No time for whinging liberals

Donald Trump is to be the next President. The spirit of Brexit has crossed the Atlantic and taken on an even more calamitous manifestation. Liberals are reeling. Problems seem to be everywhere: rising inequality, isolation and disillusionment, a class of voters left behind by progress becoming distrustful of the notion of progress itself.

For a century and more, liberalism and democracy have been uncomfortable bedfellows; minority rights and constitutionalism pushing against the dangers and benefits of majoritarian rule. Yet together they have achieved remarkable change: the welfare state, women’s suffrage, civil rights, a semblance of multiculturalism. This worked because, somehow, enough people wanted these things for democratic pressure to force the state down a liberal path. Now the alliance has come apart at the seams, ripping apart the lazy assumption that progressive policies were inevitable if we just convinced enough people and waited it out.

We’re not getting through; rather we are re-convincing those who already agree with us. Belatedly we are coming to understand the problem – liberals are friends with liberals, and we end up living in a well-off, educated bubble in which we cannot fathom that anyone could think differently. We see now that there are many left to convince. But this realisation is prompting some to jump to a dangerous argument, that we should abandon some of our ideals – open borders is often the first offered up for sacrifice – in order to appeal to the supposed values of the working class.

We cannot fight reactionary politics by the over-reacting ourselves. As Hillary reminded her in her emotional concession speech (which I still can’t bear to watch in full in case it completely breaks my heart), now more than ever we need to be shining our ideals into the darkness; to be saying that there is such thing as right and wrong; that whatever happens, we should never stop fighting the good fight. There is work to be done to protect and advance the progress we have achieved so far, there is no time for hand-wringing and doubt.

Cities across America are witnessing the first major protests against the outcome of an election in modern times. There are enough people unwilling to accept bigotry to ensure that, if we don’t give up, we can begin to rid the current political climate of its poisonous discourse. We may be down, and I am the first to embrace despair for humanity, but we are not out. Raise your voices now, and things might just be ok.

An honest reckoning with a hard month

Yesterday was World Mental Health Day. I wanted to write something about love and overcoming hard times, about ending the stigma and accepting differences. But I couldn’t. The past few days have been a period of recovery from what have been a very tough few weeks, and while I feel better now with each day, I am still physically and mentally drained. Yet I know that blogging has been my solace in much darker times than these and so I come back with hope of solace once more.

Just over three weeks ago, I started at the LSE. On Thursday, I left. I did something I have never done before: I gave up. I admitted defeat. Not because it was too hard, but simply because I was too miserable and life is too short for that. It is not worth going into details here about what happened. What is worth considering is what I learnt.

Most of all I learnt that the three-month break from academia I had over the summer needed to last somewhat longer. I am officially burnt out when it comes to essays and required reading. Right now, I’d be happy never to see either ever again, yet I also still love education and I sincerely hope that the allure comes back in time. I would quite like a Masters to my name, eventually. Unusually for me, I just couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for my studies, and I knew I’d never survive the rigours of the LSE without it. This just was not the right time.

Drive is important outside education too. Those of you who know me best know that life is not always easy, and yet I almost always cope. That’s because, fundamentally, I really wanted the things I was aiming for: getting into university, getting a good degree, interning. Without that longed-for goal I felt – to use the cliché – cast adrift, and most terrifyingly I could feel my confidence slipping away. I did not go anywhere alone the whole time I was at the LSE. I felt gut-wrenchingly sixteen again.

I never want to feel like that again and, thankfully, I am quickly returning to the self I found at Warwick. Nor do I ever want to feel, as I did at the LSE, like the girl in the wheelchair. It is so isolating, so scary and so hurtful to feel so different, to feel that you do not belong because of something you cannot change. Yet the experience made me thankful all over again for the people who alleviate that feeling and who, through their love and friendship, make me feel simply like Lucy.

To all of you who supported me this past month, I am so full of gratitude. Being wrenched from my normal support network made the whole thing so much harder, yet I was buoyed by how easily it translated across the miles between us and by how much understanding and kindness came my way. I may have been lonely but, thanks to you, I was never alone.

