Tag Archives: culture

What History of Art A-level meant to me

I have got used to shaking my head in disbelief when the government’s latest education initiatives are announced, but when I read this week that A-level History of Art had been removed from the options lists forever it hit me harder than I was expecting.

This is not the only subject to have been made a relic by the Tories after all – the full list of opportunities that are no longer available to our young people filled me with fury. But twenty-two years ago History of Art succeeded in saving the dying dregs of interest in academia from the apathy of my sixteen year old self – and it is no exaggeration to say that without it my life could have turned out very differently.

I moved from Birmingham to London for my sixth form studies. I didn’t want to at the time – nothing against London per se, but my mental health was fragile and I couldn’t see a way forwards without my small but trusted circle of friends by my side.

My academic record was strong, but the ‘A’ grades hid a complete lack of interest in my studies – and a complete lack of confidence in my self. I selected my next raft of subjects pretty randomly – A-levels in History, English and Biology, and AS level in French. I wasn’t much more inspired by these than any of the other, mainly traditional, offers on the table, but I figured I’d be able to see them through.

Then in my first week at my new school, and my very first lesson with my new French class, I mustered up the confidence to speak and was laughed at by the stranger who was my teacher because of my (admittedly pretty dodgy) French accent. I walked out of the lesson through a blur of tears, and after a brief conversation with the administrators switched to an A-level in History of Art – one of the few subjects still with space, and something that piqued my interest with its novelty.

It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

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Our class was small – there were six of us I think, meaning that in today’s cash-strapped educational climate the course probably wouldn’t have run at all. I couldn’t be invisible in that room though – not like my other classes where I often slept behind a carefully placed hand propped on the desk.

I learnt so much more than was contained within the confines of the subject. I learnt how to plan an essay – techniques which I applied to great success in all of my A-level subjects and have used endlessly since as a student and as a teacher. I learnt how to revise, and how to organise my time. I learnt that it was ok to be interested in something that not many people saw the value of – and that in fact sometimes the most obtuse pursuits can bring the most personal reward.

The subject itself, it turned out, was so much more than I could have ever hoped for.

There was an interplay between art and science, which appealed to the way my brain works: I never have been very good at putting things in boxes. This was particularly true with our study of the history of architecture, with the exploration of classical forms bringing mathematical certainty into the sometimes nebulous analysis of artistic endeavours, and the ways generations of architects riffed around them giving me concrete examples of how creativity evolves.

Understanding how buildings and towns were designed made me think, too, about the way our society is structured – something which we also discussed animatedly when we looked at the work of artists who protested explicitly against the societies they worked within, comparing that in turn with those who played by the rules to fit into the canon. Generally I learnt loads about our culture, and that of other countries. We went on a group trip to Paris (where finally I got to work on that French accent) and wherever else I travelled then and since I found myself looking at the world through a new pair of eyes.

Beyond the studies, my personal self was developing too. I had found my first intellectual tribe – a very necessary counterpoint to my emerging new social group who whilst they would go on to include lifelong friends did not encourage the healthiest of pursuits.

Weekends of clubbing, house parties and festivals meant that (at least) the start of each week often passed in a blur – but I could not let myself let things slip entirely because I didn’t want to sacrifice the learning and the community that my History of Art lessons gave.

This motivation, and the skills I learnt as a result of it, carried me through to another surprisingly good set of grades, and from there on to university – to study History of Art, along with Philosophy.

My History of Art A-level taught me that I am on a fundamental level an intellectual, but that the intellectual study I enjoy is one firmly rooted in society. It taught me that I respect those who know when to play by the rules, and when to break them. It gave me the confidence to express my opinions about the world around me and the people who inhabit it: that even if my opinions are not the same as those shared by others my ability to explain them is more important than just fitting in.

I’m not saying that every teenager would respond the way I did to this particular subject, but I honestly think that the fact that it was not as ‘pure’ as the other subjects I was studying, not quite so epic in its scope, made it easier to delve deeper into it, to create links for myself rather than having to regurgitate the views which were expected of me. It gave me an outlet for my stifled creativity, and the confidence to think.

Studying History of Art gave me the skills to collaborate with a friend to put on art exhibitions, to develop my photography, to teach Media and Film. It enriched my analysis of literature, and ultimately gave me the confidence to put pen to paper myself and give voice to the stories in my head.

It makes me so sad that because besuited politicians in Westminster cannot see the value in this subject future generations of teenagers might not have the opportunity to ignite the spark that might propel them along an unexpected path.

Like so many of the educational reforms that make me angry, this reduction in options seems to be driven by a misplaced certainty in what our society needs. What we really want is the space to make that decision for ourselves.

 

Writing Bubble

Across the cultural divide

I have wanted to write this post for a while, but as I’ve worked on drafts in my head I have kept finding myself stumbling over clumsy expressions about an issue I really don’t want to get ‘wrong’. I find myself coming face to face with assumptions I have made in the past which make me question whether I really understand the area I am tip-toeing around at all. The reality is that I am an outsider in this territory, and the urge to turn away and run is strong. But that is not really how I do things, so I won’t.

The issue I have been grappling with is, essentially, the authenticity of my first novel. And when I say authenticity, I am talking about the thorny area of cultural appropriation: my protagonist is of mixed heritage, Bengali and British. The folk tales of Bangladesh are woven into the fabric of the plot as it unfolds, and the challenges facing Bengali people carving out their lives in Britain are integral to the journeys of several characters.

Now I lived and breathed that story and those characters for the several years it took me to write a first draft. My protagonist, Lili, borrowed much from the young women I taught at a school in Tower Hamlets. And in fact the first tentative steps from plan to prose were made at an Arvon writing retreat that I attended with a small group of those young women: I discussed my ideas with them, asked their advice on elements of language, listened as they told me their stories.

