Miscellaneous

Why the Beekeeper of Aleppo may be the most important book you read in 2019

2010: President Bashar Al Assad succeeds his father as ruler. 2011: Peaceful protests and opposition groups are met with violent crackdowns by Syrian security forces. 2012: As the Syrian government commit war crimes, refugees overwhelm temporary camps at the Lebanon and Jordan border. 2013: Syrian refugees increase from 1 million to 2 million as President Assad is accused of chemical attacks. 2014: A humanitarian crisis emerges as 3 million Syrian refugees seek sanctuary in neighbouring countries and 100,000 have reached Europe. 2015: Europe retracts from humanitarian duties as demand thickens, with Hungary closing its border and the World Food Programme cuts rations to refugees with a funding shortfall; one million refugees reach Greece. 2016: Years of war takes its toll on Syria, the US and Russia negotiate a ceasefire to send aid to hard to reach populations; ten of thousands of refugees are trapped in a No Man’s Land as Jordan closes its border; civilians are caught in the crossfire as Syria retakes Aleppo from rebels. 2017: Over 5 million have fled Syria and at the G20 conference a ceasefire for south-west Syria is brokered. 2018: Nevertheless, fighting continues and more than 2.9 million cannot regularly be sent aid due to their difficult position. 2019: Syrians undergo new hardships as a bad winter batters camps at Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey; and increased conflict in northwest Syria destroys healthcare facilities and displaces a further 100,000 people.

We’re all familiar with the story. But what we are most familiar with is the fear, the anger and the public stirrings of discontent. The word ‘migrant’ has been a powerful political spark in recent Populist movements. Therefore, Christy Lefteri’s 2019 ‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo’ comes at a time when we should be reminded of the need for humanity; compassion.

Lefteri uses her experiences as a volunteer at a UNICEF-supported refugee camp at Athens to craft this heart-wrenching story of Nuri and Afra: a normal, easy-living couple who have their family torn apart. We see them battle to keep hope, and to love again as adversity is thrown at them from all angles. Nuri’s protagonist perspective celebrates all the reasons why we should care about Syrian refugees. It dispels all the negatives tossed at us over the past five years. This book strips back the headlines and shows everyone the truthful hardships migrants are almost silently battling against. We suffer with Nuri, and we are allowed to care about him.

I listened to this book on audible, taking in the beautiful voice of Art Malik, as I was sorting through and organising Roman animal bones. Looking back through time, it really reinforced how connected we once were to the East. And now how far away it is considered today.

So if you are looking to have a story stick with you, to learn some compassion, and to see the world through another lens: I’d advise you to pick up ‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo’.

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Antics

The Taming of the Shrew: Kate the man?

Imagine a world flipped like a mirror. Women are men. The patriarchy as a matriarchy. That is exactly what Justin Audibert’s RSC Taming of the Shrew, currently on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, offers. What today is an uncomfortable play about gender roles and materialism, has been twisted into a truly modern reflection. Where Shakespeare addresses political concerns by setting them safely in Italy, Denmark, or even Scotland, Audibert challenges today’s gender preconceptions by setting The Taming of the Shrew in the Elizabethan period. No only has he created a production with numerous dynamic female roles, but revitalised a play that teaches women to obey their ‘superior’ husbands; by teaching husbands to obey their wives as counter-argument. This comes with As You Like It‘s openness with sexuality, and contributes to modern representation. It was also pleasing to see both deaf and disabled actors have visible roles.

Image result for taming of the shrew
Strong, visible women with an unsettling absence of men

With Claire Price as a beautifully messy haired and quirky ‘Petruchia’, and a near silent but present Joseph Arkley as Katherine, the play provoked a real sense of internal questioning for me. What begins as a love story between ‘Bianco’ (James Cooney) and ‘Lucentia’ (Emily Johnstone), twists to protangonists (or perhaps antagonists), Petruchia and Katherine. Their battle of wits becomes an ideal to aspire towards in the play. This uncomfortable notion has a strong flavour of unspoken dramatic irony as the play has an almost silent male voice: Whilst Grumio is expertly played by Richard Clews, he is still an underlying character subdued by the flambouyant Petruchia.