So I guess what I am trying to say is that there is almost always light in the darkness. Life is hard but you can choose to make it better, even if that choice is scary. I am somewhere I never wanted to be: back home and looking for work. And yet I am happy and I am surrounded by friends. I am myself again. The main lesson here then is that sometimes, the unexpected path is the best one to take. Who knew?

Review: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to read almost as much as I love to write, and yet by my estimates it’s been about six years since I wrote about a book. Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, however, is simply too awe-inspiring not to talk about. I thought it’s billing as a ‘new history of the world’ was an exaggeration – but this epic tome spans centuries and continents with remarkable ease.

Admittedly, I did find it too dense in detail, and so long that it was hard to understand its message without consciously zooming out in my mind’s eye, yet no book has ever taught me so much about the world as it was and as it is now. Concentrating on the region between the Mediterranean and the Himalayas – the “spine of Asia” as Frankopan calls it – the book takes us from the birth of civilisation in Mesopotamia, through the Roman era, the empires of the Muslim dynasties, the Mongols and the Ottomans, to the European empires and their breakdown into the Middle East as we know it, right up to the origins of 9/11 and the war on terror.

In doing so, it introduces us to a new way of seeing a region so often thought of as chaotic, even backwards. Instead we see how the Middle East’s current problems are a result of its long-lasting importance to trade, empire, religion and geopolitics, which led to its endless manipulation by whichever Great Powers were in the ascendance. In the latter stages of the book we see just how much the current world powers, Western Europe and the US, are responsible for the bloodshed and turmoil which they now fear so greatly. Perhaps we knew this already, but the sheer scale of the mess and cross-purposes, of the short-termism and misunderstanding, is hard to comprehend without having it all laid out in front of you, as Frankopan so elegantly does.

I confess that these later chapters were a much easier read than anything predating 1600-or-so. This is probably in large part due to the fact that I am much more familiar with modern history. But I also felt that my understanding of the early history was impeded by a lack of maps (at least in my Kindle edition) which meant that at times I only had a vague inkling as to what was happening, being, as I assume most people are, unfamiliar with the borders, cities and geographies of the ancient and medieval Middle East. Indeed, this remains my main criticism of the book.

Nevertheless, it was refreshing and illuminating to read a true history of the world from a non-Western perspective. Frankopan breaks free of the canon of academia (and its awful written style) to tell another story. In a time when the Middle East continues to dominate headlines while being fundamentally misunderstood, this unlikely best-seller exposes the history of the region in all its complexity. It would be a very good thing if it found its way onto the bookshelves of diplomats and politicians the world over.

For me, too, the book has come at an opportune time; I am about to start a Masters in the Theory and History of International Relations, with a focus on the Middle East. This has always been my main area of interest, and yet until now I have never explored the region within academia. The Silk Roads, I am sure, has given me the best possible grounding for this next challenge.

With love

Despite all the important things I have wanted to write about over these past few weeks, I haven’t been able to face blogging about the thing I most needed to write about: leaving Warwick. I have opened and closed this post many times, and never have I found the words. But today, my wonderful friend Tessa wrote a fantastic blog post which almost made me cry, but has also hopefully helped me to find those words. Deep breath, here goes.

I don’t want to exaggerate, but I went to Warwick a little bit broken. I’d always been lonely and scared of the future, and I thought that that would be how I would always feel. I was hopeful of improvement, but also scared of that hope – so many times it had proved to be misguided.

How wrong I was. Within a few weeks at the start of a heady freshers’ term, I had found a new family in my beloved flat 19. People were friendly and chatty in a way I had never experienced before – and no one seemed at all bothered by my disability. By the second term, I had met the friends on my course who, with wonderful hindsight, I now know will be friends for life. This week, we celebrated graduation together. I have rarely been so proud.

The last three years have truly been the best of my life. Between them the extended flat 19 crew, Warwick Labour and the PAIS Class of 2016 provided more love and laughter than I could have imagined possible. Whether nights at our terrible-yet-loved SU nights and pub, a quick coffee, pub crawls in Leamington, Kasbah in Coventry – even a trip to Ibiza – or just hanging out, they’ve made every new experience brilliant and every memory worth treasuring. In always including me, they’ve made me happy and confident – and changed my view of people, society and myself.

