Clarity

Writing has always been important to me.  I remember, when I was younger, that I used to write religiously every night, exhausting notebook after notebook with angst-ridden stories. Looking back on them now – perhaps out of wistfulness, perhaps searching for common threads in a tangled mess of imagery, perhaps hoping, or wondering if, I had captured something in that naivety that was worth remembering – they are, as you would expect, somewhat embarrassing, shoddily constructed, overwrought, agonized, wandering, urgent, wayward, trite, earnest, lucid, unfocussed, dismal, brighter than much I would now dare to write.

Much of it was influenced by divorce, bullying, grief, alienation, song lyrics, the person and world I wanted to discover and actualize, a grasping for politics I had not yet found, a grappling with frameworks for understanding myself and for deciphering the complex, collective and unique experiences of anguish and joy.  It was always a world I felt comfortable retreating into, seeking refuge in, knowing that there might be warmth and consolation, if not answers.  It was usually crystallising and cathartic, sometimes frustrating, like trying to chase storms to their source – a certain curiosity it sated, a certain impulse for betterment and peace and clarity it fulfilled, but ultimately disorienting and steeped in an enveloping kind of chaos, a vertigo at the enormity of it all. Indeed, the process of writing always raised and was laden with broader questions around the role, purpose and utility of writing itself: on the tensions and limits of catharsis, the fraught nature of writing as a kind of therapeutic tool (perhaps all equipment is deficient when wandering the wastelands of grief), the vagueness of the boundary between purposeful delving and mystifying dwelling, how immersion in and crystallisation of pain can entail a loss or entrapment of oneself in its murky depths, writing as something both of and within the world but also necessarily outside of it, how inner constructed worlds interact and jar with a messier external reality, etc.

I’ll always remember the English teacher in Sixth Form that encouraged me to pursue writing.  Her disposition was that of a kind of disgruntled tenderness, a hardened and quietly tempestuous exterior belying an interior of intimate care and ardour: almost an embodiment of the writers she admired, as if she deeply inhabited the art and its personas channelled themselves through her.  She was infatuated with Byron, and adored the Romantic poets, and it was in no small part her passion for them that helped me fall in love with their artistry too.  I borrowed her personal version of a book comprising a selection of Shelley’s poems.  It was punctuated with her thoughtful commentary, notes and annotations – I can picture the arc of the handwriting still.  I always pondered why exactly she lent me that book – but I know I felt honoured, and that when I read it something profound shifted within me; sparks of lighting and fire struck, emblazoning the horizons of my imagination, weaving themselves into the most exceptional patterns.  Art, the world, and my conception of my place within it, were all transformed.

To this day, Shelley’s work is ineffably special to me – I found a sense of belonging in its scope, its intensity, its radicalism.  The memory of that teacher, who asserted I was a great writer, told me she was proud of me when the fragments of my home struggled to piece sentiments of affection together, and hugged me when I won a poetry prize, is even more special to me.  I remember how much I admired her, and how her reciprocation of that admiration was an immense blessing, and still is.  That memory still bolsters me, and I want to honour it, dedicate the space to it that it deserves.  She not only nurtured my writing, but – like no one else really had – instilled me with the faith that I had something important to say, and that I should have the faith in myself to say it.  She encouraged me to continue writing at a point where I needed it most.  I wonder if she’d still be proud of me, whether one day she’ll read anything I write, how she’s doing, whether she’d have ever counted on me to become the rebel I always suspected her to be. I think she’d probably assert that all good writers should flout the rules.

I find myself often struggling to feel as connected to writing as I did in my younger years. One might say it’s the erosions and trappings of life, depression and adversity.  After all, hardship can harbour with it an urgency to seek out catharsis, yes, but it can also deprive of creativity, leach of vitality, erode one’s faith that such virtues as clarity or hope are possible.  Depression eclipses and blunts emotion, withers memory, eviscerates self-worth – only the most romantic depictions of the illness could render it as a source of inspiration when mostly it just amounts to a kind of unforgiving emptiness, a desperate dread that the world is bereft and everyday life is an unsurvivable, unbearable and drudging ordeal.

I think, most of all, though, I’m scared to write.  I think I was always a little scared, because it was important to me and I didn’t want to fail, I didn’t want to fuck it up, I didn’t want to commit something to paper and discover one of the very few things I believed in and was told I was good at didn’t measure up, didn’t amount to anything, didn’t mean much to anyone.  But I mostly wrote for myself, for my own closure and catharsis.  Why did the world need to see it for it to be important?  Why couldn’t I just write unshackled from the weight of those expectations?

