King Lear: what could have been

I was due to direct King Lear at the Edinburgh Fringe this August but after a series of heartbreaking pitfalls, this is no longer possible. Here is a treatment I wrote for the play when we thought it was going to happen. It includes some reflections on love, honesty, power, and the psychology of relationships within the family.

 

***

 

The question the play poses:

what do we have when we have absolutely nothing left?

 

Other big questions:

why does Shakespeare choose to deny a sense of divine justice, coming short of offering us this with Cordelia’s death? How can she die; is justice asserted in the deaths of Goneril, Regan, Edmund, or not?

 

No.

 

It is not. There can be no justice, really, in death.

 

The search for hamartia

 

Many interpreters, readers, audiences have attempted to interpret Lear along the lines of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, one that necessitates the fall of a protagonist of great stature from a high station to a low station as the result of a hamartia. Hamartia has been translated variously as ‘character flaw’, ‘moral violation’, and simply, mistake, which I think given examination of the context and the history of tragedy is the most useful. This is not a popular or widely accepted opinion.

 

To be clear, the temptation to search for a moral flaw in the characters in Lear whose choices drive the plot is natural and irresistible. Lear treads the line between fairytale and psychological realism, and one way of reading the play is seeing King Lear and Gloucester as being righteously punished for two sets of hamartia that they complete. When hamartia is translated as ‘moral violation’, we can see how Gloucester’s fate in the play could be explained by the hamartia he enacted before the play’s action: adultery, namely the adultery that produced Edmund. Arguably, had he not erred in sexual fidelity Edmund would never have been born to resent the society in which despite his fathers’ earldom he stands to inherit neither title nor fortune, unlike Edgar, Gloucester’s legitimate son.

 

I do not think this explanation is psychologically satisfactory, nor is it really possible to leave King Lear feeling like justice has been served. Gloucester’s mutilation is hideous to watch, and action-wise constitutes the tragic climax of the play. Additionally and decisively, the reconciliation scene between Edgar and Gloucester on the hilltop as Gloucester tries to kill himself and his son, for a reason which I think is best dramatically explained by grief, shock, and resentment at the position he suddenly finds himself in, is in many ways the most moving and heart-breaking of the whole play.

 

Nor do I think identifying a hamartia in the character of King Lear is either constructive or ultimately satisfying. However, critics can make a more convincing case for this than they can for Gloucester, if they identify Lear’s hamartia as his failure to recognise that Cordelia is his one loyal daughter, and Kent a true advisor, and his choice to exile them both in the first scene for expressing themselves honestly and refusing to pander to his show.

 

Arguably, this mistake, which one can colour with a moral judgement and claim that like Sophocles’ Oedipus Lear can be blamed for rage, (Oedipus unknowingly commits parricide on a crossroads in a fit of rage a long time before he realises he is married to his mother) can be used to ‘explain’ the entire ensuing narrative – the vindictive rage of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund at the stubbornness, selfishness and stupidity of their parents that culminates in Gloucester’s, Cordelia’s and Lear’s deaths, and indeed all the death and suffering that the audience witness before the play is over.

 

I have never found this satisfying, and it is a reading that plays down the psychological and dramatic autonomy of the play’s female characters. Goneril and Regan are in no way presdestined to torture Lear psychologically; we must ask, if we are committed to psychological realism, why Goneril and Regan hate Lear so much.

 

The first place to look is Act One, Scene One. Why is Cordelia Lear’s only loyal and loving daughter? Other productions have explained Goneril and Regan’s hatred by suggesting in the first scene that Lear has sexually abused the older daughters but not the youngest. This is a deeply depressing reading, but opens up the audiences hearts to Goneril and Regan. The elder sisters are dynamic, passionate women, who the audience can be inclined to sympathise with totally and completely up until the stabbing of Gloucester, a physical mutilation so grotesque that though technically just it is so visually disturbing that ‘poetic justice’ that you can read into this act is utterly, emotionally, undermined.

