So, you want to be journalist? Here are 3 tips to help

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You can also click on this image to visit my ‘About me’ page

Over the past four years, while I’m by no means Dr Know It All from the University of Journalism, I’ve learnt a thing or two – or maybe even three – about the obstacle-paved path to a career in journalism. (For an overview of why, visit my ‘About me‘ page – assuming you haven’t already, of course.)

In 2011, instigated by an insomnia-curing careers talk for another sector, I decided that the written word would make my living. (Note, dear reader, that I say “my living” – not “my fortune”. No one, I think, can go into journalism today, as they may have done 50, or even 20 years ago, for any materialistic amour of the Great British Pound.)

Since then, I’ve made far more mistakes than I’ve had successes. However, both the mistakes and the successes have been significant –  no matter how small – steps to where I am today. Of course, aged 23, I still have a long, long way to go. Yet for those of you a few rungs below me on the career ladder, I hope these tips, insights and and anecdotes may give you the non-nepotistic leg-up that I wish I’d had four years ago.

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Me (pictured) when I flirted with a career in front of the camera while PR secretary of University of Exeter’s Men’s Hockey Club


 

 Experience, experience, experience

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North Devon locals Catherine Yates and Shana Little

“Education, education, education”, said Tony Blair on New Labour’s priorities during the 1997 general election campaign. Well, for any aspiring journalist, I say experience, experience, experience should your top, and heavily underlined, and maybe even yellow-highlighted, priority.

I sound so much like a school’s careers advisor saying so, I know, but work experience really is what identifies you as an attractive candidate to potential employers. In short, work experience – and making the most of it, most importantly, when you have it – provides you with both a portfolio and, by extension, a mental notebook of stories to tell about your articles.

While at work experience, for instance, you may have had to ring 15 people to get a comment for an article that you pitched to the news editor: irrefutable evidence of the self-motivation and determination that any successful journalist possesses. As an example from my own portfolio, I stumbled across a series of critical comments from a North Devon resident while I was at the North Devon Gazette about a day community centre facing closure. I traced down this resident and then spoke to her and her friend (pictured above) about the centre’s closure. The story (pictured below) became a page five lead. (I’m not including this story to brag, by the way. Instead, I just hope it helps to clarify my point.)

How do you get work experience? Easy squeezey: pick up the phone and, while it may seem daunting at first, dial the number of your local newspaper, the place for any aspiring journalist to start their budding careers. After you’ve got a few weeks of work experience at local publications on your CV, try the national newspapers. Trust me, as I failed trying the exact opposite, calling up the Times and boldly asking for two week’s work experience, that is the recommended route to take.

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The subsequent story on page five of the North Devon Gazette. Remember: always organise work experience well in advance

 
 

Learn to write by reading

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Gay Talese, 83, one of the creators of The New Journalism

At first, that advice sounds slightly paradoxical, doesn’t it? It’s an axiom that I first came across in an article by Laurie Penny, a contributing editor to the New Statesman. (Annoyingly, I can’t find that article now, but she has written an excellent article on advice for young journalists.)

Since then, I have heard the same advice repeated on countless occasions. Most recently, George Brock, director of journalism at City University London, where I am studying on the Newspaper Journalism MA course, said, “I never trust a journalist who doesn’t read.” In short, good readers – in other words: someone who reads a lot – make good writers and, as a consequence, good journalists.

At school, you learnt how to use a comma, a colon, a semi-colon – but you only understand fully the innumerable nuances of language, punctuation and grammar from reading those who write well. Literary writers, like any other artist, often talk about the influence of other writers on their work. (Oscar Schell, for example, the young protagonist of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ (2005), shares a number of characteristics J. D. Salinger’s angst-ridden Holden Caulfield, in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ (1951).)

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My feature in the Guardian for Self-Harm Awareness Day

Well, the very same principle applies to journalism: pick a journalist whose work you like, and then read, and read, and read their work – and then try to write better than them. Go on, you can do it. For writers, the point of having heroes is to inspire and, most importantly, to help you improve.