The answer, I guess, is clear: writing, truly good writing, is a communion, a dialogue, an exercise in empathy.  It becomes a collective phenomenon, begins to offer a means to reshape the world rather than just observe its motions and vicissitudes, when it is shared, communicated, explored, when it no longer consigns itself to monologues, when the world rather than solely one’s thoughts become its theatre, when the cast and audience expand and narratives of histories and futures manifest.  Stories are how we trace the world, trace worlds we’ve known and yet to know, trace promises of something better and different.  They are one of the most intimate expressions of the inner self as we seek out meaning and purpose in that world.

And that, I think, is part of the reason for my fear: if what is written here is the most undiluted expression of who I am, what if it is unworthy?  What if it is indulgent, equivocating, cynical, lacking, uninteresting, harmful, even selfish?  What if I can never do justice to the significance of the topics that I want to explore – what if I’m missing something, if I never get it right?  What if it my thoughts never translate as I wish them to?  What if some things just cannot be articulated or reasoned through?  What if I look back on this blog in the future and am ashamed of it?  What if people I admire the most are disappointed in it?  What if I can’t write like I used to, if I’ve lost something?  What if I’m reaching for something I’ll never find?

I’ve found myself returning to previous blog posts frequently, agonizing for days over their content, editing over and over again, in the most difficult moments even feeling an impulse to erase them, purge them from the plane of the public, withdraw back into the safety of shelter rather than risk the vicissitudes of the weather.  When it just feels like you’re getting drenched and you haven’t seen so much as a glimmer of lightning in a long time, the horizons start to blur, the worlds you’re trying to create seem to become eroded and mired in fog, and you wonder if the lightning is just in some other part of the world that you can’t reach.

After all, writing begins from a premise that you do indeed have something important and unique to say, that your voice deserves to be listened to.  This is an assertion I’ve always found difficult to come to terms with.  We all have a story to tell, but I’ve always struggled to imagine mine needed or deserved space.  I think a lot of us probably feel that way, and that this doubt is in part a result of how power functions in our society: our collective stories wrought into the mould and narrative of dominant ideology, assimilated and smouldering, our creativity sublimated, our autonomy repressed, our collectivity shattered, our dignity ensnared and besieged by the trappings of profit and domination.

But it is, of course, not simply a political question – though one wonders where the separation resides.  Much could be written of the contours of that separation.  In part, I started this blog to reclaim some of my personal voice.  It’s deeply inflected by politics, of course – the very name of the blog is a bit of a give away in that sense.  But politics, though useful in articulating a theoretical framework which connects personal experience to broader forces, was never quite enough to figure through grief, loss, especially death.

I found myself increasingly frustrated when trying to write about these things, resorting to vague and wavering metaphors, agonizing over the irrationalities and tensions, tormented by not only the pain but the very fact that I could not find peace.  It’s one of the reason I harked back to my old notebooks, wondering if my younger self had any lucid insights, perhaps trying to reconcile my current self with a persona that had not known as much pain, one that was not so lost and submerged.  How do you render the dimensions of those experiences?  How do you render any of this adequately, enough to honour memory, care, hopelessness, shame, love, enough to reckon with the fear and gravity and complexity, enough that you might finally be able to let go?

I don’t have an answer for that.  Perhaps I never will.  These stories are always evolving, as we change, as the world around us does. Words are not intended as blueprints, but, I think, an initiation of a conversation – with pain, with history, with possibility. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that through these stories we can begin to not only cautiously map out some of the vastness of the world, but make some imprint on it, offer some guidance to ourselves and one another.

I often feel envious that my favourite music artists can better capture my emotions than I could ever hope to, that I could never be so clear-sighted or eloquent, but I think to conceptualize it in the terms of competition would be misguided.  The very best song lyrics are not only the simplest ones, but those that speak to a certain commonality of experience, that venture to expose conversations that are repressed and marginalized, that question and challenge and search rather than presume simple conclusions, that at once acknowledge and reckon with the rigours of the world but also assert our agency in it.  Writing is an often painful process because it is an act of reclaiming voice, asserting one’s place in an often vicious world, trying to forge something complete and grounded out of an infinitely messy reality, exposing oneself to judgement and misinterpretation, and bracing ourselves against our most grievous insecurities.  It is a process wracked always by the dissonance between ideation and realization, and the doubt of how much should be uncovered or revealed.

It’s said you should write about what scares you, and writing is one of the things that scares me.  But, despite this, I still feel an urge to write: to try to encapsulate that feeling of electrified euphoria that courses through the crowd at a gig, to try to process the impossible enigmas of grief and loss, to try to understand the world, to express stories in the hope that others might find something in it, that I might.  I think there’s something worthwhile in that, and I hope that feeling doesn’t wither away, and I hope that every time I write I’m confronting my fears, reaching somewhat closer to some kind of answer, some kind of conclusion, contributing something to this ever-charged and ever-developing network of conversations with the world and each other, like a criss-cross of flares set off from shipwrecks, cast less like meteors to cauterize the rifts in one another’s horizons but more like sparks scattered to let others know we’re out there and we’re struggling too.  Sometimes that feels like the closest we can get to lightning, but it’s something.