The male suitors all had long, silky hair – with many camp hair flicks appreciated by the audience – whilst the females had their curls pinned into crowns. A strong sense of identity came with clothing: men having typically floral attire, women using their colours to reiterate their identity and presence: Petruchia’s menacing green; Lucentia’s bold reds; Bapista’s powerful black. But the vivid presences added to the comedic nature of the play, Sophie Stanton’s ‘Gremia’ expertly gliding across the stage, dalek-like.

What better way to reflect on a play than over a Stratford-Upon-Avon waffle?

Once again, I find myself recommending this RSC production to you, which runs at Stratford-upon-Avon until August 31st 2019, until it tours in various places. It was a thoroughly illuminating experience and something I was and still am contemplating over: but where better to consider Shakespeare’s works than surrounded by his birthplace? Stratford never fails to be a vibrant day out!

Antics

Making My Own Museum Display

So I landed a six-week Roman Society placement at the Corinium Museum. Three weeks in, and I have learnt an awful lot about the runnings of a small but successful museum, battling the modern day struggles ‘loss-making’ public buildings face. In my time so far, I have helped with Roman and prehistory workshops (from Roman board games and mosaic making, to stone age painting); handled collections data; made all important space in the resource centre; but perhaps most excitingly, made my own display.

The Corinium is currently undergoing massive HLF funded construction work for a new gallery: ‘Stone Age to Corinium’. In order to preset this, I created a preceding temporary display about the ‘Pre-Roman Corinium’. It was once thought that Cirencester existed before the Romans invaded Britain, but little did they know…

Bagendon is today a village 3 miles north of modern day Cirencester, however in the Late Iron Age it was an oppidum inhabited by a tribe called the Dobunni. Essentially, when the Romans settled at their Leaholme Fort set in new, straight roads (the basis of Cirencester), the Dobunni and the Romans hit it off. This was unusual, but there is no archaeological evidence of conflict. Therefore, the precise nature of their relationship is speculation: mainly around whether the tribe conducted trade with the Romans. Regardless, it is clear that Corinium was a via media between both the tribe’s and the Roman’s idea of a good town. Buildings such as houses, the amphitheatre, bathhouses and the Forum, arose around the Fort, so that when the Romans left, a town remained in its place.

Me setting up the objects in the display case ft. my weirdly oval head (10 points if you can spot the heist style plungers!)

After a good deal of research, I selected objects that reflected this story. I chose coin moulds that prove Bagendon was an administrative tribal capital. Gold, silver and bronze Dobunnic coins were found at the site, so I selected a silver coin with a three-tailed horse on one side, a symbol of Belgic tradition (following the Germanic invasion of Britain) . Additionally, pottery sherds were significant finds at both Bagendon and the Leaholme Fort. Samian ware was particularly interesting, as this is a distinctly Roman: The red, glazed decorative pieces would be used to show off at dinner parties. However, samian ware was also found at Bagendon; an insight into the kind of relationship the tribe and Romans shared. Moreover, small finds, such as nails, a tiny iron knife, and an intricate bronze pendant, physically show key objects the Dobunni would have handled day-to-day.

The final thing!

With a terrain map and a carefully selected text I put together, my display is now complete and (hopefully), being looked at by the public. The idea that my insight to the Pre-Roman Corinium is being taken in by interested people is highly exciting, and has reaffirmed why I chose to study history at university.

creative writing

Behind the Costume

You never realise what you have until it’s gone. The synthetic-blue pool reverberates around and around my head as I inhale the thick chlorinated air. It drugs my lungs and I feel drunk in a fairy-tale land. Everything is just out of reach. Chaos from the night before buzzes like a migraine; the world an impossible echo of something that used to be true. The tears I slept in are an iron mask stopping me screaming for help: Too late now.

Oblivious in the stands, my parents, grandparents, siblings all wave their flags and cheer ecstatically. Vaguely I wave back but it is like greeting the moon: they feel a million miles away. Just how much I need them in this moment hits me as I hear how hard they shout my name.

“Emi-ly! Emi-ly! Emi-ly!”

