Category: Identity


Image result for How not to be a boy In the last year I’ve been lucky enough to experience two works of art that have really ‘spoken to me’, having never really understood the phrase before. The first was the touring production of Rent in October 2016 (after which I spent several weeks sobbing). The second was How Not to Be A Boy by Robert Webb.

I knew from pre-publicity that this book would be right up my street, and I was correct. Not only was the main thread relatable, but How Not To Be A Boy is beautifully and passionately written by Webb. I absorbed this book. It was actually ‘unputdownable’.

How Not To Be A Boy is Webb’s memoir with a focus on the pressures he encountered to conform to society’s ideas of masculinity. Webb writes honestly about his upbringing and childhood, and with hindsight is able to identify some of the dangerous messages he was given which effected his adult life. It begins with his closeness to his mother and difficult relationship with his father, and ends with his modern day struggles to steer away from following his father’s path.

Webb’s discussions on gender go beyond the ‘blue for a boy and pink for a girl’ debate, and he relives insightful anecdotes, (some warm, some hilarious, some tragic), in a way that had me unable to resist the urge to fling my hands in the air and shout ‘Amen!’.

Webb talks about the patriarchy, and how the rules and gender stereotypes created by society are damaging to both women and men. A striking moment is when he talks about how ‘clever’ boys and girls are viewed by society. He notes how when labelled ‘clever’, girls have to respond with how hard they’ve worked for it, whilst boys are expected to shrug it off, as if it all came naturally. If you’re a boy who does well at school, excuses have to be found for this ridiculous behaviour, and often you’re labelled with having no common sense. ‘He’s a clever lad, no common sense though.’ (How many times did I hear that growing up?)

A common thread throughout  is of males suppressing their emotions. One of the most heart-breaking parts of the book comes at the mid-point, where Webb tells of the loss of his mother. Webb writes about his grief and suffering so eloquently that it’s frustrating to comprehend why we are constantly told to ‘man up’ and hide our true feelings. We’ve all had experiences with this, to various degrees, and it’s important that Webb highlights the problem in his book. With almost three quarters of suicide victims in the UK being male, it’s of vital importance that we breakdown the ‘man up’ culture and talk about our problems, as Webb does in university. The patriarchy strikes again by enforcing a false notion that only females open up and talk about their feelings. What a dangerous message. Webb talks candidly, and admirably, of his battles with suicidal thoughts and his subsequent therapy sessions, in a way that may give hope to many.

How Not To Be A Boy also brings to light just how old fashioned words such as ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are. As Webb explains, all they do is conjure up archaic stereotypes which, in 2017, are unnecessary. He describes masculinity as a repressive process which needs to be recovered from and explains how the term only really means ‘not being a woman’. Why not a woman? Women are strong, brave, loving, thoughtful, sensible, loyal, trustworthy and millions other admirable adjectives so….why do we have to avoid being like that? Why do we need these words?

The restrictions that we live under should be blindingly obvious, but Webb unmasks these hideous stereotypes with flair and style, adding his own thoughts, warm humour, and prompting many outbursts of ‘YES!’  from this reader. In an era where people are angry at clothes shop for removing labels, and the walls of gender stereotyping are being slowly eroded, How Not To Be A Boy is essential reading and a book I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

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Somehow the BBC documentary No More Boys and Girls managed to evade me but after a couple of prompts from people who know my interests, I managed to catch it this morning. And I’m so glad I did.

Using a focus group of year 3 pupils in Lanesend Primary School, Dr Javed Abdelmoneim uses a series of strategies to investigate how gender boundaries affect children.

Most disturbing is the opinions girls have of their own gender. The children saw men as strong and powerful whilst women were weak and emotional. According to the children, men could have ‘harder jobs’ – such as authority roles, like policemen or captain – whilst all women seemed destined to be hairdressers. One of the most memorable parts of the programme saw the children draw their own ideas of a mechanic, magician, make up artist and dancer. All of the children associated male characters to the first two professions and female characters to the second two. Of course, their preconceptions were changed when Dr Javed introduced a real mechanic, magician, make-up artist and dancer with opposite genders to the children’s ideas. The girls were in awe of the female mechanic whilst the boys enjoyed a tutorial from a male make-up artist specialising in SFX make-up. It was amazing to see the children understand that ‘anyone can have a chance to do what they like’.