There is, I hope, something significant in daring to ask the questions, even knowing that, ultimately, maybe all of this is just too chaotic, complicated and immense to make sense of.  There is, I hope, some worth to weaving the kind of stories that attempt to kindle something, articulate our vulnerability, and bind us together despite the throes we wade through. There is, I hope, some hope to find here, some clarity, some story worth telling.  

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In Defence of Munroe Bergdorf

The treatment of Munroe Bergdorf has been atrocious. In what is insidiously a habit for them, the Daily Mail have latched on to, distorted and sensationalized the analysis of racism she outlined on a personal Facebook post to engage in their usual character assassination of marginalized people and their slander of anyone who speaks out against oppression. L’Oreal then, under pressure from the public outcry against Bergdorf incited and rallied by the routine bigotry of the Daily Mail, arbitrarily terminated their contract with Bergdorf, after recruiting her on the ostensible grounds of ‘inclusion and diversity’, self-indulgently co-opting the language of liberation and – as usual – instrumentalizing the lives of trans people and people of colour to bolster their brand and image.

This, among many things, is an indication of 1) ‘inclusion and diversity’ being a tokenistic marketing ploy with no actual substance 2) the hyper-exploitative and precarious labour relations to which trans women of colour are subject 3) bosses disciplining and firing anybody that has the audacity to publicly disagree with their vision of the world and 4) the very white supremacy Bergdorf was critiquing in action – the viciously racist and transphobic mainstream media and capitalist institutions grossly smearing her character, caricaturing her stance, and publicly assailing her for simply identifying racism in society. The racist and transphobic backlash Bergdorf has received for her comments has been especially deplorable, with people who were apparently so horrified by being held accountable for any kind of complicity with white supremacy feeling perfectly content to attack Bergdorf with racist slurs, degrading remarks and even rape and death threats.  Naturally, this only provided credence to the point Bergdorf was trying to make.

Whiteness is bound up with sensibilities of nostalgic moral purity, a sense of entitlement to not be challenged in our racial worldview, and a vicious kind of defensive aggrievement when someone interrogates skewed and racialized power arrangements – it operates such that even those who separate themselves psychologically from those structures can still benefit from, participate in and enable them through our actions or silence. Despite loudly in an uproar proclaiming ‘we are not racists or bigots, Bergdorf is really the bigot for generalizing us like that’, hordes of white internet trolls managed to generate enough pressure to help incentivise L’Oreal to fire their first ever black trans model, thus continuing to cement those disparities in power and resources.

It’s interestingly paradoxical that some people are seemingly so invested in distancing themselves from bigotry that they prioritize personal moral absolvement above properly enacted institutional bigotry as a black trans woman is fired in a manner propped up by this very distanciation. After all, it’s the same strain of logic that draws equivalences between Antifa and Neo-Nazis – that people who aggressively challenge bigotry are really of the same moral fibre as the bigots themselves, that holding someone to account for bigotry is somehow a kind of policing and control resembled ultimately by how bigots act and behave.  Such false equivalences diminish systems of oppression into a series of discursive infractions, psychological attitudes and personal dispositions, reconceptualising oppression as more a mode of conduct than a material infrastructure.  It shouldn’t be especially controversial that we all harbour oppressive biases as a result of our being influenced by and participating in a deeply oppressive society, and that these micro and macro forces are intertwined and mutually reinforcing – the kind of reproach invited by interrogating this is clearly a technique deployed to deflect such critique and solidify power relations as they exist. When a trans woman of colour levels such a critique, this castigation is especially acute.

It’s bizarre, but unsurprising, that people are coming forwards with the tired rhetoric of ‘the left are hysterical snowflakes clinging to safe spaces, casting out and writing off anyone they disagree with as bigots’ in response to Bergdorf’s comments (a wholly bankrupt rhetoric and knee-jerk nonsense peddled out whenever reactionaries want to delegitimize the left) but don’t recognize the dissonance between that and supporting an arrangement of power whereby corporations and the media are enabled to punish, dispossess and dismantle anyone who upsets the status quo. Corporations want safe spaces for their bottom line and the media for their bigotry, and anything which disrupts that is censored, repressed and penalized.  Such institutional processes always level themselves at the expense of the marginalized in society – possessing a force that decimates those people’s material wellbeing and lives.  The Daily Mail – the paper which historically supported the Nazis, no less – publishes virulent, inflammatory and abominable articles about migrants, Muslims and black communities regularly, and with impunity, imitating and fuelling the racist rhetoric which dominates the formal political arena – but Bergdorf expresses a sentiment that punches up rather than down and that is sufficiently unconscionable to justify her being fired.

