A Quick 2014 Slide Show

Once upon a time people used to dread the sentence “let’s get the holiday slides out.” Not me. You got 200 pictures of sunsets and statues? I’m your girl.

2014 was the year I made a concerted effort to get back into photography. I had a great art teacher back in the 1980s who taught me how to use a 35mm SLR and process and print my own films, and I’ve loved taking pictures ever since. However, I got slack. I even left a slide film in my old Pentax for two years, during which time the labs had closed down and I could no longer use the pre-paid envelope. Luckily I discovered the lovely people at Dragons in Leeds. So this last year I went mental – DSLR, 35mm, 120mm, Instagram, lomo – I took more pictures than I did wees. These are just a few samples, with links to more images on Flickr and Instagram. And the good thing about it is, you only have to look if you want to…

Bearing Flux – having joined Leeds Creative Timebank, I teamed up with a group of artists to document their work as they explored waterside walks. Hopefully there will be more to come, though I’ll happily forgo the hostile weather we experienced in Malham.

Flux

My Sister is My Muse – born around the time I first got into photography, I’ve been snapping her ever since. She’s a very good subject.
Sis

I got stuck into film again and bought my first medium format cameras – a monster Kiev 60 (I call it The Hulk) and a  Yashica Mat LM. And my 35mm Praktica cost a mere £29 from West Yorkshire Cameras. Vintage bargains that work brilliantly. Will your over-priced iPhone still be working in 50 years’ time…?
film

Art is where my heart is – music, dance, theatre – I’ve snapped a lot of good stuff this year, including Yorkshire Festival, Leeds West Indian Carnival and stunning aerialists Theater Tol. Twice.

ARTS

I learned to love Instagram. So much so that I set myself an #instadaily challenge for the year. Also a good opportunity to muck about with double exposure apps on my phone.

Instagram

And I got all Street, sneakily snapping strangers and hoping not to offend anyone.
StreeT

Finally, I embraced Lomography. My Disderi Robocam sat in a drawer for a long time as I was so unimpressed with the quality, but I got back into enjoying the surprise of having a film processed (having forgotten what I’d taken), plus the Disderi has no viewfinder so it’s always a surprise! Then, in December, I won a Fisheye. More lomo fun was had, and what a great way to end the year – a winner. I was disappointed it wasn’t millions on the lottery, but still, I’ll take what I can get…

LoMO

 

Homeless at Christmas

Back in December 2000 my family and I were given notice via a phone call to vacate our rented property three weeks before Christmas. When I say notice, it wasn’t much, because they told us we had to leave immediately. Me, my then partner, three cats and our six month old son. I’d never experienced stress quite like it.

I cried down the phone, pleading with them to give us time to find somewhere first, they caved a little and told us we had to be out within two weeks.

What did we do to deserve this? Absolutely fucking nothing. We paid our rent, bills, etc on time and looked after the place. The person at fault was the landlord. We’d been paying him rent (via Leeds Accommodation Bureau) but he hadn’t paid his mortgage for a considerable time. I suspected something was up because of the many many bank letters I had to keep forwarding to the estate agents, and then when court documents were handed to me in person we knew it was serious. When I took them to the estate agents they didn’t bat an eyelid, and didn’t hint at what what was in store for us – innocent victims in some wanker landlord’s mess.

I am reminded of all this today because of good old Twitter and the hashtag #HomelessAtXmas We were, in many ways, very lucky. My employer allowed me a little time off to search the rental ads, visit Citizens Advice and view properties. I found us somewhere nearby (we had to factor in travel to two jobs and our childminder, plus pets and children being allowed) and could scrape enough money together for a bond and a month’s rent in advance. And my family rallied together to physically help us with the move.

But just look through the stories emerging this Christmas. It’s 2014, for fucks sake. Why are so many people homeless in this country in this day and age? Why are 90, 000 children homeless in Britain this Christmas?