My course was great too; even when the readings were tough lectures were always interesting, and while I still can’t handle the intricacies of political theory I do know quite a bit about international relations and security. I think at LSE next year I may miss the non-pressurised nature of work at Warwick and the sharing the suffering of essays with friends. So many of the lecturers I have had were simply brilliant; extremely academic and yet extremely kind when I didn’t understand – which was often. Leaving such a wonderful place of learning is made better by exceeding my own expectations and getting a First.

There are too many people to thank, but a few must be mentioned by virtue of being extra special. To my friends, especially Becky, Becky and Denning, I cannot tell you how wonderful you are – thank you for everything. I cannot wait for more good times to come and to share the future with you. And of course to my girls, Fran, Fran, Hayley, Gisela and Em, I love you all so much. You have given me everything and I will never let you forget it.

With that, Warwick, and with love always, goodbye.

 

The beginning of the end, and the new

Exams are over. I have finished my degree. I am still in complete denial because I can’t believe I will never again get a book out the library or get lost in the social science building. It’s taken me a week of sleep and relaxation to process that in itself, and now somehow I have just three weeks to reconcile myself to the fact that I am leaving Warwick. I am trying not to think about it too much, because doing so is just too hard.

Eyes firmly on the horizon then. I realise that I haven’t written here about what I’m doing next. Provided all goes well and I bag myself a 2:1, I will be taking up an offer to do and MSc in the Theory and History of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Lots of people are telling me how exciting this is and how great it will be, but for now I am too caught up in the worry of finding new carers and having to make new friends and missing the Warwick gang like crazy to get too excited. Once the practicalities are sorted and I’ve got over the exam-induced academic fatigue, though, I will be able to look forward to it, and once I’m thrown in to the course I’m all but guaranteed to enjoy it. Or at least I hope so, anyway.

The good thing is that the course combines international relations, my favourite part of my undergraduate degree, with history, an interest I put on hold after school. The bad news is that LSE recently cancelled the module I was most looking forward to, on the Middle East, which means that despite years of waiting I will never get to properly study the region I am most fascinated by. Hopefully this summer I will be able to read about it in addition to actually preparing for the modules I will be taking. I am also counting on my best friend’s history essays to get me back up to speed with the discipline (thanks Soph!).

Before all that, though, I have a reading list of random interesting books to get through, including a selection of feminist work. I’m currently reading Germaine Greer’s latest, The Whole Woman, which I am agreeing and disagreeing with in equal measure. Perhaps when I have finished, it will provide a good topic for a post here.

I’m looking forward to writing more in the next few weeks in preparation for a week back at the Guardian in July. Most importantly. though, I am soon off to Ibiza to help the wonderful Fran celebrate her hen do. I’m very excited and am sure I will come back with stories to tell – although maybe not here!

So yes, I’m nervous about the future, but when you think about it, this is only the beginning.

A late night post

It’s late at night and I’m in a pensive mood, so of course I’ve ended up here after a long time away. And as it’s Easter Sunday, I don’t have to feel any should-be-working guilt. In fact, I don’t have anything in particular to say. Perhaps that’s a dangerous way to start a blog post, we’ll see.

So many deeply sad things have happened around the world since I last wrote here and no political debates or rousing sentiments, no matter their real importance, can heal the wounds. They will and must sting forever. And while I am so lucky and personally happy, surrounded as I am with love and laughter and opportunities at every turn, I have lost my once-cherished belief in the inexorable march of progress. While I still remain hopeful of better times, I see that one step forward will inevitably be matched by several backwards, and that there are no simple solutions (writing a dissertation on the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan has definitely seen to that). In fact, I sometimes wonder if there are any solutions at all. But I haven’t stopped trying to find them, if only as an intellectual challenge. And really, I don’t think the world has stopped trying either. Maybe hope and despair are just two sides of the same coin.

On a more personal note. As I reach the end of my undergraduate studies at my beloved Warwick (yelp!), I have been thinking a lot about who I am and that’s always tied up with the questions I have about disability: how does it affect who I am? How will it influence my life from here on in? What needs to be done to make disabled people’s lives better and how do we do it? Is it my responsibility to do something or should I just live life as if it didn’t matter to me? I still don’t have the answers.