I swallow and concentrate on breathing. Inhaling for six counts, I move to the edge of the pool. I hold my breath for eight: The mass of clothed onlookers stare at my waxed body, squashed into the tightest suit. Him too. Exhaling for seven, I throw my towel onto the ground. An electric thrill of fear is conducted through my skin under the audience’s gaze. I have to repress my revulsion. I take a last swig from the water bottle and my insides are drowned with coldness. My shaky fingers snap the goggles over my plastic bald head. Clambering onto the starting block, my legs become numb jelly. A race like this would have empowered me before. But he’s broken that.

I curl the toes of my right foot tightly around the edge and crouch in the starting position, as if about to make a prayer. As if he hadn’t crushed all my faith in just a few minutes. Although I can’t see him, I sense his eyes prickling into my back. My icy insides boil over with hatred. I trusted him; my whole family did. He took us all in with his façade of giving a shit about me. My fingernails dig into my clenched fists. It all felt surreal, like some terrible story you would hear from someone else, anywhere away from your own routine regularity. And yet, here I am. I peer across the three lanes next to my own. The other girls shift on their starting blocks, smoothing down their bald heads and fixing fierce goggles over their eyes. We look like flies, so replaceable. Unable to take much else in, I gaze down at the gently rippling surface below. Neat square lines of the tiles wriggle about as if trying to escape their two-dimensional prison. I clamp my hands onto the edge. I can’t let him see his effect on me.

“I will not let him win,” I whisper.

The whistle splits my head like a bullet.

“I will let myself win,” I promise the water.

Instinct launches me into the air, stretching my body out into the optimum streamlined position, just as he ingrained into me. My hands pierce the water first, entering another world. Soaring through the water in a gentle upward gradient to the surface, my legs make frantic butterfly kicks. Tucked under my arrow-shaped arms, my head spins in this blue tinged refuge. I am poised in motion, veils of water resistance gliding across my smooth skin. But it’s tainted now. The back of my throat is on fire from vomiting last night up. If only I could expel everything he did from my body. Still I am under his control, doing just as he wills; a performing seal out on parade, jumping through his hoops for some sick amusement. I push forward into the rippling light above and leave the eerie shelter of the under-water. My hydrophobic cap snaps open the surface. Instantly, the hubbub of disembodied shouting and cheering clicks back into earshot.

The surface plunges at my ears as I pull myself along using alternate strokes. I drag my face through the water, no matter how much I need to breathe. My hands scoop through the pool with my fingers expertly slightly separated. I kick my legs as a hard as I can. But I did not kicked hard enough when it mattered. How do you fight off the man who taught you how to be strong? Desperate to breathe, I start to gulp water; head aching, muscles alight. My limbs cut silkily through the water. I think that was what provoked him. He insisted on lingering in my hotel room when they waxed me.

“Leave my star swimmer alone with you hairdresser airheads? Anything could happen!” he shouted in his poolside voice, probably an attempt at humour. Everyone in the room grimaced awkwardly. He embarrassed me. But I believed he genuinely cared. Until they had finished, packed away their things and clicked the door shut on just the two of us. Uncomfortably, I reflect, it was a game of power and control. Clearly, being applauded for training top tier swimmers does not make you a good person. Before yesterday, I thought that only villains did awful things. I would dream up far away criminals plotting malevolent schemes, but it transpires that it’s those closest you have to fear.

Three arm-strokes in, I can finally breathe. I turn my head slightly to the side. My mouth levels with the dip my speed makes against the waterline. I wrench at the air, gulping in as much as I can before submerging my face again. It reignites my lungs. Another three strokes and I turn my head the other way, then the other, and this way and that way and soon I am spinning in my own vortex. The nausea kicks in again. I taste the faintest hint of metallic saltiness trickling onto my tongue. I close my eyes. The taste triggers the memory of his assault on my mouth. I reopen them almost immediately, not affording the smallest mistake.

Aware of the bubble streams from the other competitors encroaching into my peripheral vision, I decide I must win this race. Every fibre of my being is a swimmer, my family pumping all their support into my career. My birthday presents were club memberships, new suits, fins to replace the ones my feet had out-grown. There was no joy on earth greater than the look of pride on my parents’ faces when I brought home more medals; my little sister pointing excitedly at how shiny they look aligned on the wall. But last night, I saw the truth behind the person who had spurred all this on. I can’t bear to imagine going home with a part of him tinting the people I love’s view of who I am: I don’t want a shiny wall flashing with his true colours. I will do anything to scratch off my coach’s glossy reputation, even if it means cutting short my own swimming career.