 

Nor is the play a simple conflict between ‘good’ characters and ‘evil’ ones; Shakespeare’s characterisation is too psychologically compelling to allow the mundanity of a ‘good versus evil’ narrative to really be convincing. The line between the purportedly ‘good’ characters (Lear, Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester, Edgar, the Fool) and ‘bad’ characters (Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Cornwall, Albany (?)) is increasingly blurry. Though the fact that Kent is Lear’s only loyal advisor is borne out by his honesty in the first scene and his choice to return in disguise and serve Lear even without status, his violence to Oswald in Act One puts him morally alongside Albany and Regan if we view physical violence as the ultimate indicator of immorality. Cordelia is verbally and emotionally violent in the first scene; had she not accepted that for once, she would need to perform her love and swallow her pride, there would be no conflict and no play.

 

Therein lies the ‘problem’. Good, honest people make mistakes, and are driven to moral violations that spiral out of control in the worst of circumstances and lead to death. Old men are annoying, and Lear’s infirmity, the lack of judgement that he demonstrates and Sam Mendes chose to interpret as only explainable by a degenerative disease is as much attributed to old age as some kind of eternal moral flaw; rashness, rage, etc.

 

So what is left, at the end? Cordelia lies dead in Lear’s arms. He dies of grief; as does Gloucester, both suffering from the loss of their loyal children.

But the utter dejection and impossibility that Cordelia’s death entails is in itself a redeeming force. Cordelia represents honesty, loyalty, forgiveness; the capacity of love to overcome less welcome emotions within us, the capacity we all have to continue to see the best in people, the light in the darkness, even if the evidence around us shows that man’s animal nature can undermine all the values he professes to have. The very pain with which her death comes, and the fatal effect of this grief on Lear, is proportional to how important are the values she stands for.

 

Moreover, the joy which Lear’s vision of himself and his daughter locked up forever in prison gives him, the force of his gratitude, has a thoroughly redeeming force. Father and daughter may be despoiled of all the trappings of wealth and status, and have no hope of recovering them, or the respect society afforded them as king and princess. But they have each other; the capacity of caged birds to sing represents the capacity of the human being to voice his or her joys and sorrows honestly, to communicate, to love and remain wholehearted while still alive no matter what they have been through. It takes seeing Lear’s transformation from bitter, puerile king to naked old man, and repentant old man with loving child for us to discover what is left when everything that can be taken away has been taken away.

 

Sexuality

 

Every character who expresses their sexuality and is shown to be prone to sexual desire is punished. Gloucester receives the ultimate punishment for his infidelity (blinding); Goneril and Regan die for their desire of Edmund, who cares not for them as people but as pawns in his power game, and throughout uses his sexuality to further his own interests. He dies. Cordelia comes across as pure because she does not desire France, but he chooses to welcome her and marry her for who she is rather than what he can gain from her. It is familial love – father daughter (Lear-Cordelia) and father-son (Gloucester-Edmund) rather than romantic love which carries the redeeming emotional force. This is starkly different from the ideal of heterosexual love that resolves the end of most fairy stories (prince kills dragon marries beautiful princess.) At the end of the play we have a father with his daughter in his arms, rather than a pair of characters in each others arms who have a sexual/romantic bond. As if to say that lust – for power, for sex, for status, for material goods (the trappings of wealth) is defined by its transience, where love, when true, is defined by its imperviousness to fortune circumstance.

(am I what I love)

(Am I what I love)

Whither, whither

Went thee

My essential self?

Are you hovering in the wild darkness and light

Of dream-memories? Glinting silvery-grey

a dark shape in brown eyes

Sooty- lashed and wide

Do they pierce you, free you?

Are you what you love? Believe in?

Feeling, fleeting, fleeing

now forever lost in the pool of Time?