Studying politics has taught me one thing above all else: everything is socially constructed. And so I am forced to ask new questions. What does it mean to be disabled? How can I be proud of my social identity while still challenging it? How do we break down barriers of difference and fear? How, how, how. And university has taught me that nothing operates in a vacuum, so we need to look at disability and everything it intersects with: race, class, and most importantly for me, sexuality and gender. I’ve had an article on the latter bubbling around in my head for months now, but I can’t quite tease it out and haven’t had much luck pitching it either. I am determined to get it done somehow though and it is on my post-exam to do list. Once in a while something comes along which feels necessary, as if it has to – is demanding – to be written, and as a writer I think I’d be pretty stupid to let it pass. And this, my god, needs to be said.

I definitely don’t have the answers to this bigger questions. But I have come to one conclusion: talking about these things is doing something about them. Speaking about disability in seminars this term has been so incredibly rewarding, as I have been greeted with support, understanding and, most importantly, an eagerness to understand and know more, even from academics. Recounting these conversations to my mum, she labelled me a ‘one woman campaigner’. But I’m not really, nor will I ever be. Instead, I will keep doing what I’m doing and see if I ever find some answers. And in the meantime, I will keep being honest about what it means to be me. In the end, that’s as much as any of us can or have to do. Look, there’s that quiet hope again.

Why be a journalist?

As ever, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything apart from course notes. Again, I’ve slipped back into university – lectures, reading, friends, not enough sleep – and out of writing. I don’t know why it’s so much harder here; I don’t know why all the ideas I had in the summer have disappeared like a well running dry. If this is what I do, who I am (and I firmly believe that it is), shouldn’t it come a little easier?

In a New York Times’ op-ed this week, Hector Tobar, a journalism professor, writes of his students’ resilience in the face of the looming question: “who’d be a journalist?” With everyone seemingly keen to question the wisdom of entering a industry that is ‘dying’, from friends to family to the voice in my head, it would be easy to say “not me” and turn the other way. It would be easy to take that job in the civil service, policy analysis or think tanks. It would be easy to do something that would pay the bills. But it would be impossible not to look back and regret.

Because whenever anyone asks, I point to the reporters showing us the world’s forgotten people; I link to the columnists questioning an unjust world; the people telling their hard and uplifting stories, all in the form of newsprint. I open up the New Yorker and find an exquisite sentence, a unique viewpoint in the Guardian. Everywhere in journalism I see people being brave, speaking truth to power, asking the questions no one is answering. How could I not want to do that?

People misunderstand journalism as simply relaying events and opining on them like a public school debater. Some merely think of the gutter press and write it off as immoral. But that’s the bad journalism, the stuff just written for page views and sales, and that’s fine, because it props up the profound stuff. I genuinely, wholeheartedly believe that words are power, power that can do so much good. That’s why people write, that’s why people stare down the barrel of long hours and low pay and ‘we’re not hiring’ emails. Because of a passion for story telling and a determination to be heard. I may never go on a protest or find an answer to any of the world’s problems, but I will always – always – stand up and be counted.

But despite such fierce belief, and no matter how much talent or effort you summon, writing is hard. Writing is painful. It is so full of self-doubt that sometimes it’s easier to just get on with all the things that don’t require you to look inside yourself quite so much.  Strings of letters cannot be but an imperfect rendering of the idea they flow from. And it happens so very slowly, each decision considered and reconsidered. It cannot be done in a hurry, and yet time must be made. Writers are known to be neurotic and it is easy to see why. Writing is as much about guilt and fear as freedom and hope. But get it right, and what a sense of satisfaction. What a relief.

When people come to understand the effort, conviction and bloody-mindedness required to be a journalist or a writer, they are wont to say that they “don’t know why you do it”. I try to explain the passion and the inability to imagine yourself doing anything else. Still, they say, why not choose something else, why take the risk of endless disappointment? “Yes,” I say, “it’s hard; you have to really want it. And I really want it.”

Summer’s end

I’m going back up to Warwick next Saturday for my final year, which has come around way too quickly. As I desperately try, and fail, to cross things off my to-do list, I am struck by how long it has been since I posted here. I admit I don’t really have an excuse for my lack of blogging; I have been busy, busier than in all past summers combined, but really I would have had plenty of time to blog if I had made the effort. I didn’t. This post is likely to become a long and rambling attempt to make this up (mainly to myself) but I hope it is interesting for you too.