For me, my favourite modern writer is Gay Talese (pictured above), who specialises in creative non-fiction. Sadly, mainly due to the lack of money in print media today, this style of journalism has gradually grown out-of-fashion, like jump suits during the 1980s. Yet I still applied the basic principles of his writing – an intense attention to detail, namely – to a feature that I had published earlier this year for Self-harm Awareness Day in the Guardian.

To finish this point, I would recommend always having this quote in mind from A.J. Liebling, one of America’s finest writers of the 20th century: “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.” If you can do that, after following the above advice, you will be a quick, crafty and sought-after writer.

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Click on this image to read Gay Talese’s ‘Frank Sinatra has a cold’, an excellent example of his innovative style of journalism


 

Be curious and, most importantly, confident

By nature, most journalists have insatiably curious minds. As a stereotype, we are miners of information, with exclusive stories our ultimate, rarest ore. Curiosity is an essential part of what leads us to potential stories: spotting that advert for 50 one-legged kittens for sale, to give one silly example, or even noticing something in another news story that could be investigated further.

Yet curiosity is only half of the equation that eventually equals journalistic success. Without confidence or courage, or whatever you want to call it, it would be impossible to build on that initial curiosity and get the story. You may need, for example, to turn up on someone’s doorstep – known as ‘doorstepping’ – to get comment from them. Similarly, in press conferences, all eyes may be on you when, having raised your hand (probably for several minutes), it’s your chance to speak.

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A story I had published in the Islington Gazette after spending a morning doorstepping residents in a north Islington ward


 
For most people, these sort of tasks can be overwhelmingly daunting – but the results can be equally rewarding. I got the story pictured above, for instance, from doorstepping Islington residents, as part of my Newspaper Journalism MA, about the impact of construction work on their homes – which lead to a resident telling me that her whole house shook due to lorries passing by the speed bumps outside. More often than not, if you are polite and conscientious, people will always be willing to talk to you.

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This story, in the Sunday Times, started with curiosity about hate crimes

At its core, journalism is courage, confidence and self-belief. (For me, in this context at least, the three are synonymous.) As clichéd as it may sound, having courage and self-belief is an essential part of what divides good, bad and great journalists from one another. Of course, on top of these characteristics, a wide-ranging set of skills – writing, data, social media, to name a few – equally set journalists apart from one another.

If you don’t believe you can be a good journalist, though, there’s only one result from that way of thinking: you won’t be one – ever. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a journalist, but it took me until four years ago to reach out to the opportunities around me that would help to fulfil that ambition. The only person decelerating my race to realising my journalistic dream was – as is the case for so many young journalists – me.

For years, I told myself that I wasn’t good enough. Now, four years on, I realise those years were wasted. So, with me as an example, don’t doubt yourself. On the path to becoming a journalist, the greatest obstacle is often your own self-belief. Once you overcome that, you will have the greatest tool to overcome any other challenge you will encounter as a professional journalist. Good luck – and make your own luck through hard work. If you want to get in touch, see my Contact page.

 

Revolutionise society from inside the system, Mr Brand

From Sachsgate to his close-to-the-bone jokes at the 2008 MTV VMAs, Russell Brand’s sense of humour has always polarised opinion. If possible, though, his political beliefs do so even more. Over the past few months alone, he has been heralded the Left’s anti-establishment loudhailer, following the launch of his latest book, ‘Revolution‘. At the same time, possibly due to the interview he gave on Newsnight on 23 October, he has been portrayed as its very own pantomime villain, heckled with each paparazzied public appearance, and ridiculed for his 140-character rants on Twitter. (#PARKLIFE!) On the Right, and maybe even on some parts of the Left, people think that Brand has some sort of Messiah complex – the title he used, incidentally, for his latest stand-up tour. Looks-wise, it’s true, he does bear a surreal resemblance to images of Jesus Christ. Yet with his “them and us” ideology, Brand is more like Moses than any other Biblical figure: a divider of the UK’s shifting political sea. Like Moses, to extend the analogy, he is trying to lead his followers to his own promised land – a place without Forex-fixing bankers, without PR-peddling politicians, where the rich-poor divide is radically reduced. In ‘Revolution’, Brand argues that the coalition government has lied to us, indoctrinated us into believing there are no other alternatives, and invites us to join the revolutionary movement. Of course, as a non-believer might say about Moses’s parting of the Red Sea, such a bold ambition is far from likely to be achieved in this neo-liberalist age – if ever at all.