Because that’s really the key difference here – Bergdorf expressed frustration with power structures in society and was fired from her job as a result of it, whereas white people are under no material threat from the comments she made because the dominant institutions in Western society uphold nativism, nationalism and racism.  Trans women of colour, particularly when they are poor, experience the most acute kind of street-level violence from predominantly white men – the demographic statistics for murders of TWOC are egregiously high.  The deployment of transphobic slurs and racist microaggressions occurs in a broader social context, reinforcing a cultural designation of inferiority which justifies and legitimizes such acts of violence.  When Bergdorf describes a reality of systemic racism and how that reality has been internalized by dominant races, this is distorted into an assertion of the inherent malice of white people (such misrepresentations, again, being useful deflection techniques, often segueing into gaslighting and victim-blaming so as to displace the onus of fault from oppressor to oppressed) – but, even if Bergdorf were being malicious towards white people as a group, it would be an abstract attack on the forms of domination we uphold, not a material attack on our resources and lives.  Not only would this be a very legitimate expression of anger given the circumstances that trans women of colour endure daily, consistently bracing themselves against the possibility of violence from white men – but to try to qualify bigotry and anger with bigots as the same is demonstrably ludicrous. Having one’s social advantage challenged is not the same as oppression; losing the right to dominate with impunity is not the same as being dominated.

Such equivalences lack any analysis of history or power – which is why they mesh seamlessly with the corporate framework of ‘diversity’ that is fundamental to justifying Bergdorf being fired, because this framework leaves the underlying structures of resource and power distribution uninterrogated and firmly intact, projecting a model of the world where bigotry has been materially overcome and marginalized identities just need further aesthetic representation to complete the trajectory of progress, where the playing field has been levelled out and therefore anyone has a fair shot and is now fair game for discrimination.  This model is clearly wrong-headed – and how it simply serves and entrenches existing power relations has been demonstrated acutely by the maltreatment of Bergdorf, further confirming its moral and intellectual bankruptcy.  Assuming neutrality on an uneven terrain is, certainly, an act of complicity, because it accommodates these power relations and glosses over the conflicts, ideologies and injustices which underpin them.  We would, I think, do well to be offended more by the evil itself than in someone attributing some complicity in that evil to us.

I felt the urge to write this post after witnessing a lot of ‘progressives’ seemingly being very reluctant to condemn L’Oreal and support Bergdorf.  This was usually justified on the grounds of ‘what she said was alienating and an example of identity politics’, ‘she’s well-off and representing an exploitative brand like L’Oreal so it doesn’t really matter’, ‘what she espouses is just toothless, individualistic celebrity activism’ or, at worst, ‘what she said is anti-white racism’.  The latter point is not even worth engaging with – it’s clearly absurd, and symbolic of a left that is concessionary on and doesn’t make the effort to properly understand and address race in our politics.  But all of them, largely, I think, miss the point entirely – a trans woman of colour tried to initiate a conversation on white supremacy and was viciously shut down by corporations and the press.   I’m not suggesting we can level no critique of her politics, but I think this is a matter of priorities, time, setting, and sensitivity.  Standing behind Bergdorf against the onslaught of racist aggression besieging her should, surely, be at the forefront of our approach, but this seems a ground we are all too willing to concede.

I have my critiques of identity and privilege politics, but I don’t think that’s the key tension here – I think, if anything, the way the world has reacted to her statements and the way the left has been so reluctant to express solidarity are illuminating as to why identity politics has been fostered over the years: as a response to a world that is callously and very publicly hostile towards oppressed people, especially when they voice discontent or anger, and more internally to rectify the pitfalls of the left in not robustly addressing issues of liberation.  The other points – on ‘celebrity activism’ and its varieties – I think also gesture towards a zero-sum game we sometimes play on the left which exalts marginality, disdains the significance of popular culture, misplaces the blame for the grassroots left’s position of weakness (it’s not the fault of identity politics), engages in economic reductionism, and abstracts away from existing social conditions.

I think Bergdorf was very brave to so publicly voice disaffection with a corporation like L’Oreal – she raised important critiques despite knowing the consequences and that should be lauded.  People who are outspoken on liberation within the dominant institutions of society serve to help normalize a discussion of these tensions and issues, and – though we can critique its shortcomings and the political frailty of positive cultural shifts – I think that should be celebrated.  Yes, I do ultimately think that it is only through the working classes properly organizing ourselves into a mass collective force that we can fundamentally alter society – but we need to be prepared to have these difficult conversations about division and oppression if we are to reach that point, rather than subtly condoning the most powerful capitalist institutions shutting down such a conversation.

Solidarity with Bergdorf.