The amount of times the children referred to males as ‘strong and successful’ was shocking, especially as they saw females as the total opposite. It’s sad to think young girls are starting their lives thinking so little of themselves. To show the children that biologically they were all as strong as each other, Dr Javed set up a fairground style strength tester. It was powerful to see one girl cry with ‘happy tears’ after she exceeded her expectations and one boy have a meltdown because he didn’t reach the highest score. It’s important to remember these children weren’t born with these ideas. As adults, we have programmed them to think that boys are stronger than girls. On supply, I’ve visited schools where boys were chosen to move the PE equipment because the teacher needed someone with ‘big muscles’ to help. I’ve seen girls left out of using gym equipment in high school, banished to the dark corners of the sports hall to do some aerobics instead. Is it any wonder the children breakdown when they realise these stereotypes aren’t true?

I’ve talked about my own experiences in school a lot, but it’s still shocking to think that happened just over ten years ago. Split PE sessions with ‘gender appropriate’ activities seems like such an old-fashioned idea but it was happening ten years ago! Although I may have been the victim of a bad careers advisor (and unenthused parents), I remember being told to choose another career path other than one in the theatre. It was heavily hinted at that the theatre was a world for women and, although I would have been happy to be involved in any way (actor, stage-hand, technician…anything!), I was persuaded to keep that dirty secret part of my social life, not my career. What struck me was just how excited the boys were to meet male role models from creative industries, from areas that are usually perceived as ‘female’, and vice versa for the girls. Why should they be denied the chance of following that route just because of the restrictions adults have put on gender? As teachers it’s our job to encourage and nurture each child. Breaking down ridiculous stereotypes and opening those doors to career paths should be part of that.

(As a little side note, I was at a course a few months ago where we were discussing curriculum topics. We were advised to think carefully to ensure the topic we choose inspired all learners and not to ‘choose fairy tales because the boys won’t be interested, or dinosaurs, because we need to keep the girls on board too.’ Well, in my opinion it shouldn’t be a case of choosing the right topic, it should be a matter of delivering the topic in a way that inspires all children. In January our class topic will be dinosaurs and I can already think of many girls who that will appeal to. I had lots of boys last year who loved learning about Little Red Riding Hood. The topic title shouldn’t matter, it’s the activities that draw them in.)

Having a quick scout on Twitter I can see that No More Boys and Girls has come under fire from a lot disgruntled people calling for an end to ‘gender neutral nonsense’. The Piers Morgans of the world are mistaking the programme for encouraging children to choose their gender, when that is not the case. The whole point of No More Boys and Girls is to break down stereotypes that are damaging our children’s view on the World and of themselves. Anyone who is happy for girls to believe they are the weaker sex and live a life feeling second-best, and for boys to live under the impression they must be strong and successful, then break down when they inevitably ‘fail’, needs to seriously consider their beliefs. It’s about raising a generation of confident individuals who aren’t afraid to embrace failures, and who can aspire to be whoever they want to.

Breaking down these boundaries is about nurturing confidence and self-belief, and it starts in the classroom and at home.

Image result for Pink Ranger gifWhen I was a child I was obsessed with Power Rangers. Many weekends were spent high kicking and karate chopping in the garden attacking imaginary Zed Putties. My favourite ranger was the Pink Ranger. I thought she was awesome and kick-ass. I didn’t even think about her suit colour or the fact I was a different sex to her.

I just thought she was great.

My mum and dad did not approve and I was bluntly pushed towards the blue ranger with all the subtlety of Rita Repulsa’s transition to Dad-Eye-Candy in the new film. (Whole different blog post there.) But regardless of what my parents thought, I still thought she was great and, in a very child-like way, she was a bit of hero for me (until I grew out of my Power Rangers phase).

And then as I got into my teens the Doctor came along, bringing with him a range of heroes and role models for me to fantasise about (Errm…excuse me. Not like that.). How awesome was Rose? Loyal and quick-thinking. Donna Noble – hilarious, sensitive, self-less and selfish at the same time. Awesome characters – I wasn’t going to pretend I didn’t like them just because I’m a guy.

I was sixteen when Torchwood started and I was instantly obsessed. Part of the pull for me was the relatable characters – including Gwen and Toshiko, both fearless and flawed, making terrible decisions but fighting their way back on top and learning from their errors, however painful.

I didn’t think that because they were women I shouldn’t admire them. And who wouldn’t want Storm’s powers in X-Men? She’s brilliant!