 

One Mount-Sinai-sized obstacle that lies in the way of Brand’s political utopia is the issue of powerful corporations. Along with the coalition government, Brand loves to lambast the UK’s rich, multinational business – especially their CEOs. In an article for the Guardian, published after his interview with Jeremy Paxman last year, Brand goes after Sir Phillip Green, CEO of Topshop, who he describes as “an arsehole” for failing to pay any income tax on a £1.2billion dividend. “The money he’s nicked through legal loopholes would pay the annual salary for 20,000 NHS nurses,” Brand writes. “It’s socialism for corporate elites and feudalism for the rest of us,” he adds. In ‘Revolution’, also, Brand writes on the topic of General Motors: “Let’s kill General Motors. Let’s take it back from the shareholders, scribble out the name and the logo and let’s use its resources for something more valuable.” In his latest Newsnight appearance, Brand identified this outlandish proposal as part of an “alternative to corporate hegemony”. To use his stance on General Motors as a general example, however, this is where Brand’s attitude towards corporate power reveals a basic flaw in his political vision. Despite the company’s financial trouble, General Motors is not going to ‘killed’ – to borrow Brand’s colloquial, often confusing, lexicon – anytime soon. Founded 106 years ago in Detroit, the spiritual home of America’s automobile industry, General Motors Corporation (now General Motors Company) is still a symbol of its country’s capitalist system. Today, with assets worth more than $166 billion and 396 facilities on six continents, it provides a model for a corporation’s expansion across a globalised market. Although Brand can boast about his activism and a much-publicised book (or wooky book, as he might call it), General Motors is anchored to the seabed of Western society – along with most other big-name corporation listed on the FTSE 500. Instead of fighting against corporate firms, then, like an inmate rattling the steel rails of their cell, why doesn’t Brand harness their power and work with them?

There is nothing at all revolutionary, of course, about the idea of working with corporations. Charities, youth groups and small businesses all do it – and they will continue to do so in the future. In particular, there is one group from which Russell Brand could genuinely learn: The Kindness Offensive (TKO). Set up in 2008, group began when three friends – David Goodfellow, Benny Crane and James Hunter – climbed Parliamentary Hill in north London, and asked members of the public what random acts of kindness they wanted done for them. On that afternoon, one request made was a father’s wish to take his 11-year-old daughter to see the Moscow State Circus – which TKO duly organised, complete with ringside seats and juggling lessons. (Yes, you did read that right.) Since then, with the help of firms such as Barclaycard and Hasbro, the group has provided a toy to each child in a London hospital, given away 25-tonnes of food to the UK’s homeless, and established a free-bookshop headquarters in Islington. Unlike Mr Brand, TKO, with their moto: “Kindness is a one-word revolution”, understands how to access and share corporations’ resources without a full-blown coup d’état. On the subject of Brand’s revolution, interestingly, David Goodfellow says: “We work with Nestlé, Panasonic, Canon – some of the biggest corporations in the world – and our view is not ‘Give us back the power.’ Our view is, ‘Okay, well you’ve got a lot of resources Let’s work together to mould and change what you are doing with them.'” Obviously, if Russell Brand worked with the same corporations, it would completely compromise his political views. Indeed, it is easy to imagine the far Left – currently his steadfast supporters – turning against him and even vilifying him in a similar way to how the Right has recently. If Brand is as serious about instigating change as he claims, though, working with corporations may be the most feasible way of achieving it on nationwide scale.