Homelessness is complicated. People find themselves without somewhere to call home for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s fleeting, other times it’s more long term. These people aren’t necessarily on the streets (though many are), but on friend’s floors, in an over-crowded relative’s home, in a B & B or other temporary accommodation. And social housing doesn’t meet the needs of these people as supply doesn’t come close to meeting demand. In some local authorities to go to the top of the council waiting list (Band A) you have to have multiple housing needs. That’s two or more of the following:

a. high care and/or support needs
b. higher medical needs
c. homelessness

This is so screwed up when it’s assumed MPs are entitled to two homes, and some well-off people buy homes that sit empty (I know someone who bought the semi next door because he didn’t want to have neighbours). In Leeds we have a service dedicated to helping owners of empty homes make use of them – Leeds Empties.

We moved into our new home a week before my son’s very first Christmas – it was bloody awful.  But at least we had a roof over our heads and a little security in our new tenancy (they were actually brilliant landlords – one extreme to another). I will be thinking about those 90, 000 children and their parents who don’t have a secure home this Christmas and despairing at what a terrible, fucked up society we live in that would allow this. I’ve made a donation to Shelter and urge you to do the same. Please.

 

 

Guilty Pleasures

In Roxane Gay’s collection of wonderful essays Bad Feminist, one chapter ‘Blurred Lines, Indeed’ explores her responses to the pop song Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke (amongst other things). Until now I’ve somehow managed to avoid both the song and the video, but have been very much aware of the stir they generated. Now I know why. The song, apparently, is about women really wanting it, and, apparently, Thicke is the man for the job. He alludes to his considerable appendage, big enough to cause some damage, but I’ve never seen his willy, so I can’t comment (and also don’t care).

What interests me is this. Gay says: “As much as it pains me to admit it, I like these songs. They make me want to dance. I want to sing along. They are delightful pop confections. But. I enjoy the songs the way I have to enjoy most music – I have to forget I am a sentient being. I have to lighten up.” Her use of the phrase ‘lighten up’ is deliberate, as women are often advised to lighten up when confronted with sexism/voyeurism/misogyny.

I find this idea, that we can simultaneously enjoy and disapprove of pieces of pop culture, quite fascinating. In my old film studies days we talked about ‘reading against the grain’, of being intuitively oppositional in how we respond to some films, scenes, characters.  I’ve certainly found pleasure in things not intended for me as a white, working class woman (formerly girl), and sometimes that pleasure is critical, even a little twisted. Somebody actually said to me once “You can’t like that, you’re a woman” – apparently I wasn’t supposed to like early Scorsese, it was confusing for this bloke and made him uncomfortable. I wrote about the complexities of audience responses for an In The Picture publication back in 1996. My article was called “How I learned to love Starsky and Hutch and remain a feminist” (because my life revolves around those fictional boys). Sometimes we derive enjoyment from things not intended for us. Sometimes we have seemingly incongruous responses. I discussed this with my 14 year old son, who commented that our relationships with pieces of culture are like our relationships with people – we can get along quite nicely with people we are fundamentally different to, we can agree to disagree, but still function and have a meaningful friendship or working relationship, even if we may never be ‘best’ friends.

We used to think of audiences/consumers as passive. We’re not, we know that now. I actually delight in knowing that I can simultaneously denounce and celebrate the 1970s machismo of my childhood heroes, and laugh at the pathetic way women are often portrayed or positioned. In her book Black Looks, bell hooks talks about how prejudices evident in film (of course applicable to other forms of popular culture) can be ignored, or laughed at, or interrogated. Some of us (not everyone, for sure) can take a song like Blurred Lines and interrogate the undertones of sexual violence in the lyrics, challenge the representations and ogling of women in the video, yet still have a little boogie to it in the kitchen if it comes on the radio. And other people probably feel very uncomfortable about that. Our responses are not uniform.