Are you in the music warm,

The chords that sway my depths

Until chokingly, I cry

Yes- yes- yes

Are you the dancer or the dance itself

O body swayed to music

visit me enraptured

Eyes wide and lips uplifted

***

A.R.A, 2014

I found this poem looking through some old scribblings. It’s strange for me to read because I don’t remember writing it and there are lots of moments in time where I suspect it may have come from, but I not remember for sure as it’s not dated. 2014 is a suspicion that could be entirely wrong! Love x

Coachella (Woodstock on my Mind)

Lana has been gently dropping songs before the release of her next album. Having a lil listen and I love this one the most so far:

 

What about all these children
And all their children’s children
And why am I even wondering that today
Maybe my contribution
Could be as small as hoping
That words could turn to birds and birds would send my thoughts your way

***

I’d give it all away if you give me just one day to ask him one question

In Praise of Limestone

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
Of short distances and definite places:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop
To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
Are ingenious but short steps that a child’s wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down
Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times
Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged
On the shady side of a square at midday in
Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think
There are any important secrets, unable
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed;
Adjusted to the local needs of valleys
Where everything can be touched or reached by walking,
Their eyes have never looked into infinite space
Through the lattice-work of a nomad’s comb; born lucky,
Their legs have never encountered the fungi
And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives
With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common.
So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works
Remains incomprehensible: to become a pimp
Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice
For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all
But the best and the worst of us…
That is why, I suppose,
The best and worst never stayed here long but sought
Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,
The light less public and the meaning of life
Something more than a mad camp. `Come!’ cried the granite wastes,
`How evasive is your humour, how accidental
Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death.’ (Saints-to-be
Slipped away sighing.) `Come!’ purred the clays and gravels,
`On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
Need to be altered.’ (Intendant Caesars rose and
Left, slamming the door.) But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
`I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.’

They were right, my dear, all those voices were right
And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,
Nor its peace the historical calm of a site
Where something was settled once and for all: A back ward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:
It has a worldy duty which in spite of itself
It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet,
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy
By these marble statues which so obviously doubt
His antimythological myth; and these gamins,
Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade
With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature’s
Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what
And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

***

W.H. Auden

Source: https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/wh-auden/in-praise-of-limestone-3/

 

IMG_4245

Cambridge, Spring 2017

Euphoria, creativity and anxiety: an update on how I’m doing

This is a repost of an early piece from my first blog. The original version can be accessed here.

As you might have been able to tell from the last article, ever since a couple of days of having the implant removed a week and a half ago I have been in a state of overwhelming euphoria. This took hold after one last weekend of crying and insecurity, beginning 3 days after it was removed.

 

How did it feel? I was sitting in a coffee shop with my little sister at 9am on a Monday happily getting absorbed in my revision. As my eyes scanned the pages of the book I was reading, (Barkan’s The Gods Made Flesh if there are any literature nerds reading this) I noticed that my attention to my work was absolute, and that every new idea about Ovid’s Metamorphoses this talented man had written filled me with wonder, respect, and joy. My uncharacteristically increased lucidity and complete and utter focus was something I really enjoyed. The implant had robbed me of my natural joy, I thought, and now I am back to myself.

 

I did feel myself. But myself intensified to the highest degree of Amelia I have ever experienced. I felt – feel – the most passionate about everything I love, the most excited to be in the world, the most loving, with the keenest appreciation of all the beauty in the world around me. Suddenly the wind playing in my hair and the pleasure of sitting, drinking coffee and exploring my intellectual responses seemed like an absolutely impossible gift.

 

Sound good? It was – is – fucking great. I wrote the first implant article that day, have written three since, and cannot spend five minutes without another idea for an article gently nudging me, asking to be realised.

 

That week and into this one that euphoria – or mania, as my mum called it – has stayed and continues to stay with me. The day after that I had a burning desire to head down to the park alone. I listened to this instinct and wandered the five minute walk by myself, and stepped into the park (Gladstone Park in Willesden Green if anyone feels inspired to have their own Solo Yolo. Credz to the amazing Lucy Cole for this phrase.) I was overwhelmed by awe at the colours in all their shades, the beauty and integrity of the trees, the way the sun clarified everything I saw and brought the essence of its beauty to the fore. I felt amazing.