Use #thatPower: my love-hate relationship with will.i.am

Who can remember the year 2003? In politics, if you need a little reminder, it was the year the Bush-Blair bromance unseated Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. In sport, it was the year a drug-pumped Lance Armstrong claimed his fifth of seven consecutive Tour de France victories. And in music, it was the year that The Black Eyed Peas, now one of the world’s best-selling groups of all time, broke into the UK industry with their number one single: ‘Where Is The Love?’

Slouched at home on the living room sofa, I can remember hearing the song for the first time on MTV. By the end of the opening line – “What’s wrong with the world, Mama?” – I had already decided to buy the single that weekend at my local Borders. (Remember, with iTunes less than a year old, this was long before the days of Soundcloud and Spotify.) For the next six weeks, ‘Where Is The Love?’ remained unrivaled on the UK Billboard Chart. Over the same period, the band went on a non-stop publicity spree for their latest album, Elephunk, and I became familiar with all The Black Eyed Peas members – or their stage names at least.* As the group’s charismatic, side-cap-wearing frontman, I found it hard not to like will.i.am, who grew up in Boyle Heights – a housing project in eastern Los Angeles. As a white, middle-class, 11-year-old, however, it was hard for me back then to grasp how truly tough life had been for will.i.am before he found – finally – fame.

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Ramona Gardens, Boyle Heights. Credit: tedder/Wikimedia.

Raised by his single-parent mother, Debra, having never met his father, life was often a struggle for will.i.am and his family during his childhood. In Boyle Heights, as he explained to the Sun in May 2012, “There were a lot of gangs. A lot of my friends are dead, were in prison, on drugs or were selling drugs.” In the song ‘Ghetto, Ghetto,’ taken from his first solo album #willpower (2013), you can get a fleeting sense of what his poverty-plagued community must have been like through the lyrics: “Little kids growing up without no education. / Mom’s on drugs, ‘cause that’s her only medication.” In the song’s chorus, sung by nine-year-old rapper Baby Kaely, will.i.am then provides a possible insight into sort of dreams he may have harboured at a similar age:

I wanna be what’s on TV,
And if that’s wrong, please don’t blame me,
Cause where I live we have nothing
In the ghetto, ghetto, ghetto.

Judging from the opening line, it almost feels like will.i.am obsessed over fame. It was his chosen path – perhaps his only real one – to escape his family’s poverty, which forced him to sleep on a floor-bound mattress during his adolescence. At the same time, as the second line shows, he feels guilty at having such high-aimed ambitions for himself. Understandably, although it would surely have cost him his career, a part of will.i.am may have wanted to remain forever in Boyle Heights. However, as aple.de.ap (real name Alan Lindo) says about his boyhood friend: “He almost had no choice but to make it [in the music industry]. That drive of providing for your family kept us going [when we started The Black Eyed Peas].” Paradoxically, then, one of the reasons for why will.i.am may have wanted to stay in Boyle Heights is one of the very same for why he first left.

Now living in a Spanish-style villa in Los Feliz, an affluent area of Los Angeles, will.i.am has certainly ‘made it.’ From its back garden, complete with basketball court and outdoor projector screen, the villa looks down towards the Boyle Heights housing projects: a constant reminder of just how far he has come since he and aple.de.ap formed The Black Eyed Peas in 1995. But while he has moved to the other side of the city, that is not to suggest that will.i.am now distances himself from Boyle Heights – quite the opposite, in fact. As Joanna Lumley observes in the BBC One documentary: “Will stays connected to where he grew up.” Last year, for example, he donated computers to one of the local libraries to develop its young users’ technological skills. Through his i.am.angel foundation, he has also established i.am College Track, a philanthropic scheme that helps a number of Boyle Heights students to gain a much-coveted college education. Giving back to his old community, as Lumley notes, is will.i.am’s way of showing his gratitude. At the same time, though, as the chorus to ‘Ghetto, Ghetto’ seems to suggest, it may also be an effort to rid himself of the guilt he felt – and may still feel today – for originally wanting to leave Boyle Heights.