Fragile

Life is so fragile.  We must ensure those we care for know how loved and cherished they are.  Tomorrows can be so capriciously and cruelly wrested from us – so it’s paramount we express to friends, comrades and partners what they mean to us today, whenever we get the chance, always.  Ultimately, it’s our care for one another that makes more tomorrows – more hopeful tomorrows – possible, and that structures meaning into the relentless vicissitudes of the world.  Sometimes little of any of this makes sense, with the discord and turmoil and absurdity of it all overwhelming, and the scale of the feeling that our lives are threaded together by the mere frailty of chance daunting.  But I’m reminded, even amidst the most terrible of circumstances, that there’s something extraordinary and ineffably important to hold on to in the bonds we share with one another.

Graduation

Graduation day, for me, is more an emblem of the past than the future.  I attended the graduation of my older sibling a long time ago and after enduring the tedium, the artificiality, the ostentation of it all, I was pretty determined not to attend my own. For the most part I’ve always perceived it as an exclusive, grandiose and anachronistic ritual through which parents could finally witness the (almost necessarily cynical) aspirations they sought to embody in their children vicariously bear fruit. I always thought of it as a simulation of some grand denouement or landmark of conquest, an exercise in sitting restlessly through tired platitudes about ‘ambition’ and ‘journeys’ and ‘the excitement of the next chapter’ expressed by self-aggrandizing managers and bureaucrats on obscene salaries, who do and have done many an unscrupulous and venal thing to clamber up the sordid rungs of capitalist society.

It feels somewhat like a coronation in atmosphere, as if we are processions of loyal subjects queuing up to be graciously bequeathed a gift by the array of aristocrats and professionals donning extravagant gowns lined up on stage at the front – stages reserved for orientation speeches, ceremonies, gatherings of honoured guests, where the curtains open and close and conceal beneath all the splendour what actually happens here.  Inaugurations of stately music sweep over proceedings, disintegrating into a calculated lustre of white noise. You get the sense that even the esteemed individuals delivering the speeches don’t much believe in what they’re saying, nebulously appealing to notions of ‘society’ and ‘community’ and ‘tackling pressing global issues’ whilst in their own institutions presiding over declining wages for academics, slashed paid breaks for cleaners, desperately underfunded mental health services, and relentless attacks on working conditions. It’s why this rhetoric of aspiration really rings hollow – especially in this vast, coldly-lit, adorned theatre, the stage like a distant altar at which dissenting thought, passion and justice are nominally extolled and gracefully sacrificed. This is a drama of lavishly garbed ghosts, entertaining incantations of promises already broken and never to come to pass.

We’ve all been waiting for this moment, right? This is why we clawed our way here through depression, trauma, obstacles and adversity: for this curtain call, drawn down finally with glory and pride and closure. In a way, they were right: it’s a fitting end to a process of higher education that has become more and more performance to serve the ends of the rich of this society, a reminder of the history and legacy of universities as institutions of the elite. Of course, universities are much more job factory than sites simply in which the ruling classes and technocratic elites reproduce themselves now, much more bound up with training skilled professionals than channeling elites into parliamentary and managerial positions – but you get the sense of ossified tradition here, a carefully choreographed set of proceedings designed to convince us that this place and the debt-ridden chase of phantasmal, degree-ticketed wages are altogether more noble than perhaps we would otherwise believe them to be. The meritocratic myth seeps through proceedings, that we can all be our own boss and should indeed want to be, micromanaging our time and our lives to best serve the ends of individual success and acquisition. It’s still this acting out of hierarchies, this preservation of a mythology of universities as distinguished and enlightened sites of knowledge and development and not deeply authoritarian, exploitative and ruthless institutions embedded in the barbaric projects of imperialism and neo-liberalism.

This is what we worked so hard for, right? Those gilded certificates finally in our grasp like trophies, like fragmented vessels into which our ambition, conviction, and capability are distilled – our education an illustrious commodity purchased and earned to rent out to the bosses of this world, to vaunt on our CVs as a quantifying representation of our accomplishment and self-worth. I understand why people want to attend graduation – especially those who have struggled the most. It would be unbecoming of me to deny that we deserve to feel pride for our achievements. But – perhaps because I am profoundly, intransigently unambitious – my mind lingers on those who had to drop out because of mental health problems, who failed because of personal difficulties and hardships, or who could never even attend university in the first place. It lingers on those who have had to retake or have been awarded degrees that apparently don’t deserve ceremonies like this, or who have been informed last-minute that they can’t attend because of outstanding fees. It lingers on all those under-remunerated, exploited, precarious, alienated workers who are only permitted to see this stage in the capacity of cleaning up the dirt of aristocrats and professionals who would deport them without remorse if it served their business projects. It lingers on all those the spotlight excludes, all those who have struggled with little to no support throughout their degree, who have bled and cried to reach this day but to no avail. The margins are firmly reinforced around these rites, and so many should be here who aren’t.

