason I also probably also wouldn’t enjoy dancing on a pole or stripping. But I think what I share with these women is that we are both prepared to do things we find uncomfortable for a sense of identity. Again, I’m maybe being crass and insensitive. Besides the one bar shift I recently did at a festival in Cornwall, I don’t know what it is like to be a shot seller, or for that matter what it is like to be a women. But I think there probably is a buzz in being beautiful and something comforting having that as part of your identity.  Because under capitalism we are our jobs, being paid to be beautiful as either a model or a shot seller is the best possible validation. Aspiring models are prepared to be underpaid, objectified and exploited because it grounds them, it makes them feel closer to the person they want to be.

I’ve been involved in the church, political activism and I don’t know if I really enjoyed any of it. I’m not a confrontational person. I don’t like knocking on people doors, getting in fights with them about their spiritual or political beliefs. But I also got a kick out of it. Campaigning, activism, preaching it all validated my sense of self. In this way activism and political lecturing is a lot like stripping, I was the person I was supposed to be and I was beautiful.

But right now I’m not so sure, in general. I don’t think the identities I had built for myself have made me happy.  I feel less and less confident about the righteousness of political beliefs. In reflecting upon myself and being open to new possibilities I have lost a sense of who I am. Part of me wants to go back. To double down on activism, get a socialist girlfriend and join the legions singing “oh Jeremy Corbyn”. But I’m sure that will just bring back the dogmatic, intellectually bullying qualities I didn’t really like in myself. Another part thinks I should read Camu, embraced the meaningless of it all. But really isn’t Nihilism just a cop out, at worst another religion? We need activists and most the people I admire are trying to instigate some form of political or economic change. There is a reason that Martin Luther King was a Socialist, that Gandhi advocated anarchy.

People do irrational things, they hurt, they expose themselves for sense of identity. Perhaps all I can do right now is step back and think. But in the meantime those shot sellers need the minimum wage, sick pay and trade union representation. While I’m just sat very comfortably not being sure.

 

*I’m sure this doesn’t stop some businesses doing it anyway

Monkeys of the Mind

For the last couple of days my head had been spinning. I’ve been insecure, irrational and in one particularly ridiculous moment Aretha Franklin made me burst into uncontrollable tears, in full view of everyone on the train.  I’ve tried to think about my problems, to rationally diagnose myself, but I think the simple truth is that I find love hard and I always will.

It has become a bit of a trope to say we are sold a lie of what to expect from romance by films and media. Adverts bombard us with images telling us how the women we date should look. Songs and music videos tell us how to spend our Friday nights. Friends on Facebook remind us how happy and successful they are. But everyone needs to navigate these things. We might be collectively suffering under the yoke of patriarchal ideology, anti-social media and unrealistic romantic expectations, but other people seem capable of coping.

I remember dating someone a long time ago who was kind, funny and intelligent, but didn’t fit the narrow criteria for how I thought women should look. I dumped her. In retrospect it is embarrassing- I was immature and cruel, but at the time it seemed obvious. I was spooked about what other people would say or think and cut myself off. The more I reflect on my actions the more hypocritical they are. I am not a conventionally good looking person. I exude geekiness and hope people see the attractive qualities buried underneath. But my own actions were the opposite and you can only claim to be a subconscious victim of the sexist media so much, when your whole worldview is based around rising above the ideology!

We shouldn’t dwell on our mistakes, providing we learn from them. Maybe the same is true of other people’s. Emotions and insecurities are independent beasts but we make choices that can either feed or curtail them. Sometime simply the choice to get enough sleep is enough to silence the screaming monkeys of the mind. Either way it is isn’t enough to think over and over about why you are hurt, or what decisions you or other people shouldn’t have made. Perhaps at times it is better not to think at all.

 

Since there’s no help let us kiss and part;

Nay I have done, you get no more of me;

And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,

That thus so cleanly I myself can free;*

 

*Farewell to Love, Michael Drayton

Reflections on my Recent Mini Break in Oxford…

Reflections on the Revolution in France my Recent Mini Break in Oxford…

Below are some of my immediate thoughts upon leaving Oxford. They are largely unreconstructed and some ideas may form the theme of future blog posts, but for now I just wanted to keep it raw and real.

1024px-Punt-rollers-river-cherwell-oxford

On Oxbridge

Going to Oxford for any self-proclaimed intellectual is a difficult and conflicting experience. Friends of mine who graduated from top universities, often in the face of mitigating circumstances, still harbor open resentment of Oxford and Cambridge for not accepting their applications. I was never in a position to apply to Oxford, but it is nonetheless difficult to escape Oxford’s shadow. Oxford is where our future leaders, Prime Ministers, academics and civil servants go to be educated. It is where Churchill grew up, Oscar Wilde learned his prose and Inspector Morse catches murderers. We ambitious, intellectually curious and slightly egotistical bunch who did not go to Oxford medicate ourselves with comforting notions like the existence of a class system and lack of meritocracy in society. Secretly however each has the suspicions that Oxford graduates, just maybe are better than us as we didn’t make the cut.