So, my point is, it shouldn’t matter what gender your favourite TV character is. I’ve got girls in my class who love Spiderman, but somehow that is a bit more acceptable in society than a boy who likes Wonder Woman or Elsa or Clara Oswald. It shouldn’t be. One girl in my class LOVES Doctor Who, she’s actually obsessed with Matt Smith and David Tennant. If a six year old child is able to look past gender then so should adult fans of the show. A female Doctor has been on the cards for long time and, judging by how incredible Missy turned out to be, I’m looking forward to seeing Jodie Whittaker’s take on the time lord. A role model is a role model and gender should not be a factor. We admire these characters for their personalities and their responses to various situations, so there’s no reason we should be discouraging boys from watching Doctor Who now that the main character has changed sex.

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Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been forced to make a very difficult decision. It’s something that’s been in the back of my mind for the last year but, the time has come where I can’t ignore it anymore. It’s time to say goodbye to Pepe the Peugeot.

Pepe was my very first car, and my cousin’s before that. I’ve had him for five years now and we’ve been on many adventures together. For quite a while I knew Pepe was on his last wheels. The left door is dodgy, the rev gage is broke and I didn’t feel comfortable going too far with him in case he conked out. Last week his exhaust fell off and then he overheated due to a crack in the radiator. So, it’s safe to say Pepe is not in good health.

Last year, I was offered a chance to swap cars and, although I was tempted, the thought of not having my Peugeot was heartbreaking! I know, some might say It’s just a car, but it’s really hard to say goodbye. It felt like I was giving away a member of the family!

Your first car is always special. Pepe was my freedom. Because of him I could visit friends, stay out late and go to ASDA for chocolate whenever I wanted! I could travel to see family and help people out by giving lifts. Oh, and most importantly, he rescued me from the perils of public transport. This car was even more special because I inherited him, and I felt I owed it to my cousin to look after hm.

The last five years have been very important for me and although friends have come and gone Pepe the Peugeot has always been there. He was there when I was stuck working in a petrol station, desperate to get out and find a purpose. He was there when I started working in schools, forging a career path and meeting new people. When I was travelling around Wales during my teacher training, I was driving Pepe, and it was behind his steering wheel that I was flitting between elation, excitement and uncontrollable sobs of frustration. He’s faithfully ferried me from school to school during my year on supply, and when I moved into my first solo home, he came with me. He’s just always been there.

He may not be in the best of shape, but he can tell many stories! He’s stuck around for five tough years and, although some might think I’m a sentimental sod, I’ll always remember my first car and be genuinely upset when he’s gone. It’s been tough to accept, but his days of cruising around the north Wales coast are over.

So, it’s with a heavy heart that I’m beginning the awful task of looking for a new set of wheels and preparing to park Pepe up for the last time. *sniff*.

Sunday.

Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork.

My life, this weekend, has become entirely constructed by paper. My living room is awash with files and documents and post it notes and I seem to be drowning in the middle of it. I’m unshowered, pyjama-clad and all I’ve consumed is a piece of toast and a glass of orange juice. But I have been over powered by an almost supernatural entity. His name is Determined-G.

As you may have guessed, Determined-G is a force to be reckoned with. A whirlwind of frantic energy. Today he has been unexpectedly unleased. I woke up at 9.30 and he was there, staring at me from the side of the bed, hopping from foot to foot, eager to get going. He dragged me out of bed and shoved me into the living room, headfirst into my pile of school work. Seven hours later and he’s grown from an acorn of energy to a juggernaut. Absolutely unstoppable. ‘Just two more standards,’ he says, gesturing at my professional development file. ‘And then you can have a break.’

But, of course, he’s said this for the last fifteen standards.

Eventually, as the last sun beams of the weekend stream through the window, I reach a point in the paperwork where Determined-G is satisfied. ‘You’ve done well,’ he says, patting my aching shoulders. ‘Same again next weekend.’ And with that, he relaxes in the corner. Never actually leaving, just waiting, lounging on the sofa, waiting to be provoked. He’s been around for as long as I can remember, but he really got a chance to flex his muscles about four years ago. Most of the time, he’s an ally and a friend, but occasionally he can be a bit of a menace.

For example, Determined-G has helped me with my career, my living arrangements, my personal life choices…everything! But, on some occasions, he can be responsible for awakening Frantic-G. Like this morning, when I dashed into work early determined to start the week ahead of the game. Obviously, Monday madness struck, the game defeated me and Frantic-G emerged. By 8.45 I was having a mad rant about the photocopier a la Basil Fawlty.

My point is, you might have a Determined-G (they might be a Determined-K or a Determined-Z or a Determined-M) who helps you do amazing things but there’s no shame in taking your time. Sometimes in life there is just too much to do and putting pressure on yourself isn’t always the best way. So take a deep breath, chill the hell out and put Determined-G on low power. You’ll still get where you need to be, but it just might take a bit longer. And that’s fine.

