Music that means something to me, day 1 – Shiver by Coldplay

I’ve been nominated on Facebook to post a piece of music or a song that means something to me for seven consecutive days.  I’m also supposed to suggest someone else each day to do the same but hate doing things like that for fear of REJECTION, so if you’re reading this and fancy giving it a whirl, consider yourself nominated.

First up are Coldplay.  This will probably be met with much derision, but I really couldn’t care less.  I remember watching their Glastonbury set on the telly in 2000; I must have been 14 at the time and was blown away.  It was just before Parachutes was released and was the first time I’d properly taken notice of Glasto and I remember thinking to myself “this is something that I must attend one day!”  When Parachutes came out, I was obsessed with it and listened to it multiple times a day for months.  My best mates, Jenny and Jane, loved them too and Jane used to send me interviews with the band as we didnt have proper Internet that I read via the jarg email scenario that we had on the telly (did anyone else have that?!) Sidenote – I was and still am technologically inept, and thought that Jane spent hours painstakingly typing out each interview word for word for me.  I wasn’t aware of the copy and paste function at this stage.  Bless.

I finally got to see Coldplay live in the Manchester Apollo in 2001 – to this day, one of my favourite venues, with so many fond memories – after counting down the days for weeks in our homework diaries.  The next time I saw them was their Glastonbury warm-up gig in Mountford Hall – utterly glorious – and the time after that was their headline slot at Glastonbury.  I’d probably never have gone to Glasto that year if they hadn’t headlined – I was a bit shy and thought I wasn’t cool enough to go to such a place – but I’m so glad I did. I’m still not cool, and my love for the band may have faded slightly over the years but Coldplay, that first trip to Worthy Farm and this song in particular will always have a special place in my heart.

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I love the Brits, even if hardly anyone else does

So the Brit Awards are taking place in London tonight, and I for one cannot wait. The Brits are one of those events that seem to come round very quickly, like the Oscars, and Christmas, and I unashamedly adore them. I even went one year in 2007 with our Maria, after I won a competition on Juice FM against a cocky little fool who was so utterly convinced that they were going to win before we’d even started that they announced “I’ll be taking such and such a person with me, can’t wait!” Actually, pal, you won’t be taking anyone anywhere because you were beaten by little old me. (We won’t mention the fact that the seats were so far away from the stage that we’d have been better off watching at home, because I still hold memories of that sweet, sweet victory dear.)

I know it’s corporate nonsense. I know that all the music snobs will fume when someone like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis wins Best International Group over, say, Arcade Fire. But I really don’t care. I watch it, like I watch the likes of X Factor et al, solely on the basis of entertainment. I love the controversy and the random choices of people they pair up to present awards together and the dresses and the inevitable bad performances. I’m so enthusiastic about it that I’m even in the tiny minority that finds James Corden amusing as a presenter.

As I am currently on Princewatch, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for my beloved Purple One to perform, and for Janelle Monáe to win Best International Female. Neither of these things are likely to happen, but I live in hope regardless. Roll on 8pm!

Benefits Street has won me over

Greetings comrades! Apologies for the veritable dearth of posts during the last couple of weeks; I’m sure you have all been deeply upset by their absence. It’s mainly down to the fact that I’ve started a new job (the first week of which was an unmitigated disaster because I was a nervous wreck and kept bursting into tears like a big baby), coupled with the complete lack of my usual frothy favourites like Made in Chelsea to pontificate about.

However, I couldn’t let the final instalment of Benefits Street pass by without saying my piece, frightful keyboard warrior that I am. I’ve only blogged about the first episode, but I have been engaged in many a…errr…discussion, shall we say, about it since. The first episode unfortunately did its job – it sensationalised and demonised people who rely on benefits. However, it’s won me over since. The rest of the series has been, in fact, far more measured in its coverage, and featured, at times, quite tragic cases, but the first episode meant that the scene had been set for all of James Turner Street’s inhabitants to be labelled as scroungers.

Take Mark and Becky as an example. Members of their respective families have gone on the record as saying that both suffer from learning difficulties; however this has not been referred to during the show. Instead, they’ve been branded benefits cheats and had their parenting technique criticised, when it was plain for all to see that they did love their children, they just didn’t have a clue how to discipline them (the scene featuring the “Punishment Porch” made me wince) – and rather than being given support and a push in the right direction, they were instead humiliated on national television. Mark’s been labelled a scrounger for never having worked before. But surely his learning difficulties make gaining employment even more difficult? There was a scene where he attended a workshop to compile his CV. He had no work experience and barely any qualifications to speak of. Of course he is going to struggle to create a CV, let alone get a job. Even when he did find work and we witnessed him going from door-to-door in a smart suit, he didn’t earn a penny – it was commission only.