To some this will be like a banquet after a war or a celebration of finally being released from this place and all its alienation.  To some it’ll be a bittersweet commemoration of one of the best periods of their lives finally passing.  To many, a passage from fraught harbours to rough seas, a wistfulness for dreams of shores that exist only in the fiction of this moment.  Maybe that’s why I was kind of sad upon receiving the email saying that because I hadn’t yet been awarded a degree my place at graduation would be cancelled. Not because I ever wanted this, but because I damn wanted that opportunity to not shake Croft’s hand, to not stand for the national anthem, because for all its artificiality and pomp at least there was a semblance that this moment was one to remember, one to feel pride in, one that was ours. This university affords us so few moments of revelry and I swear just for a moment I wanted to see my family smiling and proud of me again, a moment of normality, a respite from the battles we’ve all had to fight, the chimes of celebration signalling that this has all come to a close, that we’ve finally been victorious, and that maybe it is in our power to do great and exceptional things. However artificial, I wanted to take that moment and relish it for all it was worth – because for all the time I’ve been here it’s felt like Warwick has not even performed the principles and virtues it waxes so lyrical about and every day has felt like a struggle. It wasn’t about the ‘distinguished’ speeches, it wasn’t about the ceremony or the rites, about the feeling of eminence and prestige – but a feeling of triumph.  I’m sad that I’m not sadder to leave this place, like something’s ended before it even began.

Someone once told me that closure is a fairytale, anyway.  It’s clear neo-liberalism sells us many myths to obscure the brutal realities of its functioning. I think I’ll remember university not for the story it mapped out for us and expected us to tread, but for the narratives we forged with occupations, with protests, with dissent, with real community, with a real sense of belonging and camaraderie. All this university’s extravagant, hollow spectacles couldn’t even begin to emulate that feeling of empowerment and affirmation in seizing and repurposing corporate space on campus, collectively confronting injustice, finding real friendship, affection and compassion to heal all the cracks alienation has wrought across our lives. We haven’t been spectators, but have grittily done everything in our power to change things.

I’m proud not of what I’ve done to subordinate and advance myself as a ‘paying customer’ and ’employable graduate’ but everything we’ve done to resist that logic, everything we’ve learned, every moment of resistance and adversity and solidarity. I’m proud of disobeying, acting out, surviving. I’m proud of the communities we’ve created, the bonds and alliances we’ve forged, the strength we’ve found. I’m proud of the drop-outs, the undesirables, the troublemakers, the professional agitators. I’m proud not of what this university has granted us as ‘consumers’, but everything we’ve created and discovered and reclaimed as collective social agents. I won’t remember the moments I’ve been in the audience and witnessed the ceremonies play out, but rather every time we’ve spoken out, stormed the stage, sabotaged the charade with blazes of banners and choruses of chants.

It’s a story that’s not simulated, that’s not perfect, that’s not proofread, that’s not reputable, that can’t be packaged. But it’s mine, and it’s ours, and I believe in it.

Power

I’ve seen that incensed expression before

Felt the violence it harbours

That predatory, baleful glare

Scrutinizing points of vulnerability

As you begin to intimidate me and snarl

And I’m already on the defence

Ever vigilant, ever tense

Braced for the raised fist, the shove, the slur

Jarred from conflict to conflict

 

I’ve seen you clad in black vests

Bearing riot shields and handcuffs

Erupting in sparks of tasers

Surging forth in barrages of batons

Stalking through mists of CS gas

Displacing and dispossessing and devastating

 

I’ve seen you in fascists marching the streets

Hurling bottles, punches, venomous vitriol

Phalanxes of cops guarding your ranks

Guaranteeing your safety

Until the lines mingle and blur

‘Facilitating’ – participating in – your strategy

To control the streets through force

And menace the marginalized

Police lights coalescing into brandished union jacks

 

I’ve seen you command the spaces of buses and trains

With disapproving stares

Scornful sneers

Cruel and humiliating remarks

Belligerently reminding us that we are other

Unwelcome, a pestilence, lesser

Weak and decadent and impostor

Deviant to be punished

Malfunction of nature to be forcibly cured

Legitimate target to be preyed upon

For nation, for pride, for power

 

I see you in flags still casting a shroud

Over occupied and colonized lands

I see you in glacial prison cells

Devoid of humanity and compassion

I see you in love, manipulated and contorted

Into another territory to be conquered, another weapon.

 

I’ve seen that expression as police descended

And bludgeoned us with a grin.

I’ve seen it reflected in handcuffs

Sealed on to damaged wrists.

I’ve seen it etched in scars

That overlap until I cannot trace the contours

And I blame my fragility and recklessness.

 

I want to wear an eyeliner that doesn’t feel stained

I want to construct myself

Out of more than fragments of pain.

I want more of a choice than

To be either martyr or coward.

 

I want to do more than wait on guard

Railing against the shadows

Desperate for those moments clustered around campfires:

The smoke gathers and advances upon forbidding mires

As we search for ourselves amidst loss and ruin

In retreat even as we earnestly stand our ground

Shivering, still, among the echoes of fusillades

Recalling the lost, tending to the injured

And never truly recovering

With even triumph a prelude to mourning.