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‘And don’t be one of these teachers who lets boys dress as girls!’

Advice given to me a few months ago after I discovered I’d be taking on Year One. It might not surprise you to hear that this comment had come from a person of a certain generation. A generation where boys were expected be the epitome of strength and masculinity and certainly did not wear dresses.

From very early on I’d decided I wanted a performance area in my classroom. Drama is very important to me and I wanted to encourage performance and self-expression within my classroom. I started to collect bits of costumes and masks and puppets that the children could use, and it was whilst sorting through a pile of materials one day, that I was given this worldly piece of advice. I didn’t challenge this person, mainly because I care a lot about them, but also because I wasn’t in the mood for flying into a full on rant about diversity – I was floating happily on the news of my new job and I wasn’t going to let a stupid comment burst my bubble. That said, it took a lot to ignore it.

Well, I didn’t ignored it.  Instead, I let it fester for a bit and then I decided to turn it into something positive.

Now, I’m not saying we should encourage every boy to wear a dress, but neither should we make them think wearing ‘female clothes’ is wrong, if that’s what they choose to do. Clothes are clothes. Pink is just a colour. People are people. What bugs me is that this person would have happily told a dress-wearing-boy that what he was doing was wrong. He would have made him feel abnormal and ridiculed when really that boy isn’t doing anything wrong at all. He’s not hurting anyone. He’s not being offensive. He’s just wearing material. Material that could also be cut into a t-shirt and trousers. He’s still a boy, a person, with feelings and aspirations and insecurities, just like the rest of us. We’re all material, just cut differently.

In this person’s youth, girls wore skirts and boys wore trousers. I understand that this person was raised in a different time and it must be hard to acknowledge the change, I’m sure when I’m into my eighties they’ll be things I’ll struggle to understand, but, in my opinion, I’d rather live in an era where people can wear, and do, what they like. Nowadays, it’s perfectly normal for girls to wear trousers but if a boy wore a skirt he’d be laughed at. What is it about femininity that we just can’t handle? Regardless, if a little boy sees a pink cardigan or a flowery skirt, he’s not seeing something that ‘only a girl should wear’. He’s just seeing another costume from the fancy dress box.

It’s the same with toys. Boys don’t think that dolls are for girls until we enforce that opinion on them. Until we intervene, they just see another toy they could play with and take care of. I’ve witnessed genuine concern for a male three year old who was playing with dolls. He was happy whilst he played and cared for the baby but there was mixed horror and concern that this child shouldn’t be playing with “girls’ toys”. Why? It’s not going to damage him. In fact, having his toy snatched from him and seeing mad, panicking adults is probably more damaging.

Incidentally, I won’t be stopping a boy reading a book targeted at girls either. Or vice versa. I’m an avid reader, and I’m passionate about instilling a love for reading in children. I was in a school once were the library was split in two. You guessed it, ‘Books for Girls’ and ‘Books for Boys’. It made me feel pretty queasy. When I was younger, I probably would have wanted to read the pink book with the picture of a witch on the cover, but I would have been too shy to because it was clearly marketed at girls. Reading it wouldn’t have changed me in anyway, but the children and teachers in my school would have thought otherwise. (In reality, I would have read a few pages, realised it was a load of cheap crap and put it down. If only I’d have had the confidence to be seen reading a girl’s book.) In my classroom, I try and aim for gender neutral books but, if I girl wants to read a book about football or a boy wants to read about princesses, I won’t be stopping them. Just seeing them reach for a book is enough to make me happy.

Anyway, after thinking a lot about this comment over time, it only made me more determined give these children a place to be who they want to be. I want children to know that it’s OK to be whoever they want. I won’t enforce any kind of behaviour or opinions on them, but neither will I discourage their own interests or ideas. If they want to dress up in the mermaid outfit, that’s fine. If they want to play with the dolls, that’s fine. If they want to play football, that’s fine. If they want to play princesses or astronauts or builders or ballerinas then that is absolutely fine with me. Because they’re children. They have no preconceptions about what’s ‘right’ for a boy and what a girl ‘should’ do – that is all rubbish that we bombard them with as they grow up. (In my first week in this class, I had to assure a girl that boys could like butterflies too after she laughed at a boy in the class for saying how much he liked the decorative butterflies in our reading garden. She was totally confused. So, your insect preference now defines your gender. Do you like butterflies? You must be girl. Who has told her this rubbish? And why?!) For now, I want them to be able to explore their own identities, and, more importantly, play, learn and have fun in a safe, relaxed environment where they won’t be judged.