On the bright side, it is not as if I have been lazy. I’ve visited the Edinburgh Fringe and Crete (both hugely enjoyable) and been to Birmingham a few times. I’ve recruited new carers, caught up with family and countless friends, researched masters programmes and done nowhere near enough preparation for my dissertation. At least I now know that I will probably look at the problems of democracy promotion in post-conflict settings, most likely Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Rwanda, but this will probably change and become more refined as I read around the subject. Right now I will just be happy if I manage to write 10,000 words on anything.

The masters research has paid off a little. Although questions still remain over accessibility, I am pretty sure that I will be applying to the LSE, UCL and King’s College London to study international relations. While I do not want to and can’t move back in with my parents, it is time to come home to the city, especially with my career beginning to take off (read on for more!). I miss its unique sense of being simultaneously at the middle and on the edge; a great tumult of humanity, which for me holds so much possibility. For now, my heart lies in the small patch of land outside Coventry that is Warwick’s campus, but London is where I need to be. And so I find myself trying to write personal statements good enough to give me the remote possibility of getting into such prestigious universities and it’s not proving to be easy. Wish me luck.

Best of all this summer, I have been writing. I didn’t quite fulfil my goal of pitching to loads of publications, partly because of business, partly because of fear of the unknown and partly because I have yet to crack the skill of having multiple unique ideas at any given time. But I have officially earned the title ‘freelance journalist’ having continued to write for the Guardian since my internship there. For the first time in my five years of writing, I am even making money from my words. Perhaps you can understand why I have been concentrating on freelance work over blogging. Anyway, I couldn’t be happier. I was quoted in the Week too so I seem to be doing alright.

And what of the summer’s politics? It was dominated by two stories; Jeremy Corbyn’s improbable victory in the Labour leadership election and the heart-breaking refugee crisis. When it comes to the former, I am simply disappointed. I think the media furore around Corbyn’s supposed radicalism missed some deeply concerning social conservatism buried in his economic leftism and, unable to command loyalty within his own front bench of supporters, let alone the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party, it seems unlikely that Corbyn will be an effective opposition to a Tory government in desperate need of restraining. The rhetoric of a ‘new politics’ is all very well, but Corbyn’s version is both a return to the 1970s and a free pass for Osborne. Hardly progressive, and an even deeper shame in light of the progressive, positive centre-left vision set out by Yvette Cooper, the only candidate to inspire a modicum of excitement in me.

But if Labour have driven me to shake my head in bewilderment, Europe’s response to the refugee crisis has left me both angry and deeply sad. There is too much to say here, bemoaning the lack of solidarity between the EU’s member states, politicians’ inability to act with moral conviction, and the complete failure to tackle the desperate situation in Syria. But the biggest issue is politicians’ and the public’s refusal to recognise the reality of the situation: that refugees fleeing the bloodiest war since WWII should be exempt from the politics of migration and instead should be treated with the basic human compassion Europe was built to express. If a mother is frightened enough to put her children aboard an unseaworthy raft, who are we to question her motives? In all things, if you wouldn’t swap places with someone, don’t judge them. It really is that simple.

As I head off for the start of a daunting and exciting new year, answers for these desperate people do not appear any closer than they did at the beginning of the summer. I can only hope that future generations of politics students are not taught that refugee crisis of the summer of 2015 did not presage the crumbling of the European principles of solidarity and free movement, or of the EU itself. They should be defended with everything we have. I hope to be able to make that argument as I write more and more over the coming year.

I will not be afraid

It’s midnight. Just by the time of publication on this post you should expect some introspection, and that’s what you’re going to get. Because today, I’ve been thinking about fear, and how it and its absence have shaped my life.

This afternoon, on the recommendation of one of my best friend’s dad, I met the MD of an investment firm in the City to talk to him about my experiences at work. I know that sounds a bit, well, random, but he wanted to have an insight into the challenges faced by disabled workers in the hope of diversifying his work force – a laudable aim in a sector famed for being dominated by white men. The conversation was wide-ranging, but it centred on two main themes: why there are a lack of disabled applicants, and what I believed disabled people could bring to a company, financial or otherwise (I gave it the hard sell). And these two themes both yielded to discussions about fear; firstly, how a fear of access problems or perception issues or simple outright rejection may put disabled people off applying for high-flying jobs.