 

I fear every crack is a fissure

And dare not wonder how deeply they course

How this hurt engraves itself and lingers.

I see you everywhere

Every quarter claimed

Encircled, until I police myself

And remember my place

Extinguish everything

Outside your reign.

Vote Labour

I’m tired of seeing benefits cruelly revoked from friends that can’t work due to ill health, punished by callous and degrading bureaucracies that relegate peoples’ lives to a set of criteria and scoreboard determining whether they deserve a subsistence or not. I’m tired of feeling desperately helpless in not being able to support friends who have been failed again and again by underfunded, overstretched, under-equipped, slashed-to-the-core mental health services with unconscionably long waiting lists. I’m tired of dreading that there’s days I or those close to me might not make it through, overcome by the feeling that it’s just too damn hard to carry on in the wake of the political, social and economic turmoil wrought by the Tories, where fear, despair and drudgery are the routine and inevitable order of things.

I’m tired of a neo-liberal system of university which is more and more transaction, job preparation, commodity to be consumed, a sentence of debt, corporate discipline and crushing alienation that we become increasingly desperate to escape, rather than a place of transformation and dissent.  I’m tired of waiting for scarce, ruthlessly-competed-over, under-remunerated, precarious, dismal jobs with no protections or rights, atomized and isolated, encumbered by debt and dejection, anticipating that mechanical response of ‘your application has been unsuccessful’ hundreds of times if they care enough to reply at all. I’m tired of hearing my mum’s strained voice on the end of the phone as she recounts the daily indignities of work in a call-centre, with conditions becoming more and more draconian, workers more and more micromanaged, treated as more and more disposable, falling more and more ill, or worse, due to stress and pressure.

I’m tired of seeing the fear and fatigue etched in nurses’ features as they survey severely overcrowded A&E waiting rooms, realizing some will be waiting upwards of ten hours before they can see a doctor regardless of the pain they’re in, regardless of whether they’re crying out, bleeding profusely, struggling to breathe. I’m tired of speaking to people of evictions they’re enduring by vicious and rapacious landlords despite suffering from severe mental health problems – these very problems often resulting from or exacerbated by grinding poverty, by sanctions, by insecure work.

I’m tired of being too damn burned out to even grapple with politics anymore because it feels like such a forlorn struggle against impossible odds. I’m tired of the nights isolated in my room because I barely have the will to confront the world anymore. I’m tired of feeling disconnected from everyone, tired of friends struggling and suffering needlessly, tired of the routines of panic, trauma and tragedy. I’m tired of seeing lives, their potential, dignity, freedom, disintegrating like this and sacrificed at the altar of the free market so an elite can prosper.

I implore you to vote Labour tomorrow, if you’re tired too, if you’re scared or angry – even if it’s just for that glimmer of a promise that things can be different and better than this, that renewed if fragile possibility that things don’t have to be this way. I need to believe in that. I want to believe in that.

Waiting

I know how dangerous the undertow can be

And that you’re the kind of person

Who would dive headlong into a maelstrom

If there was a chance you might be able to rescue someone

 

I saw you in the colour of a stranger’s maroon dress

That grievous night of waiting

Steeped in the water’s depths,

Frozen in catastrophe

Fragmented memories of dancing

Scattered amidst the furies of the rain and wind

Fibres of fabric fraying

Unravelling and spiralling

Their dreams of splendour and passion

Dashed upon the rocks

Flurried steps capsizing into oblivion

Words washed off worn scripts

As we floundered, choked, panicked

Desperately casting out cords

Hoping something might catch

Clambering with dread

Into the crowded, punctured lifeboat

All our frantic efforts to keep it steady lacking

Terrified the glacial cold would set in

Before we reached the shore

Doubting, even, that there was a shore at all

Helplessly waiting

As reapers patrolled and shrieked overhead

And encircled us in shadow

 

I thought back to that day you said you liked the colour:

It was animated as I watched you draw

With the gentle tones of watercolour

As the rain pattered the window

And tender soundscapes ensconced us

On those afternoons when we didn’t mind so much

That the clouds had shrouded the sun

And the colours had fled from the sky

When you could invigorate every last one

With the tip of your pencil.