As the draft developed further, I read copious research files on the experiences of different generations of immigrants from Bangladesh on settling in East London. I devoured Bengali recipe books, and tales of the mythology that reached back into Bangladeshi culture.

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And eventually I had a novel of which I was proud: the culture that I was borrowing from was part of it, but by no means all, and I had worked hard to avoid stereotypes. Lili was complex and engaging, and the London that I knew and loved was intrinsic to every page.

I got an agent on board, we made a few tweaks, and then went out to publishers. And then things sort of stalled: almost all of the feedback we got was positive, particularly around the multicultural elements, but there were no takers. For a while I wondered whether this was in part a response to the monocultural bias that is clearly evident in the publishing industry, particularly when it comes to books for children and young adults. I latched on to a campaign that had been established to encourage more diverse books, and wrote about it to try to explain why diversity was so important to me. But the people I reached out to appeared to have no desire to engage with me: sure, my book was diverse. But I wasn’t.

Nothing overt was said, but my enthusiasm for that first novel dwindled. I still loved the characters and their story, but thinking about them made me feel guilty. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the source of that guilt, but in a creative landscape where the smallest excuse is enough to give the self-doubt demons all the strength they need to inflict silence I decided it was time to focus on something else.

Fast forward two years, and I found myself reading Lionel Shriver’s address to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival about cultural appropriation. And whilst there were elements of what she said that I couldn’t help but agree with, I was embarrassed by the crassness of her refusal to engage with the very real concerns of those whose culture had been exploited. And I began to wonder whether maybe the book I’d written was part of that entitled, white exploitation that can only come from a position of privilege.

I began to wonder whether Lili’s story was actually mine to tell at all, whether in trying to push out my interpretation of the challenges facing a mixed heritage family in East London I was standing in the way of more authentic voices that might be trying to do the same.

But then once I’d started off down that rabbit hole any claim to integrity began to dissolve entirely.

Because it’s not just Bengali culture I could be accused of appropriating. There’s a question of class too, one which is perhaps much more central to the novel that I wrote. Am I not, as a comfortably-off graduate from a middle-class background appropriating the struggle of working class families? And there’s an important theme about the status of elderly people in society – and teenagers for that matter. Are their stories mine to tell?

These are not exact parallels, but they are still examples of where I am using someone else’s truth to build a narrative. And all of these groups of society lack the privilege that is inherent in my existence as a thirty-something, white, university-educated woman.

Except it is here that I grudgingly accept some of Shriver’s points: without stealing other people’s stories there is very little left for the novelist to do. Interestingly the protagonists of the two novels I’ve written since are much closer to me in terms of social and cultural background. That wasn’t a conscious choice I don’t think – and whilst I’ve enjoyed exploring a world that is closer to my own I can’t guarantee that my ideas in the future will not be influenced by a more global outlook. As a writer I am drawn to the outsider – and culture is often a big part of that.

There is also the argument that if we want more diversity in our literature then that needs to come from all quarters – not just from those writers who are themselves ‘diverse’.

And so on balance, despite my reservations about Lili Badger, I am still proud of what I’ve written. And I don’t want to shy away from giving voice to people from different cultures in my writing in the future.

I will continue to endeavour to be respectful and avoid stereotypes – a courtesy I would hope I extend to all of my characters, not just those whose culture is different from my own. But the bigger the gap, the more work there is to be done to find authenticity and integrity – and the more difficult the challenge of convincing others that this really is a story that you can tell.

 

Writing Bubble

Word of the week: London

This week, Arthur and I have been hanging out in London. We were going to be up for the weekends anyway, with two family birthdays to celebrate, and as Leigh had a big exam this week and I had lots of friends to catch up with it made sense to stay in between. It was a little bit daunting – my parents were around last weekend, but after they headed back to Devon on Monday it was just me and the toddler. It turns out I needn’t have worried at all – we’ve had a brilliant week, and Arthur has taken everything in his stride.

We’ve traversed the city to touch base with some of my oldest and bestest friends, meeting new babies and hanging out with growing toddlers. Arthur has really impressed me by his ability to share and play nicely, and he’s enjoyed the journeys as much as anything – there have been lots of trains and tubes and buses and escalators to ride.

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Possibly his favourite place has been the London Transport Museum, where he marvelled excitedly at the wide range of vehicles to admire and play with – more on that to come!

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We’ve made the most of all the different cuisines available to us, managing to fit in Vietnamese, Spanish tapas, dim sum and Italian – and sushi on the South Bank before Arthur’s first cinema experience.

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There’s been other culture too – architecture and street art and busking. I’ve missed the vibrancy of London, the sense that there’s going to be something new and exciting to see every time you turn the corner.

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We haven’t entirely avoided the shopping, though I suspect on the whole I’ve enjoyed that more than Arthur. But he’s valiantly offered to carry my bags. And we did brave Hamleys, which wasn’t actually as bad as I feared.

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Arthur hasn’t got to play outside as much as he normally would, but we did have fun embracing autumn (and trees) in Hyde park, and found a brilliant play area yesterday where he could let off some steam.

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Although we’ve really enjoyed each other’s company, there’s no doubt Arthur’s missed his daddy too. He’s kept up with him through photos and hilariously surreal conversations on the iPad.

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It hasn’t been quite the same though, and Arthur was very excited when he got to see him in the flesh last night. We both were.

We’ve got one more day in London, and by tomorrow I think we’ll be more than ready to head home. There’s lots to love about the buzz of the big city, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing the sea.

 

The Reading Residence