I won’t be a teacher who lets boys dress as girls. I’ll be a teacher who lets boys, and girls, dress however they want.

‘Why?’

One question, asked flippantly, when I revealed, through gasps of discomfort, I’d spent my Friday morning forcing myself through a tough gym session. It’s not everyone’s idea of fun, and to be honest, it wasn’t mine either until earlier this year and on occasions I’m still not 100% sure it is now. Once I’d moved to live across the road from a 24 hour gym, I felt compelled to join. Enough was enough. In my eyes, I no longer had an excuse to not go.

I’ve always been quite slim and in reasonably good shape. (I have shy abs. They are there somewhere, I promise, they just rarely make an appearance) and after starting with gentle work outs, I quickly began pushing myself to do better and better each time, even if it meant spending a few days unable to sit down without groaning or picking up a glass without wincing ‘Oh Jesus Christ!’. The whole gym lifestyle does appeal to me. I’m competitive and constantly seeking self-improvement, I enjoy the healthier option on the menu and I love that feeling after any kind of hard work. My 24 hour gym allows me to fit in a quick work out after school or late at night (when no one is around to judge). So, generally, gyming suits me.

However, on Friday, I did things a little differently. After having my arm twisted by a friend to make a morning visit, I cringed my way through a gruelling workout. I had a feeling my friend was a gym professional but, having not seen him in a vest before, you can imagine my self-esteem plummeting like a dumb bell when a muscly Adonis emerged from the changing room.I knew I was in trouble.  Those who know me know I’m a stubborn sod. Not a quitter. (Sometimes, like this case, it’s a character flaw). I kept chipper and enthusiastic despite feeling like my insides were about to fall out of my mouth and my arms had been stretched to double their natural length. Post-workout I felt great – a bit wobbly in the arms but the usual adrenaline was there.

24 hours later, everything aches. Just raising my mug of tea to my lips is forcing me to make noises which are bordering on post-coital. I’m covered in so much Deep Heat, my fumes could lift a hot air balloon and I’m popping Ibuprofen like tic tacs. When I told my auntie that I’d been to the gym she asked ‘Why?’ and, for the first time, I asked myself the same question. Why am I putting my body through this? Why am I pushing myself to feel this pain?

I’ve come up with a mixture of reasons. OK, I’ll admit, I do sort of feel inadequate and even more so when I’m in the gym surrounded by the brothers of Hercules. I’ve always been happy in my own skin but I have said that I’d like to be just a little bit more toned and in shape. I don’t want to look like an over-stuffed, leathery old sofa, I just want to be able to out-run a murder, should I ever need to. It’s ten percent ‘looks’, ninety percent ‘feeling better’.

The pressure to look good is everywhere and I think it effects men just as much as women. I’d quite like to drown Mark Wright in a vat of Okyos yoghurt every time I see his tanned pecs on my television. I’m sure I’m not the only bloke to think ‘God, I wish I looked like that.’ So many TV shows and movies rely on their aesthetically beautiful stars stripping off. Alright, some of it is entertaining and I promise I’m not going all Daily Mail here, but viewed at the wrong moment it can leave me feeling a little inadequate. And that’s from a 26 year old, who has enough self-confidence to shrug it off and not be too bothered. What effect is this having on teenagers, who are already freaking out about changes and appearance? (I’ll leave that there….there’s another blog there!)

When I first started gyming I reminded myself that this was for me and that I would only do what I was comfortable with and what was possible to do within one week. I’d challenge myself, but realistically. I was never going to strut in and start pumping iron, gazing lustily into the mirror as I do, like many of the gym-goers I see.  It was also supposed to be something enjoyable and this pain is not fun. (Note: First person to say ‘No Pain, No Gain’ will be strangled. Once I regain control of my arms.)

So in answer to the question ‘Why bother with the gym?’, this aching blogger does it for a few reasons, but mostly for himself. I want to feel and look good (in that order). Yes, tighter abs and bigger arms would be lovely, but I needed to remind myself that this was only ever to strengthen my health and mind-set. Anyone else’s routine is irrelevant and pushing myself to agony is not going to help. I think, once you’ve found that level that suits you and you’re happy and comfortable, that’s when you’re winning at gyming.

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The Summer holidays. A few weeks ago, I regarded the upcoming break as the holy grail. Paradise. Six weeks of fun. Sunshine and happiness. Non-stop laughter.

Now, at the start of week four, I can honestly say it’s been dreadful. Dreary, uneventful and, on a couple of occasions, leaving me longing to go back to work. I know, there is no pleasing me.