While irrational bitterness is a problem I openly struggle with, it didn’t take me long to realise that despite not going to Oxford I’m actually doing OK. I enjoyed University and made good friends there, including my lecturers, who I’m still in touch with. After a few years of grafting I have even managed to get a job that I’m proud of. Oxford hasn’t stopped me living a good life and I may yet lead a great one. But some things are still hard to shake. The debating society I helped organise at University was not the one that still today attracts experts from around the world. The anti-establishment political theory I enjoyed as a student was pioneered at Oxford and the lecturers I am still friends with, you guessed it were bloody well Oxford educated. Luckily I’m self-aware enough to know that I would never want to be a part of a club that would have me as a member.

On Loneliness

I was visiting Oxford for The Oxford Lindy Exchange an excellent, if slightly imperial, weekend of dancing in venues such as St Columba’s Church and the historic Oxford Union Debating Chamber. After years of striving to explore the Union Debating Chamber it was actually the blues after party in a community center for the blind that blew me away. Dan Nash is a brilliant musician. He had the room in his back pocket, a deep knowledge of the blues and the ability to articulate this knowledge such a way that you actually cared what the hell he had to say. It was in this moments of intimate connection, I began realise that loneliness isn’t the exception it is the rule.

It is as if we have all been born with splinters in our hearts. In time skin grows over the splinter and we learn to ignore it until we have a moment of intimate connection. The splinter is then yanked out and we feel a great release; but at the same time are vulnerable because our flesh is laid bare. In time the protective skin will regrow and so will the splinter. Connection is bitter sweet, love is a drug and we are fighting the symptoms but not the disease.

On Class

I recently noticed something that made me feel uncomfortable while watching the BBC drama Broken. Broken made me feel sad and angry about the way benefits are organised in this country. However, I also realised that I felt far more empathy for the fictional woman portrayed on my screen than the homeless people that I had avoided on my way home from work.

Unfortunately, not everyone was sipping on beer and dancing in exclusive venues this weekend. Many more were working shifts to make rent or begging on the street. I encountered and to my shame ignored a number of the latter, but paradoxically was tipping generously the workers taxiing me around Oxford and serving me food. Perhaps this comes from a kind of Left Wing snobbishness. The working class are after all the instrument of history* while the homeless are just lumpenproletariat… Or maybe I just feel more kinship with service sector workers from my time being employed at McDonalds. Either way there are some inconsistencies in my morality.

On Rousseau

The following quote from Rousseau’s essay on inequality, that I was reading this weekend, really has stuck out to me. Basically people have been sharing your anxieties for centuries and it is not your fault or even your parents fault. Rather, blame lies with those selfish monkeys’ who years ago traded society for the sweet harmony of the state of nature:

The great inequality in manner of living, the extreme idleness of some, and the excessive labour of others, the easiness of exciting and gratifying our sensual appetites, the too exquisite foods of the wealthy which overheat and fill them with indigestion, and, on the other hand, the unwholesome food of the poor, often, bad as it is, insufficient for their needs, which induces them, when opportunity offers, to eat voraciously and overcharge their stomachs; all these, together with sitting up late, and excesses of every kind, immoderate transports of every passion, fatigue, mental exhaustion, the innumerable pains and anxieties inseparable from every condition of life, by which the mind of man is incessantly tormented; these are too fatal proofs that the greater part of our ills are of our own making, and that we might have avoided them nearly all by adhering to that simple, uniform and solitary manner of life which nature prescribed.

Happy summer holidays everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

*Marx charmingly describes the homeless class as: The “dangerous class”, [lumpenproletariat] the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.

Connecting the Dots

Moments of human connection are exciting. You find yourself filled with happiness and enthusiasm. The first feeling is a rush not least because it is full of potential. However, what’s less of a rush is the vivisection of that connection your brain makes long after the moment is over. Was the connection real, did they feel it too? Was the connection romantic or friendship? The brain has a way of dissecting moments of happiness, reducing them to their subordinate parts and making it impossible to reassemble again.

All this sounds a little dramatic, but misinterpreting a connection is probably the most dangerous thing that happen in a friendship. You risk putting unreasonable expectations on people or letting them upset you over what wouldn’t normally be an issue. You might start developing feelings that you shouldn’t, or begin to indulge feeling you deep down know better to ignore.

I haven’t learn too much about human connection, but love isn’t a philosophical problem that can be resolved through thought experiments or meditation. There are two choices. You can act or you can put the genie back in its bottle and bury it deep. That is at least until the next connections turns up like a whirlwind to blow the dust away.

Thoughts on the Thames Valley Balboa Festival 2017

The swing dancing scene in Reading is really a wonderful thing. You can learn Balboa on Monday, Lindy Hop on Tuesday, dance the blues on Thursday and there is even a university swing dance society that opens their lessons to locals. We have regular social dances, Sunday Swing at the pub and alongside this there are also events that bring some of the best dance teachers in the world to our doorstep. One such event was the Thames Valley Balboa festival which I attended last week and am still feeling a warm glow from.