“I will let myself win,” I promise the water.

I imagine my applause, picture a smooth ascent out of the water and tossing my towel hard at my coach as I walk past him. His mouth hanging open in surprise, hand outreached as if to touch me: to shake mine, to clap me on the back, to hug me? Nausea courses through me at the thought. The strings of his control over my every breath, his eyes scouring my form for any minute slip up, scrutinising my very being. I decide it is over. The assumption that he would ever assume his skin could touch mine again repulses me.

Pushing, kicking, fighting with every atom of my being, my mash of fingers slam against the edge of the pool, my head crashing after them. Touch down. It all goes black for a moment. My life as a swimmer melts away; schedules, diets, restrictions dissipate. I am reborn.

If you have been affected by any of these issues, please contact SupportLine. This story is based on fiction and only intends to raise awareness in a sensitive way.

creative writing

Book Review: Can You Keep a Secret?

Sophie Kinsella’s 2003 ‘stand-alone’ novel ‘Can You Keep a Secret?‘ recently caught my eye. Between the hectic storm of day to day life, in the moments where I can put my feet up, I have been absorbed in Emma’s relatable life of humorous disaster.

Emma, the protagonist, is character you can sympathise with. Even 16 years later. Between her whirlwind life of awkward moments, difficult career path and her heart-wrenchingly dysfunctional family life, Emma is a timeless character the modern young woman will recognise. She is full of good intentions that circumstance always seems to twist and turn into little white lies. So when Emma unintentionally spills out all her secrets to her top boss, her world is thrown upside down.

Jack, the romantic masculine character with a vast fortunate, perhaps too soon seems to be the answer to all of Emma’s problems. Inevitably, today’s feminist critique of literature would be very sceptical of this. However a large part of Emma is a strong and confident woman. She feels confident enough to speak up for the inequalities between them, and even her two other flatmates encourage her to recognise her rights. Instead, Jack has walked out of a Jane Austen novel and chosen to pop into 2003. He is thoughtful, well-intentioned and meaningful; His millions are almost invisible.

When life gives you lemons – lie?

Whilst somewhat predictable, with points where I screamed for Emma to speak up for herself, Kinsella’s book was funny, satisfying and a downright pleasure to read. Even though the book has aged well, imagining 2003 flip phones, crazy hair dos and 00’s clothes (pink crochet!?) was a comforting blast from the past (particularly as we approach 2020!).

Verdict? A definite recommendation for my friends. Kinsella certainly came through on the humour/’chick-flit’/contemporary romance front. Crucially, she has created something both timeless and nostalgic, before the age of Tinder and a Google search engine to pour your woes into. It raises a moral questioning of why we lie; provoking the idea that we should be brave and transform our lives for the better, like Emma, and step forth into an honest world. A strong 7/10.

Miscellaneous

Keeping Healthy When You’re Busy

We all know how it is: Waking up at the crack of dawn, the commute at rush hour, long working days, busy afternoons, evening spent recuperating and repeat. An all too familar story. By the number of days since my last post, you may be able to guess that this has happened to me too. Indeed, I have been cramming in placements, work experiences and paid work into my summer; turning my holiday much more hectic than term time. But I have stuck to ‘keeping healthy’, whatever that may mean.

With the rise of Instagram idealism of perfect bodies, holidays, workout routines and diets, there is a pressure to keep healthy more than ever. Taking pictures of our food has become all too present in Millennial culture. We have to be at our best ready for any click of a camera. However this is not reality. And that isn’t a bad thing either. As Oscar Wilde said, “only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”. Keeping healthy isn’t always instagramable, neither does it necessarily fit into the idealisation of oat breakfast bowls or beautiful lycra clad people. The real kind of keeping healthy can be messy. And that’s okay.