I’ve spoken to (ok, argued with) people who’ve sneered at the likes of Fungi who, despite relying on benefits, never seem to be short of booze or ciggies. Yet, if you look at the bigger picture, Fungi is a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict, who’s hinted that he was abused as a child, and is not allowed to see his children because of his lifestyle. He lives in squalor. He has had no electricity for eight weeks. Yes, he’s spending all of his money on alcohol and cigarettes. But this is not a man who is having fun at the expense of the taxpayer. I don’t watch his scenes and feel angry. I feel sad.

White Dee has been especially vilified as being a lazy scrounger. I think I read somewhere that she has been deemed fit for work and is now actually claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance after being a long-term sickness benefit claimant. But who are we to judge whether she was well enough to work or not before she claimed JSA, solely on the basis of about thirty minutes worth of footage in total? She said herself that she is on anti-depressants – not everyone is visibly ill. Plus she is clearly an intelligent woman, who cares about her neighbours, and who is instilling a work ethic in her daughter that would suggest that she doesn’t want her to follow in her footsteps.

Other people I’ve spoken to about it have said that they think it glamorises being on benefits. This train of thought leaves me, frankly, incredulous. How could anyone watch Benefits Street and think that it was a desirable way to live? Another said that they thought food banks were a joke; people getting free handouts for food “whenever they want.” I agree that they’re a joke – it’s a joke that they exist at all. I don’t think anyone would visit a food bank for a laugh. Don’t forget that people who work are having to rely on them as well. And food whenever they want? They’re only allowed three referrals in a rolling twelve months!

As I mentioned in my other post, I’m not for one second saying that there aren’t people who are abusing the benefits system or who are claiming and are committing crimes or being anti-social neighbours (and indeed, you only had to watch last night’s episode to see poor Ewan, one of the few employed residents of the street, trying to live a quiet life, with his Billy Idol vinyl collection, and failing.) My issue is that people are living like this and are being ignored. Danny, featured in the first episode, is in and out of prison constantly. It’s all he’s ever known. Are we supposed to think that that’s ok? Are we meant to ignore a deprived area, like Winson Green, and just leave it – and its future generations – to their own devices?

Next week the residents of James Turner Street are being given the opportunity to answer their critics and defend themselves. I am genuinely looking forward to it – I hope that they are given a proper chance to put their point across, and that it is edited fairly. I don’t think White Dee will pull any punches…

Channel 4’s Benefits Street made my blood boil

So, I watched a lot of television last night. We started off with University Challenge (I only got one question right; Mad Tam got four; David smashed it – fair play to the lad), then on to Celebrity Big Brother (half of them are sex-crazed; the rest are dull; Lee Ryan is in a criminally daft class of his own, and you know it’s bad when Liz Jones is coming across as one of calmer members of the group), and I finished up with Kerry Katona’s Channel 5 documentary, My Secret Past, about dealing with her bipolar disorder – very moving and well worth a watch.

However, the programme that really grabbed my attention was Channel 4’s Benefits Street, billed as a look at the reality of life on benefits, which focused on James Turner Street, a road in the Winson Green area of Birmingham where 90% of its inhabitants are on benefits.

I was appalled, frankly, by the whole thing – I haven’t watched such a manipulative piece of television in a long, long time. It was exploitative too – needless to say, the people featured on the programme have spoken of their anger at being misled about the objective of the series, and their concern about online death threats they’ve received. I half expected David Cameron’s name to be featured as an executive producer in the closing credits, such was the overwhelming stench of Tory propaganda around it. At a time when such scrutiny is on the welfare system, this hugely biased series quite clearly intends to portray it in a totally negative way, and, looking with dismay at the outrage about “doleite scum” on Twitter, it’s done its job.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not naïve enough to think that there aren’t people who scrounge, who play the system, who supplement their income on benefits through criminal means, who have no intention of ever gaining employment. But to solely focus on benefit claimants like that and attempt to pass it off as the “reality” of life on benefits is so very wrong.