 

I started to have some happy but pretty intense thoughts. For example, that every tree, flower, rock, bench, cloud, and bird was part of nature’s endless and endlessly regenerating work of art. I am in myself – we all are – living, breathing works of art, which we adorn with clothes, glitter, jewellery and tattoos in ways that feel true to us. I remembered Laura Marling saying at the Cambridge Union last year:

 

“I identify not as a Musician working in the Music Industry but as an Artist living on Planet Earth.”

 

At the time I loved this but suspected it was a bit wacko; suddenly I knew exactly what she meant. The urge to create was tremendous. Not only did the articles I had always written and wanted to share whisper their longing to be let out into the world, but I took careful photos of the most beautiful things available to me with my phone, made a very long and very hippie snapchat story (to everyone I have on Snapchat who isn’t reaaaaally one of my friends, you must think I’m fucking weird, and I’m not going to try and defend myself). Music helped bring out the beauty of nature: I was listening to Laura Marling’s new album Semper Femina, which to me reconciles a longing for love and intimacy with a desire to be free and retain one’s sense of self, combined with an adoration and respect for nature. Perfect. “Nothing matters more than love no nothing no no nothing no not nearly,” she sang as I danced, by myself, among the trees, reaching up with my hands to the sky, feeling a love in my heart that somehow had space not only for the people I am closest to but for the whole planet and every single sentient and non sentient being on it, who shared this experience with me.

 

I think my body was so happy it was finally able to make babies again that it made me create things, it filled me to the brim with the empathy for people, for Nature, that I would have needed to look after a tiny baby.

 

The desire to commune with nature remained. The gratitude for all of the love that surrounds me and all of the love my own heart has space for remained. But my sleep, usually regular (I go to bed at 11 and wake up at 7) came to me less and less easily. Ideas flared up in the early hours of the morning, aching to be expressed. Part of me continues to enjoy this euphoria, but most of me is glad that, as my fertility diminishes day by day, I am coming towards the end of this cycle.

 

This relief I am coming back down to Earth is heightened by the fact that yesterday I had an overwhelming and upsetting experience. Despite being on very little sleep – I wrote an article about happiness at about 6am – it seemed like the right thing for me to head down to my favourite café half an hour away from my house, and do some work. I have finals coming up, four exams upon which 100% of my degree rests. The impulse to study is huge. But as I sat in the cafe, the pleasure of hearing the chatter around me, the music the cafe was playing and the book I was reading became too much and I began to feel very anxious. My heart racing, I ran to the bathroom to have some space. But when I looked in the mirror my pupils were dilated to a terrifying degree.

 

I started to cry. I ran to two of my best friends, who were sitting with me, tried to hug them, and started hyperventilating. Their kind words, and their cuddles, kept me in the moment and saved me from the extreme of a panic attack. One of them called 111 and held my shaking hand while we waited for a response. Luckily we were a five minute walk from A and E.

 

Thank goodness, the doctor I spoke to told me I was fine, I wasn’t about to die, become psychotic, get over- or dehydrated. While I waited to see him, my friends sat with me and entertained me with ‘stories from their youth’; my dad left work and came to join us 20 minutes later. I don’t think there has ever been so much giggling in a hospital waiting room. I know I would have ultimately been ok if I’d had an anxiety attack by myself, but I am so grateful they were there, and so glad they looked after me as generously as they did. If somebody you love has anxiety, I would personally recommend listening to them wholly, and giving them what they need, be that water, cuddles, reassurance, silliness. Just demonstrate your love, really. Nothing is more soothing than that.

 

To underline what my fiery inner feminist is burning with as I write this: I never had problems with anxiety or depression before I went on the implant. It is a fucking disgrace that so many women suffer what I suffered and that pumping hormones into our precious bodies and brains is normalised to the extent that it is. The anger I feel when confronted by the vastness of the patriarchy to the extent that I feel I am now, to look this hideous systematised sexism in the face, is something I will express in greater detail on another day. But I will say – with the greatest caution, and the anxiety that I am being arrogant for attempting to universalise my experience -that in my experience the ultimate antidote to anxiety and depression is patience and generous, generous love. This needs to come first and foremost from yourself, and everyone has the strength in them to look after themselves, but it does make it a damn sight easier to cope if you are surrounded by the people you love.