The Thames Valley Balboa Festival ran by All Jazzed Up brought Sylvia Sykes, the woman generally credited for reviving Balboa, alongside Marty Lau, Laura Keat and Nick Williams to teach a two day Bolboa workshop in Henley. Balboa is a dance located firmly underneath the Swing Umbrella. Unlike Lindy Hop, the better known incarnation of Swing, Balboa is close. The steps are small, fast and the dance is generally less showy and more about connecting with you partner.

True to the nature of Balboa, the Thames Valley Baboa Festival was dedicated to connection and musicality. We learnt lots of variations, ironed out some the tricky steps, like crab steps, and I generally feel much more confident and enthused about Balboa. It also didn’t hurt that Henley Town hall is a beautiful venue and that the Jim Wynn Orchestra’s set on Saturday was brilliant. I wholeheartedly recommend this event and hope you keep an eye on the website for next year.

balboa

 

Author’s notes

Just in the interests of full disclosure I am friends with the organisers of the Thames Valley Balboa Festival, although these thoughts are completely my own. I also recommend getting in touch with the organisers of this event if the ticket price is tricky to pay in one go. I understand that they are generally opened to paying in installments etc. 

The Green Eyed Monster

Jealousy is a toxic emotion. Shakespeare called  it “the green-eyed monster which doth mock. The meat it feeds on.” It takes positive emotions such as friendship, love and turns them feelings into ones of bitterness and resentment. Jealousy has at times strained my friendships, relationships and generally made me a not very fun person to be around. It seems remarkable that I am only now learning how to manage it.

Managing jealousy involves recognising that it is a problem that you need to deal with, not something other people need to make accommodations for. Jealousy comes with a sense of entitlement. Why has my friend managed to get this job I rightly deserve? Or what does she see in him, I am definitely the better option?  But in life no-one is entitled to anything, let alone success and people. While the world definitely is not a war of everyman against each other, we do live in a competitive capitalist society with winners and losers. In this context we are all just trying to manage our own problems and find a little happiness, but when push comes to shove no-one needs to risk assess your insecurity when trying to get nice things.

That’s all jealousy is really, a symptom of insecurity. When you are happy with yourself the ambition and romantic interests, they all become less intense because less is stake. Getting the promotion, going on that date becomes less important because it is not the difference between happiness and frustration. Generally when you learn to accept your own strengths and flaws less pressure is applied to things you do not have control over. And that is good thing because win or lose you are still doing OK. Everything else becomes a bonus.

I feel like it has taken me a long time to learn these basic lessons, but most of them have come through experience and reflection. Of course for our generation there are also lots of other things at play. Social media at times is less about connecting everyone and more a personal PR platform people use to justify their existence. It makes everything more intense. So if I can summarise my thoughts on jealousy it is just that you need to accept that 99% of life you don’t have control of and that you need to love yourself – it is after all the start of a livelong romance.

Any thoughts on jealousy? Think this blog has become boring and pretentious now I can’t talk about politics? Let me know in the comments… 

Reinventing the sickle

 

It is never too late in life to reinvent yourself, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult. Recently I made a mental pact to become less political not because I think I am wrong, but rather because living for the Left hasn’t made me happy. But reinventing yourself doesn’t mean you get to escape yourself and true to form I started day one of my new life as Nick Byard: defined by other things by telling new friends about the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, getting drunk and singing the Red Flag.

The trouble with trying to think differently is how much do you leave out? The old things you cared about are still important and part who you are, but at what point does having a healthy relationship with the person you were become repeating old thinking patterns and habits? These are questions touched upon by Arthur Koestler’s Arrival and Departure in which his protagonist, Peter Slavek, discovers his political idealism to be merely a symptom of a personal psychological trauma yet chooses to continue to fight the good fight anyway because without it his life has no meaning.

I feel bit like Peter Slavek right now. Unlike Peter I’m not a victim of childhood trauma and I definitely haven’t been tortured by Nazis (although the way things are going I wouldn’t rule it out just yet). But now God is dead I am struggling to find meaning and risk repeating old habits and similar thinking patterns. Perhaps this is a good thing. The world as it is needs more ideological egotists who put political causes above their own happiness. More than this, talking and thinking progressive politics is something that I’m good at. Thanks to my efforts I like to think that more people have a positive view of the Left and an idea about what the hell dialectics is. But the whole point of trying to reinvent yourself is giving enough space to experience and get good at other things.

So for the meantime I’m sacrificing certainty, but hopefully in its place will come opportunity.

On the future of this blog

You may be wondering right now where all the blog posts are. What was a thirty article strong blog is now only three or so articles. Don’t worried I haven’t had my data stolen or anything like that. I’m pretty sure date thieves don’t go after publicly available blog articles anyway. Basically the long and shorty of it is that I have a new job which I need to be politically neutral for so I thought it would probably be a good idea not to have my political opinions freely available on the internet. This is now going to be a non-political blog. Which is crazy because I’m not sure if can write about anything else.  So writing wise I’m out of my comfort zone. But that is compensated by the fact in many other ways I’m more comfortable and confident than ever.