I’ve been on benefits before too. Benefits Street did not portray what the reality was like for me, or for other people I know who have had to claim. I was only out of work for a relatively short period of time (five months) but it was without doubt the most soul-destroying process I’ve ever had to endure and one which I hope never to have to repeat. Thankfully, I was lucky in that I had semi-decent qualifications, so found work fairly quickly, and also my family ensured that I would never go hungry or go without a roof over my head. However, I’m still, years later, suffering from the financial repercussions of being on benefits for only five months. And I’m one of the lucky ones – I’ve found work, and my family would never see me go without. What about those residing in Winson Green, which has had the highest rate of unemployment in the country for the last eight years? They’re trapped in a vicious circle and the current system is going to do nothing to change things for them.

I eagerly anticipate a series featuring people struggling to cope with the bedroom tax, or those who are sanctioned for up to three months and have to live on hardship rates due to miscommunication between Work Programmes and Job Centres, or how about long-term Incapacity Benefit claimants, who have been deemed fit for work by the infamous ATOS medicals and have to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance even though they’re clearly not capable of doing so? Sadly, I think we’ll be waiting a long time to see the other side of this particular coin represented in the media.

…and top 5 low points

There are no highs without the lows. Here are five of my darkest moments from 2013.

1. Arcade Fire’s new album.

I can’t say that I hate it. I can’t even say that it’s a bad album. But I have never felt such a keen sense of disappointment in a band in my entire life. It genuinely makes me feel a bit teary just thinking about it. Yes, I need to get a life.

2. X Factor – the whole thing

I can’t even defend it any more. It’s been absolutely atrocious from start to finish.

3. My continuing battle with Arriva

They exist solely to irritate me. (And to bus people around the city, obviously. But they even struggle with that sometimes.) It is a mutual hatred. I ring them at least once a week to complain about something. And they still haven’t whacked the heating on on the 61.

4. Glastonbury

Or rather, the fact that I did not attend Glastonbury this year. ‘Twas no-one’s fault but my own and I am still fuming at myself for being so financially woeful that I didn’t get to go. Next year though! Next year, I’ll make up for it, and then some.

5. My hair

It was dyed for the first time in my life in May and I haven’t had it done since and now the highlights are white and mismatched and I haven’t got a clue what to do with it. SEND HELP.

Please note that my list of low points is half the length of my list of highlights. This surely means that, against all odds, and considering that my life is an ongoing farce, 2013 must have been alright.

Why I felt sorry for Rebecca Adlington AND Amy Willerton

So, I’m A Celeb is back on our screens. I haven’t watched much of the action yet – all that has struck me so far is that a.) Ant and Dec genuinely make me howl laughing and b.) Joey Essex is definitely exaggerating his doziness for comic effect – but I managed to catch most of last night’s episode, and watched with interest as Rebecca Adlington, Lucy Pargeter and Amy Willerton exchanged tense words on the subject of body image and insecurities.

It began with Lucy questioning Amy, a Miss Universe contestant, on whether she feels like “a piece of meat” when entering beauty pageants and working as a model, and if she feels like she is “self-perpetuating” the industry by participating in them looking the way she does, rather than attempting to shake things up by going against the grain. Amy, in all fairness, defended herself to the hilt – she was adamant that she is never forced to do anything she didn’t want to, and that she exercises to, yes, stay slim, but also to stay healthy. It culminated in Rebecca sobbing as she told the group that, rather than people focusing on her sporting achievements, instead she gets comments about her looks on Twitter every single week, which has left her self-esteem in tatters.

“What’s wrong with recognising beauty?” asked Alfonso Ribeiro, and indeed, what is wrong with it? Intelligence is lauded; great sporting achievements are praised: why shouldn’t beauty be celebrated? The Olympics showcase the crème de la crème of the sporting world, and no-one beats themselves up about the fact that they aren’t as good at sport as the world-class athletes featured. “My shot put technique is below par! WOE!” I didn’t sit in front of the telly sobbing when the clearly more-intelligent-than-my-good-self team from Manchester University won University Challenge in April. However, it doesn’t matter if someone is crap at swimming, or is a few sandwiches short of the full picnic. And that is when the recognition of beauty is wrong – when people who don’t feel like they measure up feel inferior.