The secret of keeping healthy when you’re busy, tired and exhausted is to keep to a routine as best as you can, and to grab any opportunity to do something for yourself when you cannot. It is okay to miss a gym session because you’re too tired; or to demolish that chocolate sitting in the cupboard. Listening to yourself is the most important thing you can do when you’re stretched at all angles. For example, when I had to work out of town, and away from my gym, I took to walking arounf the local area. However, I usually go to the gym late in the evening after a few hours recharging (as an introvert) after finishing my work experience for the day. Some days I have to miss out because I have evening shifts, but that’s okay. Missing sessions at first seemed like a mortal sin, but slowly I have found that it only makes me more determined to go the next day: or to find another way to get those endorphins flowing.

Ultimately, everyone’s ability to keep healthy is dependent on their individual schedules. Yet whether they are after a changed diet or more active lifestyle, there are small, personal changes that can be made whether or not that conform to social media standards. We should remember that keeping healthy is allowed to include sweat, messy hair and often taking time for yourself.

Miscellaneous

The Reality of Teaching

Whilst I am approaching my final year of my degree, the sudden reality that all too soon I will be working in a ‘real’ job contributing to a ‘real’ career is striking me. Therefore, I organised a few days experience at a school in order to grapple with what it would mean to be teacher. I observed a variety of ages and abilities facing internal end of year exams and looking towards the next new year of school. It was a fantastic experience and gave me hope that this might be the route for me. However, it stirred something in me. Something underlying in the teaching profession that never seems to be fully acknowledged: strap your seat belts in, I feel a rant brewing…

“Don’t go into teaching for the money”. “Think of the holidays”. “It’s the only route for humanity degrees”. These are all preconceptions that have been blasted at me everytime I mention going into teaching. So when I found myself in an English staffroom listening to a lunchtime discussion on how it would take 15 years to save up for a house deposit on teachers wages, the reality of this beautiful, nurturing and under-appreciated profession hit me. ‘Skilled’ jobs are defined as paying over £30,000 per annum. The starting salary of a teacher is £23,000: which would only just cover the cost of the tuition fees and maintenance loan required for a degree over a year. Teachers (on the traditional PGCE route) spend a minimum of four years at university. And for what? An ‘unskilled’ job?

With the recent revelation that headteachers have to reduce the number of teachers in a school to breaking point in order to pay for basic equipment, such as tables and chairs, it is evident that schools are in a crisis. This comes after schools have been flogged off to businesses and other companies to become academies. Giving hope for improvement and survival of OFSTED inspections. This may seem a dramatic view; an exaggerated reality, however I, myself, saw the reality of this firsthand as a student. My secondary school was a failing institution placed in special measures for a number of years, spot inspections happening every few months. But nothing ever changed. Even with a proactive new headteacher who pushed the school to the national list of top ten most improved schools, the school remained in special measures. Only when it was converted to an academy that any real change happened. Through a series of harsh but necessary changes to secure a sustainable future for the school, it made a ‘good’ OFSTED rating.

So what does this say about the state of state schools? Is it condemned by its limited financial resources, like the NHS? Maybe. Undeniably, schools reaching out to former pupils with lists of what donations of well over £1,000 could buy for the school, such as interactive whiteboards and library computers, sounds too much like charity fundraising for crisises in other countries. But the issue is very much present in our local communities.

So where does this place teaching? From what I learnt at my invaluable few days placed in the heart of a growing academy trust that aims to expand into a cluster of local schools over the area, teaching is a necessary and potent career that will enrich your life by inspiring others. The teachers I had growing up caught my respect because of how hard they worked to make a difference to our lives. The tireless nights, the lesson plans, the unseen ‘behind-the-scenes’ work that goes into each lesson; the years of study prior to even setting foot into the classroom. It all contributes towards something significant and under-appreciated in not only pay but the overall system of things.

Perhaps it is true that teaching is more than a pay check, but why should the two be so dramatically separated? Certainly, impacting on young people’s lives in a classroom every day beats sitting at a desk in an office; so why can’t that be celebrated in the way it should be? It would change the negative perception that for humanity students particula rly, teaching is an inevitability. Something drastically needs to change for schools. As a prospective teacher facing a world where academies are breaking finanical constraints, I want to ride the wave to creating something better.