 

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Gladstone Park, London, April 2017

On the 8th June 2017

Hello, dearest readers!

I’m SO HAPPY. Finished my finals yesterday and stayed up all night watching the Tories being torn to pieces while drunk. I lost my phone, my debit card, and my student card, but it’s so hard to care after all this good news. Guess I’ll just stop calling people and buying things… I could wax lyrical about why this is great and what a triumph it feels like from my perspective, but words are not coming easily to my tender brain this evening so instead here’s a recording of music that never fails to bring me joy when I listen to it:

 

Without You for me is more about self reliance than co dependence, and it’s one of my favourite songs in the world. I hope you like it too.

 

***

Depression, anxiety and euphoria: what hormonal contraception did to me

I was always pretty much one of the only women and girls I knew who loved having a period. Well not having it per se, which could be far from ideal, but maybe the fact that it happened; my body had its own cycle, its own silent process of birth and regeneration, like the moon, or a tree. It made me feel like my physical substance was in some fundamental way connected to the world around me. The unfortunate attending possibility was of course, obviously, childbirth. And clearly, when one gets to a certain age, and is lucky enough to have sex sometimes, this becomes a mind-blowing and terrifying possibility. Like many people, the thought of having a baby at 21 fills me first overwhelmingly with bafflement and then, very quickly, with worry. I still sometimes cry when I’m hungry, and if there were two of us crying, what would I do?!

In short, at a certain point when these worries (temporarily) came scarily and rudely to a head I decided I needed to take on the responsibility of preventing pregnancy from happening. Or not even that; it was as much about relieving myself of the anxiety of potential pregnancy as the possibility itself.

So I got the contraceptive implant. This is a matchstick shaped device that sits in your arm and releases progestogen into your bloodstream, preventing you from having a child. (Don’t ask me how, I’m a Classicist.) I was told that I might bleed erratically for a while, but that this would settle down; I was told that I might experience minor mood swings, but that they too would settle down, within a few months. That night I had a dream that I was alone at my home in London when four or five female sixteen year old thieves broke in through the front door and seized everything in sight, in spite of my attempts to empathetically reason with them. With some tentativeness, (again, I’m a Classicist not a psychologist) I was initially and remain tempted to view the symbolism at work here as pointing up anxiety about an intrusion into my place of safety (the home often symbolises the body or the self in dreams) by an alien external force, which I would try and fail to reason with. At the time I dismissed the anxieties the dream was trying to communicate, and my subsequent experience seemed to confirm the impulse to reject it; for quite a long time after the implant was inserted I did feel completely myself, noticing no changes to my mood at all.

However I thought something was a bit weird when, five weeks later, I was sitting in my room waiting for my parents to arrive so they could take me out to lunch for my 21st birthday, listening to music and writing my diary (as one does) and little by little I was seized with emotion. My mum and dad loved me so much that they were coming to see me on my birthday! Even though I’m bad at tidying my room and I always always leave the lights on and occassionally I am rude! I felt the force of their love and the gratitude took physical root in my body; I dissolved into tears, and wrote them a letter thanking them for bringing me into the world. I was crying but it was a wonderful feeling. The more I wrote, the more I broke down into tears. When they arrived, they were touched but bemused. On some level, I do tentatively sense that I am more emotional than your average Joe, but it’s not like I cry every time they come round. I do often feel this way for a couple of days before my period starts though – aha! I thought. My period is coming despite the implant.