Yesterday, the sun was shining and I was feeling miserable so I took myself off on a little trip. I packed a rucksack – book, bottle of water, some blueberries and a Bounty…you know, the essentials – and went for a walk around my town. It’s not a famously beautiful town, and it has many faults, but it’s my home town and it was great to have the chance to walk around without the pressure of having to be anywhere. I passed shoppers, families, Pokémon trainers, drunk people (yes, it was 11am) and a lot of people who were less fortunate than myself. Unfortunately, there’s been a significant rise in homeless people in my hometown over the past year or so. On a walk around the town you can easily pass four or five people sleeping in doorways of empty shops. Yesterday, I began thinking about these people and how terrible their nights are going to become over the next few months, as winter kicks in. We’ve many empty buildings in our town centre and it seems so cruel that none of these can be opened up to provide some shelter…..but that’s another blog post. I considered myself lucky for the roof over my head and the food in my fridge.

I carried on walking, right up to a heritage centre on the outskirts of town. I ended up traipsing through a wood and following the river. I’m quite vocal about my love for Wales.  It’s incredible that such a tranquil spot is just a ten minute walk from the middle of town. I was grateful for having such beauty on my doorstep.

Of course, I couldn’t stop my mind from wandering onto work (it’s the nature of the job, right?) and I started to think about September.  In four weeks, I’ll be in my new classroom with my first batch of year ones. I thought about the activities that I’ve already planned and started to get excited about all the things we’ll get up to (trying to be positive – my strategy is to counter every thought of sheer panic by thinking about something I’m looking forward to.) I thanked whoever was watching for my job, the opportunities I’ve been given and took a short moment to feel proud of everything I’ve done in the last three years.

Then, after a cheery stop at the cemetery, I thought about my family, and found myself thanking whoever, as I do every day, that I still have everyone around me. I’m a very lucky.

Then, I wandered over to a park just a stone’s throw away from my apartment and sat in the park and read my book. I know that once September hits, free time is going to become a very rare thing, so I was thankful to be able to take time out and do something I enjoy.

I finished the afternoon by visiting a friend. It’s not been easy over the last few months, as we’ve all been busy with work and….well….life. I was grateful that, even though I might not see them as often as I’d like, we slip into comfortable conversation so easy. It’s never awkward.

So, no matter how rubbish things get, it’s important to take a minute to be thankful for what you’ve got. There’s always a positive and it’s easy to get bogged down in negatives. We’re often very quick to forget what we have got and tend to focus on what we haven’t.

It’s good for the soul to take stock.

 

OK….I’m sure some of you will have predicted this….but I need to talk about EastEnders.

It’s been a hard week. After relatively smooth sailing since Peggy died, we were hit with a big shock on Monday when dead-Ben was in fact revealed to be dead-Paul. I’d anticipated this reveal for a while, but, like Pam, I chose not to accept it. In my head, I’d envisioned him jetting off around the World or leaving for a new life with Jenny. But on Monday night, those visions were shattered as we were delivered the gruesome duff-duff of Paul in the mortuary.

[Disclaimer: Don’t fear for my mental health. I am aware that this is all totally fictional, but for someone who watches regularly, it’s hard not to be affected by last week’s scenes. Here’s why….]

I’ve always been a fan of the Cokers. For two years they’ve been a source of normality within the Square, amongst all the drama from the Carters and the Mitchells and the Beales. The Cokers are not about sensationalism, their storylines are subtle and low-key. (which is one of the reasons why their grief seems so much more real and natural). It’s lovely to have a couple who have so much history and love for each other. (I’ve written about them before – see ‘Kudos to the Cokers’ for more Coker-praise.) And when their grandson Paul arrived, it triggered a fresh new dynamic for the show. The grandparent-grandson set up was interesting to see amidst the more traditional family s
tructures, and Paul’s strong relationship with Pam and Les provided many touching moments. (Giving Claudette a piece of his mind, sharing his suspicions with Pam and supporting Les when the truth about Christine came out.)
But in the last few weeks, things have turned sinister for
our favourite undertakers. First we’ve had the brilliant but wicked Aunt Babe threatening to expose Les’ secret and then Paul’s real mum rocks up and reveals Pam hasn’t been entirely truthful about her departure all along. It looked like we were in for a week of revelations and drama. The simmering tension over Jenny’s arrival had culminated in Pam finally deciding to come clean to Paul (after he’d been unknowingly harsh his mum, thinking she was Les’ blackmailer). It was clear that things were about to get messy for the Cokers, but as an audience, we needed Pam to bite the bullet, tear off the plaster and tell Paul the truth, so that we could go back to hunky-dory-Coker normality – dancing in the launderette and giggling on the flower stall, that sort of stuff.