Although I felt for all the women involved, for one reason or another, I felt it was harsh of the majority of the group to round on Amy in such a manner; it felt just a tad like the other girls were suffering from a case of the green-eyed monster. Laila comforted Rebecca by saying “you are f**king beautiful…much better than her”, and therefore clearly comparing the two women even though that’s what they were all whinging about, and Lucy, who clearly has on-going deep-rooted body issues of her own, perpetuates the image in a way herself, by having succumbed to the surgeon’s knife in a bid to achieve what she deems to be the “perfect” body. I also felt it was unfair of Lucy to say that it was “easy” for Amy to deal with criticism, based on her appearance. Can pretty people not suffer from low self-esteem? As Amy rightly pointed out, it’s human nature for insults to be traded. Just because she has a slim figure, long hair, big boobs and an aesthetically pleasing face doesn’t mean that she is immune to criticism. For every tweet that Rebecca gets commenting on the size of the nose, I’ll bet Amy has to endure her fair share too – probably ones that perpetuate a few myths of their own: that models are vacuous, or a bit slutty, or superficial.

I’ll be honest – I haven’t got a clue what the answer to this problem is. I do know glossy magazines need to stop luring readers in by comparing one female celebrity’s bikini body to another on every front page. I do know the Daily Fail need to cease their endless obsession with whether a famous woman who’s recently had a baby has “snapped back into shape” yet. I do know we need more positive role models like the glorious Jennifer Lawrence, who laughs in the face of producers who have told her to lose weight in the past for roles, and who is vocal about how she wants to be healthy and strong. I adore this woman – she is fabulous. We need more celebrities like her to promote the fact that aspiring to be healthy and happy is the way forward.

It’s wrong that we live in a world where a woman like Rebecca, who has achieved so much by such a young age, still perceives herself to be inferior to others based solely on her looks. But that doesn’t mean that it’s right to try and make a woman like Amy feel bad about the fact that she is conventionally beautiful in order to make others feel better about themselves.

EDUCATING YORKSHIRE – final episode, Mr Burton and Musharaf

They really saved the best ‘til last, didn’t they?

The snow had finally melted at Thornhill, and GCSEs were looming on the horizon. Mr Burton, the popular deputy head and English teacher, was quite clearly my perfect man (save for the fact that he’s married; we’ll gloss over that though) – he thinks that punctuation is “sexy”, comes out with glorious quotes such as “we’ve come to party – it’s semicolon time!”, and demands that students thank him when he holds doors open for them (and rightly so – one of my major pet hates!) He had his work cut out for him with getting his Year 11 English Class to the all-important C grade standard, in particular Hannah, who spent a lot of her time hiding behind lockers instead of actually attending lessons, and Musharaf, who had a stammer.

Musharaf was especially worried. Bullied so badly in his first year because of his stammer that he’d considered leaving Thornhill, he’d been persuaded to stay and had flourished – but a combination of his imminent speaking and listening exam plus having his prefect duties removed following a Facebook “incident” had knocked his confidence to the extent that he’d been rendered virtually mute. As he succinctly put it, “how am I going to do a speaking exam when I can’t even speak?!”

Mr Burton refused to give up though. During a one-to-one session, when Musharaf was struggling to even get one word out of a poem he’d been asked to recite, Mr Burton asked if he’d try a technique that he’d shamelessly stolen off The King’s Speech – listening to music while speaking aloud. The result was truly astonishing; Mr Burton’s face was an absolute picture, and another teacher brought in to witness the event was brought to tears. A marvellous breakthrough and Hollywood moment that Colin Firth himself would be proud of. “At last I have a voice – [DRAMATIC MUSIC],” typed Musharaf.

All that remained was for him to complete the actual exam, footage of which we weren’t privy to, but which must have gone well as Musharaf gained his precious C grade – this caused scenes of jubilation in the Crilly household the likes of which have never been seen before. The lump in my throat I was wrestling with when he told Mr Burton that he really appreciated his support and encouragement gave way to heaving, racking sobs when Musharaf addressed his whole year to thank them too. As Mr Burton said, he should be very proud of himself – so very brave in the face of adversity. It was a perfect and uplifting end to the series.

I would absolutely love Michael Gove to sit in on one of his classes – according to my sister’s boyfriend, who’s a teacher himself, Mr Burton would fulfil hardly any of the criteria on the current Ofsted checklist. However, I would defy any inspector to observe him and dare tell him that his teaching style was not right. He is clearly born to teach and engaged with his class like no other teacher we witnessed on the programme. Plus, his bromance with Mr Steer, and his skinny suits, were an absolute joy to behold. SWOON.

Educating Merseyside, anyone?