Outside of Boyle Heights, music is arguably will.i.am’s most far-reaching means of influencing people’s lives in a similarly positive way. Take ‘Where Is The Love?’. If it wasn’t for that song, I doubt I would be as interested in politics as I am today. Together with the events of September 11, the event that actually inspired the song, ‘Where Is The Love? was the catalyst for my socio-political curiosity. In 2008, on top of that, will.i.am ventured into pop-politics again to support Barack Obama’s Democractic leadership campaign with ‘Yes We Can.’ Recorded, edited and released just five days after will.i.am thought of the idea, the music video sets to music Obama’s post-defeat speech at the New Hampshire primaries. In total, at the time of writing, it now has 25 million-plus YouTube views. More importantly, though, is the decisive influence it had on Obama’s campaign, helping him to steal the lead from Hilary Clinton. To will.i.am, as he told Joanna Lumley, the public’s response to ‘Yes We Can’ was a total revelation: “When it comes to issues that help shape communities and society as a whole,” he said, “I really took that whole experience to heart. To me, it goes far beyond politics. It was like a social awakening on how I can help.”

For a musician with a patent passion for helping others, however, will.i.am spends an awful lot of time making a lot of awful music that – except anyone profiting directly off his music, of course – fails to help anyone with anything. Contrasting with ‘Where Is The Love?’ and ‘Yes We Can,’ for example, is the likes of ‘Check It Out,’ a nauseatingly repetitive song in which will.i.am says the title 40 times in just four minutes. To emphasise the point, each chorus reads: “Check it out, check it out, check it out, check it out, check it out, check it out, check it out, check it out, check it out. Yeah, yeah, I’m feeling it now.” And then, if that wasn’t enough, we have three more: “Check it out, check it out, check it out.” (He doesn’t once explain what the ‘it’ actually is, either.) In the opening verse of ‘#thatPower,’ meanwhile, will.i.am raps: “They call me will-A, / Stay so cool, I’m chilli, / I done made that maley.” Despite the media never referring to him by such a name, the first line does make some sense. The other two, though, are almost imbecilic. Firstly, as we all know (except will.i.am, it seems), chilli is not cool at all; it’s hot, it’s spicy, it makes you gasp, if you’re like me, and frantically flap one hand in front of your mouth. Secondly, unless will.i.am is referring to Willy Maley, the Scottish literary critic from University of Glasgow, the word ‘maley’ has—literally—no meaning.  On one hand, ‘maley’ could be will.i.am’s attempt to coin a ‘fresh’ or ‘dope’ phrase, as he would say. On the other hand, it is a poor choice of words for someone who wrote and rapped: “But if you only have love for your own race, / Then you only leave space to discriminate.”

Of course, in will.i.am’s defense, there are modern-day musicians who make far worse pop music than him. (Nicky Minaj’s ‘Anaconda,’ to name one, may well be the worst pop songs ever made.) Equally, like most money-lovers, there are some musicians who only seem to care about building up a property portfolio of ten-bedroomed mansions. (Miss Minaj springs to mind again, actually.) But will.i.am is different – or at least he seems to be so. He may be materialistic, evident through his fashion interests, but he is also conscious of such issues as poverty, education and global warming. As ‘Yes We Can’ demonstrates, he is a musician who can instigate change, both in our society and in our own outlooks on it. As I said, though I know it sounds cliché, ‘Where Is the Love?’ had a genuine impact on my life. After hearing the song, I wanted to ask my own mother: ‘What’s wrong with the world, Mama?’ (That song, interestingly, is still his most commercially and critically successful song.) Whether to Barack Obama, the United States of America or to people like me elsewhere, ‘Where Is The Love?’ and ‘Yes We Can’ made a difference: they communicated an idea – a message – that subsequently instigated an ‘awakening,’ to borrow will.i.am’s own phrase. If I were will.i.am, I would certainly want to be remembered for that sort of music. At the same time, I would also want the likes of ‘Check It Out’ to be quickly, and forever, forgotten.