Then, tragedy. After a night out with Ben, Paul was attacked by a homophobic gang and murdered.

Although, as a result, we’ve had some fantastic television and truly moving scenes, it’s all just so…cruel! Paul was always the figure of support and reason to Ben, so his death, due partly to Ben’s hot-headness, is twist that makes the blood run cold. Harry Reid has put in excellent performances this week as the guilt and shock begins to eat away at Ben, but did it really need to happen? The idea of a sturdy, comfortable gay couple living on the Square was so appealing and Paul and Ben (Pen? Baul?) were the closest we’ve had to that since Chryed. Paul was a refreshingly confident gay character who broke the stereotypes. Paul had brought Ben a long way. He’d helped him deal with his feelings and issues and supported him through his break-up with Abi. He’d been there for Ben when Phil publicly showed his disapproval and things were finally beginning to settle down for them. For a fleeting moment it looked like they might have been…well….happy!  But, I suppose that’s not really Albert Square’s style.

There’s also the matter of Jenny. Paul will now never know the truth about his mother’s departure and lived his whole life thinking she didn’t want him. Isn’t that an awful thought? He died thinking his mother didn’t want him. Not only that, but his death was so sudden. In Friday’s episode he was happily heading out with Ben and by Monday he was a gonner. The fact this all happened off-screen is even more grim as we can only imagine the trauma Paul went through and the fear he felt.

Watching Pam deny the news of Paul’s death was heart-breaking, especially as she remained focused on Les’ health, whilst he kept it together for Pam’s sake, breaking down only when Pam was out of sight – remaining true to what we know about Les bottling things up to be strong for his wife. The scene where Pam and Les return home, Pam silently heading to Paul’s room clutching one of his jackets whilst Les pours away the tea Paul never got to drink, is so poignant and subtle but packs in just as much tension and drama as a Queen Vic fire episode.

What’s most heart-breaking is that none of the Cokers deserve this. When a soap character dies, there’s usually some reasoning behind it. Their previous actions usually justify it somehow which takes the edge off it – it comforts us to find some justification. But there’s none of that for Paul. He was innocent. Loyal, caring and with a fully-working conscience. (As Les said tonight, ‘Hate crime? Who could hate Paul?’). Pam and Les have also kept themselves out of trouble, being the average community members that they are, so it’s tough to see them going through so much trauma. Add to that the knowledge of the pain they have already suffered – losing their son Laurie, suspecting Paul of blaming them, the recent blackmail from Aunt Babe – and their grief makes for almost unbearable viewing. In this instance there is no justification, which I suppose is the writers point. Chillingly, hate crime like this happens all the time to people just like Paul. People are killed because of who they love, who they worship and who they follow, as Twitter confirms every day. This wasn’t just an average soap death, it carried a painful but important message, which makes it even harder to accept.

It would have been great to see Paul get a storyline of his own, away from Ben and his grandparents. Perhaps make some other links on the Square and become a long-term character. Jonny Labey has done an excellent job in his performances but it would have been interesting to have seen a bit more to Paul before he was bumped off.

The last time I wrote about the Cokers, I talked about how Christine’s storyline seemed to come out of the blue from this normal little family, but had such an impact. Well, they’ve done it again. In the aftermath of the huge, sensational storylines like Peggy’s death and Bobby’s imprisonment, the Cokers have surprised us with a humble story of grief and injustice that has been just as powerful. Storylines rarely have such an impact but the cruelty of Paul’s death has left viewers distraught and emotionally drained. (See Pam’s note to Paul/Les’ kitchen sink breakdown/Pam’s breakdown to Belinda/Pam’s speech in the Vic etc. *sob*) Soaps need characters like the Cokers and I hope that they’re around for a long time (I said that in my last Coker-post, and now we’re one down!), and, though I’m sure Lin Blakley and Roger Sloman will be superb, seeing Les and Pam attempt to cope over the next few weeks is not going to make for easy viewing.

One of my very first posts – years ago, in an account that has been long since forgotten – was about the infuriation caused by Facebook. If it’s not sucking your productivity levels dry then its inhabitants are irking you with a barrage of lols and baes and TMI. I’m aware I may be morphing into a grumpy old man but it really does grind my gears! Settle in and prepare for a rant….