I’m sticking with old school here, but let’s take Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. Do not be mistaken, I suspect the man is a total cock, but the majority of that film had me in stitches (and one scene in particular did not). It was a long time ago, I may feel differently if I saw it now, but at the time I wasn’t offended by the various stereotypes and horrendous rape-revenge clichés, but found most of it laughable. I took great delight in laughing at it, and therefore can say I enjoyed it. It was like Fame, but more shit, and with nipple glitter. I was not its target audience and did not consume it as intended. I think this is ok.

But we all have our moments of discomfort, right? Where, like Roxane Gay, we find ourselves enjoying something we know we shouldn’t, or we’re simply not sure of. As a teenager I loved the album Milo Goes to College by Descendents, but a lot of the lyrics made me uncomfortable. On the song I’m Not a Loser the final verse goes as follows:

You arrogant assholes
Your pants are too tight
You fucking homos
You suck, Mr. Buttfuck
You don’t belong here
No way you fucking gay
I’m not a loser!

I was never sure whether they were singing in character, mocking the American jock stereotype, or whether they really were young, brattish homophobes who needed to grow up? I wanted to believe it was the former, so I could continue to listen to it (it’s super catchy). All these years later (and listening to the album again as I write) I discover other fans discussing this issue in the comments section on Song Meanings. The band themselves say a lot of the songs they wrote were fictional, so I’m inclined to think they were mimicking and mocking homophobes. But I still can’t sing along with those lines.

Musician Nadine Shah tweeted I’ve been innocently singing this song for years not taking any notice of the lyrics..oh dear” accompanied by a link to the song If You Wanna Be Happy by Jimmy Soul. It’s probably what we’d call ‘of its time’ as it’s basically saying marry an ugly girl if you want to be happy, they cook your meals on time and give you peace of mind, whereas pretty girls just make you feel small. Nice! Similarly, my friend Emma loves and laughs at the song Lucretia MacEvil by Blood, Sweat and Tears in spite of what she calls ‘deep misogyny’.

I’m sure we’ve all done and said things we later feel embarrassed by, even ashamed. And I’m sure plenty of artists feel that way about some of their work, whether it’s in the public domain or not. I have a very strong memory of using a racist term in the school playground aged 8. Another girl immediately pulled me up on it (this was 1978, good for her!) and I felt ashamed and apologised. I was repeating something I’d heard at home, but suspected was wrong. All these years later it still makes me cringe.

We can be naïve and/or ignorant about many things at any point in our lives. Putting it out there as a piece of pop culture means it’s always there to remind you of who you were, but also, in some instances, how far you’ve come.  I’m thinking specifically of Beastie Boys. They first achieved success as brattish teenagers. They sang about girls cleaning their dishes and doing their laundry. They had scantily clad women ‘perform’ on stage with them in cages. For a long time this defined them, and how we perceived them. But over time they grew up, their song writing and performances matured, they became more socially and politically conscious and active. And in the song Sure Shot they rap this:

I want to say a little something that’s long overdue
The disrespect to women has got to be through
To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and the friends
I want to offer my love and respect to the end

So give Mr Thicke a few more years. He could surprise us. Or he may not.

 

Community Spirit

Recycled writing. This piece was first published in issue 2 of Poor Lass Zine in 2013. They are currently seeking submissions from working class people for the next issue – on the theme of Education.

I think of community as fluid rather than fixed. I’ve lived in many, many neighbourhoods over my 43 years, but only a handful have felt like a community. But we all belong to communities that have nothing to do with where we live, and to truly feel part of such a community, where you bond with others over friendships/beliefs/experiences/ventures can feel like being part of the best family (only perhaps with a little more choice over who your relatives are!). What has pushed my buttons for a long time, and heavily influenced different paths trodden in my personal and working life, is community spirit. As a phrase this can be a bit throwaway, and is something many try to engineer (yes, you Dave, with your Big Society BS), but when you really experience or witness it, it’s like everything else you file under “the best things in life” – it can’t be bottled.