But secondly, how the necessary resilience needed for a disabled person to have got to a position where they can apply for jobs makes them pretty damn good candidates. If someone with a disability has graduated, left home, or engaged with society in any variety of ways, they have stared down the barrel of the gun of fear and, if not smiled, certainly haven’t blinked. If they’ve had careers, I’d like to bet they have more practical business skills, and people skills to boot, than any MBA grad who’s never faced adversity. Yes, we have our weak moments (I certainly do), but when necessary we are tough as nails. And our determination to overcome some pretty harsh odds make us hard-working and ready to seize any opportunity. Really, we should be getting all the jobs.

As I talked of fear, I realised that I don’t have anywhere near as much of it as I used to. Here I was talking to someone I didn’t know, just as I spoke in several meetings during my time at the Guardian, and I wasn’t scared, when talking to strangers or groups used to be my worst nightmare (for this I must thank the lovely folk of Warwick, particularly Fran, Fran and Hayley). Even more dramatically, whilst discussing the disability employment gap, I realised that I no longer believe, as I once truly did, that I am going to be permanently unemployed. I’m going to get a job. Of course, I am going to get a job. Not because or despite of my disability, but because I am capable, determined and hard-working (although sadly not the literary genius I wish I was).

How I wish I could get that message back to my teenage self. I wonder how many sleepless nights I could have been saved had I not worried about this so much, and how much happier I could have been. I think I would have taken a few more opportunities, and I kick myself now for letting them pass by. But no matter, I believe that confidence is much sweeter when you had to build it. It is my badge of honour for coming further than I ever thought I would and I wear it with pride. The natural worrier that I am has found new things to fret over (no prizes to those who know me well for guessing what they are). That’s just life. But today, I looked in the mirror and thought to myself ‘I am not scared’. And that’s something; long may it continue.

Interesting times

What a week it has been. Between the Greek crisis, the anniversary of 7/7, and the budget, just the first three days were hectic. And then from there we had budget fallout, the unfolding situation in Tunisia, a Chinese banking crisis and, of course. more Greece. As a new week starts, it remains entirely possible that the embattled country will crash, or be forced, out of the Eurozone and maybe the EU.

What made the week even more remarkable was that I spent it in the Guardian’s newsroom, having won work experience at their Student Media Awards. So far it’s been fantastic; I’ve gained experience researching, contacting press offices and using the newswires. I also get to sit in on the meeting where they decide which story goes on which page of the next day’s paper; a journalistic skill in itself. Excitingly, I’ve also been allowed to write – covering Nicky Morgan’s response to a sexist photographer, Ian Duncan Smith’s fist-pump, and giving a student’s reaction to the budget. All being well, another piece I wrote will run in the society pages of the actual paper in August. Of course, I enjoyed this writing immensely.

But by far the highlight of each day is the 10am conference, where senior staff and editors gather for a discussion of the day’s events. Katherine Viner, editor-in-chief, always starts the meeting with a list of the previous day’s successful and enjoyable pieces – on Friday my student piece made the grade! Then it’s on to a fascinating discussion of the top stories. With staff giving explanations, sharing opinions and making predictions, I can almost feel my brain soaking up knowledge. I am very proud to say that I contributed to a discussion about why politicians feel able to ignore young people. Despite the fact that my heart was pounding away, it wasn’t a small achievement for someone who does not enjoy public speaking. If only I could have kept it up when Katherine Viner briefly spoke to me afterwards, but inevitably the cat got my tongue.

On Tuesday, Yvette Cooper came to conference to give a small speech and answer questions. Although this was very exciting, as an unconvinced floating voter, I wasn’t expecting to be too impressed. But impressed I was, both with her principled moderation which does not pander to her party and her strong feminism (I’d probably support a feminist in any stripes). I’d like to see her take David Cameron down a peg or two. Andy Burnham, one of her competitors in the Labour leadership election, is coming in next week; it’ll be good to see how he compares. I never thought I’d be in a room with top politicians at the age of 20, but there I was.

I have had a great week, topped off with the news that I got a first in my second year of university. I am looking forward to another week on news and then another on the comment desk. With negotiations between Greece and its European creditors on-going, it could be an interesting time to be in journalism.