As this week is my one year blog-iversary, it only felt right that I revisit that topic. Especially as I still have so much whinging to do about it. Coincidentally, this weekend marks my tenth week of being Facebook free. Finding the ‘deactivate’ button was tough but after months of failed promises to delete I finally took the plunge… and I’ve coped much better than I thought.

I was a facebook addict. It had a grip on me. I’d find myself wasting hours scrolling through mindlessly dull posts (no offense to anyone on my FB friends list!) Sometimes I’d open the app on my phone without even realising. It had become a default action. I wasn’t learning anything. I wasn’t really doing anything. I’d just become passive. Staring at the screen, reading through rubbish. Snaps of people’s dinner. Mysterious statuses that, in reality, mean absolutely nothing. People checking in at A&E. (Why? WHY?! What possible reason could there be for checking in at A&E other than wanting attention? If I was at A&E with a genuine problem I’m sure the last thing I’d be concerned about would be CHECKING IN ON FACEBOOK! It’s made more annoying when people don’t actually state what’s wrong with them until the fiftieth comment, just to drum up a bit of tension.)

The concept behind Facebook is great. Stay in touch with all of your friends at the touch of button. But the reality is…let’s be honest….bloody annoying! Don’t get me wrong, the majority of people on my friends list I really do care about but there are some that just get on my nerves. I don’t care about your tea. I don’t care about your duvet days. I don’t care about your sodding holiday! (Alright, so I’m bitter about holidays!)

In the long term, I don’t think Facebook is good for your health. It’s easy to fall into the trap of sitting on the sofa for hours reading through the drivel, but that time could be spent more productively. Go for a walk. Watch a film. Read a book. DO SOMETHING. It’s also got to affect you mentally. You can sit reading posts about the fabulous holiday someone is having, or the swanky new job they’ve got or their perfect (non-existent) relationship and, when in the wrong frame of mind, it can really get to you. I went through a phase of thinking ‘God, what is wrong with me? Everyone seems to be off doing stuff and I’m not’. When in reality, I was doing lots of things. It’s easy to forget your own achievements when you’ve got 356 other people’s being shoved down your throat. When you’re at your lowest, having everybody’s perfect lives paraded in front of you is not what you need, but the important thing to remember is that Facebook is fiction. We’re all guilty of using Facebook to live out these polished, airbrushed lives. Very rarely do people post the truth. We like to show off what we’ve got and Facebook is there to allow us to rub it in the faces of the people we went to school with. That can backfire and leave you feeling pretty miserable, but you have to remember that a perfect life does not exist.

For some people, Facebook becomes something of an excuse. I know friends and friends-of-friends who think that by having you as a friend on Facebook gives them a free pass to not spend any time with you. They can go months without making the effort to see you because, as long as they have sent the obligatory message or wall post or comedy meme, they’ve done their bit as a friend. Facebook is doing a pretty speedy job of converting actual friends into cyber-friends. (Note: If you think deleting Facebook will shake your mates up into realising how much they enjoy your company and will spur them into spending more time you, just be careful, because it bloody stings when that doesn’t happen.) For that reason, Facebook can do the opposite of its purpose. It doesn’t just bring people together, it can drive them apart. It’s anti-social media!

In schools, there’s been a significant rise in disputes with parents, thanks to the wonderful Facebook. A number of parents (not all!) will take to Facebook to complain about their schools which then causes more problems than if they had just aired their opinions with the teacher. So teachers are defriending Facebook too. That’s before we even get into the chaos is causes between pupils!

Anyway, I know there’s a hell of a lot of moaning here, but a few weeks ago I had a bit of an epiphany. I was bored of Facebook. I’d planned to do lots of writing but instead I’d been distracted scrolling through the status graveyard. Frustrated with myself, I said adios to FaceyB and deleted. It hasn’t been a life-changing decision but it has certainly improved my mentality. I feel so much more productive. I’m putting more time into my work and finding more creative ways to bust any boredom. If I watch a film, I watch it. I don’t distract myself halfway through by checking FB and then lose the plot thread completely. When I’m out, I’m enjoying myself and my surroundings rather than gazing down into a phone screen. And I don’t have to put up with those ridiculous copy and paste posts which are ‘just for fun’. (Apparently).

So that’s the advice I’d give. Press delete. Even if it’s just for a break. Step away from the like button and start living again. Whether it’s for a week, a month, a year or even if you’re adamant on kicking the habit forever, do it. For the friends that you’ll miss, go and see them. Make the effort. Socialise! For the sake of your sanity, get rid! I guarantee you’ll notice a change.