Having worked as a community video maker for several years, before moving on to arts outreach and community engagement (with a few years chucked in as a volunteer coordinator) I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with people from a real variety of communities. The sort of people who leave their mark and make you to want to be a better person; who inadvertently educate and inspire you. So here are a few short stories.

Joan Angus being interviewed for the documentary We Are Women We Are Strong, by One to One Development Trust

Joan Angus being interviewed for the documentary We Are Women We Are Strong, by One to One Development Trust

We all know something about pit closures in the UK, probably from watching the news in the 1980s or maybe from just watching Brassed Off. What I certainly never learned from the news was just how devastated and decimated many communities were for the years, even decades that followed. But also that communities were created as well as kicked when the loss of that local industry meant the loss of thousands of jobs. I still can’t claim to have any depth of knowledge, but I met some amazing people who left an impression. In the mid 1990s I worked on a couple of video projects with people whose passion could make you weep. On a project called “We Are Women, We Are Strong” (after the song) I got to meet women who one day were ‘ordinary’ housewives and mothers, and the next were at the centre of pickets and marches, finding enormous camaraderie with other women who were fighting for their husbands’ jobs and their families’ survival. The Women Against Pit Closures Movement became about so much more than a fight for jobs. Many of these amazing ladies were changed forever by this unique bonding experience, finding their voices and a passion for campaigning they’d never experienced before. This lead some of them to join other fights (such as Greenham Common) and others even put themselves through university and ended up moving into politics – stuff they’d never dreamed could happen. This is real community spirit in my book – people who rally together to support each other and find a collective voice in the face of adversity. We probably feel it’s getting harder to do this in the current climate as this government scapegoat and punish the poorest and most vulnerable, pitting us against each other, but I still have hope.

Then there were the men, the miners. I was fortunate enough to work with a group of 12 men who’d all lost their jobs and been forced into early retirement. They were no longer down the pits together, and hadn’t found work in many years (not for want of trying), but remained a community, bound to each other by their locality and shared experiences, but also by developing new passions and hobbies (home video, in this instance). I taught them how to edit their films – they taught me about friendship and perseverance.

Sometimes we impose the ‘community’ label on groups of people, like a brand or a stamp of convenience. But we all know from experience that, whatever bonds or common interests a community may have, people are not homogenous. I grow so tired of politicians and the media talking about immigrants and immigration, particularly where refugees and asylum seekers are thrown into the mix out of ignorance. People who seek asylum do so because they face dangers we can’t imagine in their own countries, not because they’re after our jobs and houses. I’ve met people who have horrendous stories to tell, of physical and psychological abuse and persecution, of losing or leaving behind family members and children, and they have the scars to show for it. You don’t give up your home, your family and your career as a doctor to spend six years on benefits (equivalent to 70% of income support) and no right to work just to come to this country. You do so because you seek sanctuary, because the will to survive is strong.

Refugee Week in Halifax

Refugee Week in Halifax

Facing a room full of families and individuals who speak 20 different languages and hardly any English is daunting. It’s also incredibly inspiring. I mainly worked on video and music projects with asylum seekers (music being a universal language, cliched but true!). People so generously shared their stories and talents, and bonded over food and music. I can only guess what it’s like to be in their shoes, and distantly admire them and their bravery. These people were simultaneously the most disparate and the most together communities I’ve met.

So – a few snippets of real community spirit I’ve been lucky enough to experience through my work. At home it’s a work-in-progress. After years on the housing waiting list and many house moves, my son and I are finally in a council flat. The neighbourhood is ok, I’ve lived in better and worse. We had a few dirty looks at first, and seeing/hearing young kids smoking and swearing depresses me, but we’ve got a couple of nice neighbours and I’m determined to be one too. The old guy next door is friendly, we put each other’s bins out and clear snow from the steps to each other’s flats. Not everyone round here is neighbourly like that, but if we take small steps and say a few “hellos” who knows, maybe my neighbourhood will become my community.

Sambalifax - truly a  community band

Sambalifax – truly a community band