P.S. This song, written by apple.de.ap about his native Indonesia, should never be forgotten.

*The Black Eyed Peas’ stage names: will.i.am, Fergie, aple.de.ap and Taboo.

Just who benefits most from our welfare state?

Picture this scene: for the very first time, you find yourself in a magistrate’s court—a rectangular, wood-panelled room with a stand-fan whirring in one corner. Around you, on the carpeted floor, you can spot brand-new briefcases, small piles of plastic folders and six pairs of well-polished leather shoes—one of which tap-tap-taps to a silent tune. Your iPhone says it’s 11:46am. Beside you, your colleague shifts from left to right in his seat. ‘Second case should have started now,’ he mumbles. Looking down, he then glances at the small clump of A4 paper before him, a five-page list of the morning’s proceedings. Before you can say anything, though, the heavy door to your right swings open. Wearing a tight-fitting tracksuit, a young woman walks into the courtroom. Above her silver lip-piercing, her brown-blonde hair is scraped back into a greasy ponytail. In each tattoo-covered hand, she carries a rustling bunch of Aldi and Iceland shopping bags. She drops them beside the entrance. ‘The absolute scrounger,’ you think as you try to peer inside the bags. ‘Just look at her: appearing in court, and she’s gone shopping—yes, shopping—beforehand.’

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ALDI: where I presumed the young woman had been shopping before coming to magistrate’s court.

 
Earlier this year, whilst reporting in Barnstaple Magistrate’s Court, I witnessed that very scene—except that, in reality, Josie Dawson had not been on any sort of benefit-funded shopping spree. (Her shiny-white Nike trainers, though, suggested she might have been on one recently.) Instead, as my colleague said to me, she had brought along her main possessions—clothes, toiletries, a black-spotted white duvet—because she knew she was going straight to prison, having violated the terms of her suspended sentence. In Josie’s defence, contesting two caught-in-the-act counts of Class A drug-possession, her solicitor said that Josie was ‘very realistic’ about the hearing’s outcome. So that Josie could ‘sort herself out,’ the solicitor then said: “My client is asking to go to prison.” Upon hearing this request, my colleague looked straight up from his notepad. Cupping a hand around his mouth, he leant across and whispered, “Never heard someone ask that before.” As he spoke, I watched Josie. Sat in the far corner, she was absently scratching at a star-shaped tattoo on her hand. Ten minutes later, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pity for her as she lifted both hands and the silent court heard the sharp click of handcuffs being fastened. Aged 29, a crack-cocaine addict and going to prison: what a sad, mis-led, messed-up start to her adult life.

Heroin: another of the drugs that Josie Dawson had been caught with by Devon and Cornwall Police.

 
I held this opinion of Josie until I met two other North Devon locals: Catherine Yates and Shana Little. Aged 42 and 44, respectively, both women have physical disabilities, both are mothers to autistic children, and both—whilst Josie received free rehab treatment in prison—have been made to suffer from Devon County Council’s £100m budget cuts. Since 2011, from 10:00am to 4:00pm, Catherine and Shana attended Oasis Day Centre without fail three times a week. For Catherine, who has a permeated spine and walks with a crutch, the day-centre is a ‘lifeline,’ a form of ‘respite.’ For wheelchair-bound Shana, disabled several years ago by a neurological condition, Oasis is ‘a happy family.’ “It’s a happy family,” she explains, “because we’ve got high amounts of stress in our own families…and, before this, Catherine and me didn’t really have any sort of life.”

Rosebank Day Centre: the location for Oasis Day Centre after its previous site was closed by the Council.