Only the feeling did not stop. But it did stop being cathartic, no longer representing a much-needed release, but over the next few days identifying itself as sadness, as worry, as anxiety, as fear, not as gratitude. The familiar PMS-feeling – endurable for its transience, even welcome sometimes as it was part of my body’s reassuring cycle – just would not go away. It lasted for about three weeks. In those three weeks I would cry pretty much every day, at no provocation or at the slightest provocation (the bare fact that I don’t currently hold a gym membership being the most laughable of my perceived crosses to bear.) For the first week I was okay; I clung on to the knowledge that underneath all the noise, I was happy; but it became harder and harder to persuade myself that I was crying every day for no reason at all. I couldn’t prevent myself from focusing on all the faults and worries in my life and it took all my energy to separate the emotion I felt from the reality I knew was safe and happy. I worried that there were only so many times the people closest to me would be able to hold me while I cried without being able to do anything because the emotion came from a small plastic rod and not from any problems they could support me while I solved. Emotions are contagious. The most insecure part of me worriedly whispered that there would come a time when they would run out of the love or energy to be close to me. They had their own shit to deal with. I resented myself for even feeling like I needed looking after at all.

After a particularly bad episode involving one ‘seen’ Facebook messenger notification, two hours of physically uncontrollable sobbing, and an essay I could not write because crying was taking up all of my time, I decided to have the implant taken out. I called my GP, tentatively telling her I felt like what I was experiencing was ‘a bit of a mental health emergency’, and expecting her to give me an appointment in the next couple of days. I was told that as I had had sex in the last two weeks there was a risk of pregnancy if it was taken out, so I would have to wait another two weeks for any existing sperm to bugger off. Hearing this, my eyes filled (yes, you guessed it!) with tears. It seemed like the end of the world. As it turned out, due to the risk of pregnancy the only way my doctor would allow me to have it taken out quickly was if I allowed them to first fit my womb with the (blissfully hormone free) copper coil, which is immediately effective as contraception, and then have the implant taken out. I accepted this advice, and although the memory of having the coil placed inside my womb and the ensuing last day of being bed ridden with tears pouring down my face has been promptly filed away by my subconscious into the file titled ‘REPRESSED THINGS’, it is a choice I am proud I made. Three days after having the implant removed the clouds have cleared and I am happy again, with all the other great benefits that come with being happy: I am more self- confident, more creative, take a great deal of pleasure in my alone time, studying is a joy rather than a struggle, I am more lucid, more compassionate, the list goes on. I am so grateful for all these things. I am so grateful that it is gone.

The worst thing about the effect the implant had on me (which for the uninitiated contains the same hormones as the ‘mini’ or progestogen-only contraceptive pill) was that I risked becoming my own worst enemy. Increasingly I felt that I was no longer able to trust my own thoughts and feelings. Were my emotional reaction to things and corresponding behavioural responses rational? Every time an event made me cripplingly, cripplingly sad the sadness was accompanied by a quiet suspicion that I was blowing everything out of proportion. I was left with the alternatives of swallowing my feelings, which had served me badly in the past, or communicating them to the people I loved and risking scaring or overwhelming them. In my opinion, things get dangerous when you become alienated from the sad, scared, angry parts of yourself, because exasperated and exhausted you reject them, unable to give them your love, attention, and acceptance. I am incredibly lucky to know myself well enough to always have been able to hold on to the fact that the feelings weren’t mine, to have had this happen to me during a period of my life that I am positive I am happy, because during a tougher patch it would have been much harder to distinguish the ‘real’ sadness from the ‘synthetic’ sadness.

Because so many women use hormonal contraception and a large proportion of those women don’t suffer such debilitating side effects it is easy to feel like you are making a massive fuss about nothing, to assume that other women feel the same way as you do in their heads but you are too weak to deal with it, especially when the tone of every healthcare professional you speak to on the phone is coloured with skepticism even when the words themselves aren’t. If this sounds like you, have faith in your conviction that you aren’t making a big fuss about nothing, and if hormonal contraception is making you sad, don’t feel embarrassed or weak in making the decision to come off it. My doctor (who, for the record, is lovely and whom I don’t really blame) told me to wait six months for the side effects to subside. Six months – especially when those six months coincide with an already impossibly volatile Cambridge term – is a very, very long time. The burden of responsibility for contraception is, for now, entirely placed on women. I could wax lyrical about how fucking unfair this is, but instead I will say: it will be okay, you have every right to stop and put your mental health first, and the amount of time you choose to wait before implementing any decision to do so is entirely for you to determine, and not for anyone else.