 

Like splinters of wood and shreds of sail

These recollections were adrift

Amidst haze and sea foam –

I watched the maroon bleed from the dress

And some part of me wished

You could have been there to repaint it

 

I wondered whether they would ever see

This colour in the same light again

I wondered just how many stories a hue can hold

When here beauty just feels like a stain

I wondered how many tragedies

A frame can endure before it unfolds

 

That’s why I didn’t call

Even though I thought about it

For every agonizing minute

Because I don’t want to expect you

To repair these withered seams

To ensure these nightmares

All transform into dreams

To bear these sodden clothes

With you everywhere

 

I’m so tired of seeing those I love

Devoured by the waves

Yet we must persevere

As if goodwill alone could save us

Huddling as we wait for the cracks to give way

 

Know I thought of you

In every lurch of the boat:

All that kept me afloat

Was knowing you were not sinking too

And all that steadied my hands

As they trembled from the cold

Was the thought of them clasped

Someday again in yours

Communion

You said you saw a feather fall from the sky

And that it reminded you of him

That it was a sign he was okay

Maybe even in a better place

That it descended from heaven

From his gentle and majestic wings.

 

I dismissed it as coincidence,

As just another shift in the wind,

With a bitterness I regret.

For what are these poems

But an attempt to seek communion

And truce with that which has faded

And will not fade?

 

I wish I could believe what you said

And I wish sometimes that you didn’t

Because there is no glory, no elegance, in death

Only desolation, and oblivion, and tears shed

In the throes of pain and mourning.

 

I’m scared that you cling

To this like a desperate vision

Of release, as if hope can only ever be a relic

And that you only believe in heaven

Because of despair that we cannot change the present

As if these conditions of oppression

Are some twisted celestial plan

And we must acquiesce to drudging toil and suffering

As some virtue, as inexorable and meaning something

As if a test restituted by some future redemption

As if compassion were some barb-wired bargain.

 

But I sometimes wonder whether dreams of salvation

Are that different from thoughts of revolution.

Maybe we’re all just waiting

Under the dominion of spectres

Invoking barriers and illusions

To soften their sting.

 

So I hope you see more cascading feathers

And I’ll keep writing

Both hoping that angels can deliver us from here

And envelop the perished with their wings

Hoping we can soar, and surge amongst clouds, and sing

A hymn which soothes the roar of the wind

Hoping, praying, that there is something more than this

Sleepless Nights

I know there are nights that seem endless

When all purpose and promise collapse

When despair seals you, sets itself in stone:

Heavy, unyielding, the asphyxiating tone

Of an elegy, raucous and bereft of cadence

Jarring, defeaning – as if there is no sense

To be made of any of this

As you wander through the cemeteries

Of everything you have lost

And everything that is

Wondering what might be etched on your tombstone

Maybe the fragment of a poem

That you could never quite finish

On whether we truly live and die alone

Whether life is only tragedy and pain

And there are ravages that will not wane

Wrongs for which we can never atone

Whether this uniform of flesh and bone

Is simply a tableua frame

For all our scars, all our failures

All our doubt and desperation and shame

A host for torment and nightmares

An arena for fiends that cannot be tamed

A memorial, a war cry, a siren song

For all our friends and lovers maimed

And for all the things we could not change

Or whether we can nurture blossoms

From these blood-stained cracks and weathered plains

Roots deepening and intertwining to resist the storm

Whether a touch, a kiss, an embrace

Can soothe and rejuvenate us with time

Whether despite vine and mist and mace

Joy can persist, bloom, thrive

And we can together overcome this bane

With courage and defiance

Doused, still, and tired

But determined to remain

Honouring scars that will not fade

And all those futures yet unclaimed

Igniting shadows and rain

Believing, fighting, even if in vain

 

I want to be able to say

I want this, here, engraved

That I tried, I want to try

To hold on and stay:

This is dedicated

To all those sleepless nights

All those aching wrists

All those bruised and forlorn hearts

All that rugged grace written

And that could have been written –

To all that is remembered, loved, missed

 

This is to all those dawns

That could not quite break

For all the moments

We did not feel brave

But still held on to horizons

We could not yet perceive:

Maybe I can enshrine them here

Dancing in the Dark

I feel the warmth of the sun on my skin

Like the softness of your touch.

 

You said you love how everything is more beautiful

When the clouds part and the sun,

Amongst clear skies, shines through.

I love how you believe that the world can be beautiful

You make it more beautiful

Make me want to believe

It can be beautiful

Make me want to write

Of warmth and light

Rather than simply storms and tides.

 

I love how you want to read these poems

Whether I write of either,

That you ask me what they mean

And honestly listen

When I speak about why I write so often of grief.

 

Because persisting through all the maelstroms in the world

Would be worthwhile

To finally be here to breathe with you

To cry and smile and fight alongside you

To savour the scent of flowers with you

To hear the the melody of your laughter beyond the chaos

To explore and dream of visions of the shore with you

To witness pain reforged into glorious tapestries

To feel, to breathe, to be here with you.

 

The clouds have settled again today

But I’m still thinking of the sun

And of what it would be like

To dance in the dark with you

Until the sky is fractured

And the warmth of our bodies kindles wonders anew.

 

I remember the night

When the wind was so ferocious

I thought it might tear the window off its frame.

As we rested under the fairy lights

I swear I’ve never felt so warm or so safe

As I did in your embrace.