 
Now, however, after the Council announced the closure of 17 day-care centres across Devon, the future of Oasis remains in doubt. “For Oasis to be closed down,” says Catherine, a mother to four children, “that’s going to affect a lot of people’s mental health—not just those that come here, but also the families that need that time to have a breather, and for us to feel like normal humans.” Shana, meanwhile, spent five-and-a-half years at her West Devon home before discovering Oasis, where she struggled to adapt to her disability and battled with depression. In search of a ‘better quality of life,’ she then moved to North Devon—only to have ‘a small taste of it’ before the Council announced the day-centre closures. “I was housebound for pretty much two years before Oasis,” she says. “I was quite introverted when I first came here, and I was very dubious of everything. But, through Oasis, I’ve learned to cope better with what I’ve got and how to handle things better.”

Catherine (above) and Shana (below) posing outside Oasis Day Centre with letters from the Council.

 
Between Josie, Catherine and Shana, then, we have two types of people found today in British society: the scrounger and the hapless disabled, persecuted by governmental policy. When I spoke to them, Catherine and Shana repeatedly outlined the County Council’s apparent ‘betrayal.’ “All along,” Catherine said, who worked at Pall Europe in Ilfracombe for six years, “[local councillor] Stuart Barker always said that, if we wanted to stay as a group at Oasis, we at the County Council will keep you as a group.” Like the coalition government’s bedroom tax, which has slashed the benefits of thousands of disabled people in the UK, Devon County Council has left some of the county’s most vulnerable citizens even more so, despite what councillors might try to argue. “We feel almost victimised,” says Shana, a former healthcare assistant in Oakehampton Community Hospital. “I cried when I saw Stuart Barker [explaining the Council’s decision] on the television.”

Barnstaple's Civic Centre: the headquarters for Devon County Council.

Barnstaple’s Civic Centre: the head offices for Devon County Council.

 
Evidently, the contrast between Catherine and Shana and Josie Dawson—an unemployed, benefit-claiming addict, who previously declared in court that she never wanted to give up drugs—is stark.* While Catherine and Shana now have to fret about ‘a future of isolation,’ taxpayer-funded help is readily available to Josie in prison. Of course, whilst right-wing commentators would probably argue otherwise, the issue of Josie spongeing off the state does not ultimately lie with her. Instead, it lies with our welfare state, as does the victimisation of Catherine and Shana. By closing day-centres, Devon County Council is persecuting some of the people that need its help most. In prison, meanwhile, Josie can receive far better—and free—help for her personal needs than both Catherine and Shana. Regrettably, if the father of our 69-year-old welfare state William Beveridge was still alive, I don’t think he would like what he could see for himself in North Devon.

Barnstaple’s Clock Tower (North Devon), a location close to the town’s only magistrate’s court.

 
*Source: My colleague, who attended Josie Dawson’s previous hearing in May 2014. For North Devon Gazette’s article, click here.

What would Boris do for UK property as Prime Minister?

So, barring any major political mishap, it looks like Boris Johnson will be returning to the House of Commons—with his gaze seemingly set on the Conservative leadership.

During his tenure as Mayor of London, which will come to an end in May 2015, Boris has done a lot for the capital’s property market—from investing £3 billion into building new homes to his direct involvement with several high-profile deals.

But what if Mr. Johnson, instead of just the English capital, oversaw the whole of the UK’s real estate market? What if, in other words, he became Prime Minister?

That trademark messy mop of blonde hair - a possible rival in hairstyle to that of Conservative MP Michael Fabricant.

That trademark messy mop of blonde hair – a possible rival in hairstyle to that of Conservative MP Michael Fabricant.

 
“As Mayor,” says Steve Sanham, Development Director at residential developers HUB, “Boris has been good for London and a prominent figure in making the case for development.

“Having any pro-development figure in Downing Street is helpful, as there is huge potential to reap the social rewards of regenerating many areas of the country.”

“You have to look at what he’s delivered for London—from planning reform, major developments and big regeneration areas,” agrees Charles Mills, partner of Daniel Watney agents.

“From an investor point of view, having strong and vocal political cheerleading is vital. It instills confidence and this is what gets things done.”

Since 2008, when he swapped his Henley-on-Thames constituency for City Hall, Mr. Johnson has earned himself a pro-development reputation.