On the premature sexualisation of young women

I have a vivid memory of something someone said to me once that puzzled me, but didn’t particularly upset me at the time. I was in the queue for lunch at school with a few of my male friends when one of them described me as “sexually charged.”

I didn’t really understand. Sexually charged? What did that even mean? At 13 I was still at the age where I privately suspected sex was an elaborate joke made up by someone to confuse or amuse me. Unlike most of my male friends of that time, I did not watch porn (still don’t, for reasons that may become clear) because to be honest it just didn’t occur to me: my closest brush with observing The Act was probably watching Titanic, and seeing that sweaty hand up against that car window. I was not really sure what Rose and Jack were up to in there, but I knew it was fun, consensual, and an act of love. Whatever sex was, that’s what it would be like, I thought.

It is only now, as I look back at my teenage years growing up in a co-educational school where boys vastly outnumbered girls, that I see that a lot of the stuff that went on was fucking weird. In hindsight, thank goodness I didn’t really know what he meant. It would have disturbed me.

I think the tension here comes from something that is quite universal – think back to the Miley Cyrus debate. My friend looked at me, little thirteen year old beginning to grow towards the woman I am now, as all the boys saw all the girls in my year, and may have felt some kind of sexual or emotional response. He feels the response. It is new and strong and weird, and something that happens when he looks at me; is it not natural to assume that I am making him feel it?

Fair enough, at 13, the boys I knew were silly at worst and adorable at best really. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that he was projecting agency onto me for a sexual response I had (honestly) no idea he was feeling. I was being sexualised, and at this stage, I was not choosing to sexualise myself. Actually, I was just queuing for lunch and my mind was mostly occupied with the question of whether there were any muffins left.

I’m not going to pretend that I was particularly traumatised by this event. I have never had my sense of self seriously bruised by male violation, emotional or physical, and I took most of the creepy stuff boys said to me as a compliment. If anything, it was my ego that I needed to worry about; I got in trouble with my group of friends once for referring to the 14th person to ask me to “go out” with them as “Number 14.” I look back laughing but also slightly disturbed by the arrogance of my teenage self, so much crueller to these poor boys than I knew at the time – though it wasn’t so much because I didn’t like them and think they were lovely as the fact that I had no idea how to kiss and the thought of doing it wrong terrified me (I was privately convinced that mouths had to be designed purely for eating what if I’d just had loads of onion?!)

Don’t spare too many tears for unknowingly sexualised, unknowingly arrogant 13 year old Amelia. I was fine, I was exceptionally happy and fulfilled at the time. I mention this because it is part of a much wider problem.

When the Miley Cyrus video for Wrecking Ball came out I was torn. I was torn because I would secretly quite like to be having some fun on that swingy thing in her position; but in private, alone, probably. Surely Miley would really rather express her sexuality with those close to her, rather than share her nudity and her sexuality with the entire world?

In hindsight I see that it was wrong of me to ask that question, even gently. Because Miley had absolutely every right to express her sexuality in a way that felt true to her (even if she happened to be making a nice bunch of money in the same gesture.) I’m not gonna pretend I’m a Miley fan, but all those songs (I recall the lyric ‘it’s our party we can do what we want’) are about rebellion, about breaking away from the expectations placed on her by the trauma of having her childhood in the public eye.

We always overestimate the degree of agency musicians, and artists in the public eye, have. But this is disproportionately true when it comes to female musicians. If they choose to propagate a sexualised public image, it is all too easy to view them as either (a unwillingly sexualised victims of a sexist industry or (b unscrupulous temptresses selling their sexuality for money. This relates to that old virgin/whore binary that is so, so false and unhelpful for our understanding of female sexuality. I would imagine that in the vast majority of cases, from Miley to Birdy, the reality lies somewhere in between.

We need to stop being so quick either to label girls and women as either whore or virgin. Yes tossing women into one of these categories in our words and thoughts helps that classic insecurity about female sexuality and what women might do if men go to war for too long and the neighbour is sexy and cooks up an impeccable pumpkin soup for the winter. But it is a cipher, and should be recognised as such if we are going to fight the patriarchy and deconstruct the structures that oppress us.

Misogyny, arrogance, and private education

I hate to write a provocatively titled article, but I have felt strongly about this for a long time and I think today is the day to express my thoughts on this matter.

Let me lay my cards on the table at this point. I went to a mixed but male dominated fee paying school in North London for five years, before moving to a comprehensive sixth form. I am not going to pretend that I haven’t had an excellent education, gleaning benefits from both of these institutions. The private school I went to engendered in me a great deal of intellectual confidence, I had great teachers in the humanities who encouraged me and to whom I will always be grateful, and I was an exceptionally happy teenager.

This changed when I moved to a comprehensive sixth form. I moved not because my parents thought they would seem more edgy at parties if none of their daughters were attending a private school, but because they could no longer afford it. I was already on a bursary, and with the financial recession they decided that it would be better for us as a family if they sent me to an (excellent) state school instead. I have often looked back quite sadly on my time at sixth form; I felt excluded as a girl who had (a been to private school and (b not been at that state school (all girls up to sixth form) all the way through. The in-groups were impenetrable. When I went to a party with my old friends from private school a few months into sixth form one of the girls who had joined that school asked me why I left; when I didn’t give a sufficient reply, she asked me what I got in my GCSE’s. Yes she was drunk. But how dare she.

That said, I think I only think of it as an unhappy time because I had been so happy for the previous five years. In reality, I had very close friends, wonderful people who were dedicated to their work with a passion I had rarely observed at my private school and with whom I remain very close, and in reaction to the social isolation I felt I developed a love of my subjects (English, History, Latin and Ancient Greek) which sustained me.

At Cambridge however, I have often felt intellectually intimidated and undervalued not by my male friends but by male academics, who in order to be where they are at their age have more often than not attended private schools. In supervisions with male academics I have felt the attention focused disproportionately on my male counterparts, notwithstanding three notable exceptions, inspiring teachers whose praise and attention has developed my confidence and with it my intelligence. When I topped my year in my essay paper for part 1A I attributed it not to the originality of my writing but to some sort of administrative error. For most of second year I considered myself deserving of a couple of 2:ii’s I got in my supervision reports and I couldn’t really believe it when I got a two firsts out of the six exams I took at the end of that year. That said, the men who have underestimated me are lovely people. This is not about kindness. It is about institutionalised sexism.

My experiences have only limitedly affected my confidence, and pity is the last thing I am asking for. They are however symptomatic of a much wider problem.

After many conversations among my male and female friends, who have gone to private schools and state schools, I have begun to sense that private schools breed a certain type of self confidence which to a certain extent is healthy, but often passes over the threshold of confidence and turns into arrogance. This is an arrogance that has led a number of young men, a disproportionate number of whom have been privately educated, to abuse my female friends and friends of my female friends emotionally and sexually. Every time I come back to London there are more stories of rape, of sexual assault, of women being treated like pieces of meat in a way that I find both unimaginable because it is absolutely unheard of in the circles I move in at my college in Cambridge and violently upsetting. Is it a coincidence that the males violating the women around me have in almost every single case been to a private school? I am convinced that it is not.

To reiterate: I have absolutely no problem with people who attended private schools. I went to one myself, and many of them – male and female – are my best friends. But the culture of private schools/state schools is hugely damaging for this country in every respect: it perpetuates a disgraceful divide in wealth, it holds back the progress of feminism and gender equality, it fuels disproportional underrepresentation of women politically and culturally, and generally it breeds an absolutely grim lack of human empathy.