Deptford Dockyards, one of the redevelopments in which Johnson has intervened and used his planning-permission powers.

 
Last year, in fact, during a speech given to the British Business Group in the United Arab Emirates, he even joked with his audience about being mayor of the eighth emirate.

If he ever became Prime Minister, though, would such a pro-development attitude provide a sustainable level of growth for the UK’s property market?

Ian Fletcher, Director of Real Estate Policy at the British Property Federation (BPF), says it would.

“Attracting foreign investment,” he says, “which is needed to help take the initial risk on some very risky mega projects, is very important, and Boris has recognised that, without this investment, many projects simply would not get underway.”

“If there is a mistake in policy, Fletcher added, “it is that London hasn’t been delivering the affordable homes it needs. In that respect, the Mayor is hamstrung by national policy, which has reduced the funding available for social housing.”

Housing, due to ever-increasing demand, has been a topical issue for the Mayor of London, who candidly—and rather tellingly—described his time in office to The Sunday Times last week as a means of acquiring ‘administrative experience.’

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Johnson delivering a speech at a business summit in London, as he has done throughout his time as Mayor.

 
Although he has recently pledged to double the number of new houses built in London to at least 42,000, Mr. Johnson has overseen the average price of homes across the city soar by more than £150,000, an increase—incredibly—of almost 50%.

Earlier this year, speaking about London’s housing crisis on his ‘Ask Boris’ show on LBC Radio, Mr. Johnson urged local councils to ‘whack up’ tax on property owners who have left their homes vacant for more than a year by tenfold ‘at least.’

In 2013, during his speech at the Conservative Party Conference, he also said: “Can I also ask my friend the Chancellor to look at the baleful effects of Stamp Duty in London and possibly elsewhere, which is called Stamp Duty for a reason because it’s stamping on the fingers of those who are trying to climb the property ladder.”

If he became Conservative leader, therefore, as the latest YouGove poll tips him to be, Boris could well some considerable changes to the UK housing market.

But in the private rented sector, despite calls for him to introduce reform to London’s, Mr. Johnson appears to remain happy for the market to regulate itself.

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The construction site for Crossrail in Canary Wharf, East London, which is due to open in 2018.

 
As Martin Bellinger, Chief Operating Officer at Essential Living, confirms: “Boris and his deputy Richard Blakeway have been huge supporters of the PRS.

“The Greater London Authority’s target of 5,000 homes to rent each year was an important milestone in political support for the sector, and it will be good to have another vocal supporter in parliament for the value of a professionalised rental sector.”

In terms of infrastructure, Mr. Johnson has already revealed his London Infrastructure Plan 2050, a £1.3 trillion to-do list—including a multi-billion pound extension to the Bakerloo line—that aims to sustain the capital’s current growth.

Requiring year-by-year funding of more than £30 billion, London’s future—unsurprisingly—would be firmly secured if Boris held office at No.10 Downing Street.

Perhaps more interestingly, though, would be whether his repeated calls for Crossrail 2, connecting Hackney to Wimbledon, and a four-runway Thames Estuary Airport hub (more commonly known as ’Boris Island’) would finally be answered.

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Johnson and Cameron together. When this photo was taken, was Boris already planning his return to the Commons?

 
“I think business is simply crying out for greater airport capacity,” says Ian Fletcher. “Boris’s suggestion has some pluses and minuses, like the other options, but the more options we have the more it muddies the water and prolongs the indecision.”

Like his £24 billion plan for the Thames Estuary Airport, Boris’ leadership has both pluses and minuses—and he is far from immune to the odd high-profile gaffe.

As Charles Mills says, though: “Some could argue his success is the product of an upward property cycle, but, in truth, a lot of work goes on behind the scenes at the Mayor’s office, ensuring the right sort of conversations are being had.”

If Boris became Prime Minister, judging from such praise, you would think the UK’s property sector would remain stable and successful under his leadership.

But as Ian Fletcher says: “Being a Mayor gives you significant autonomy, which is not the case with national Government. Whether Boris can adapt to that remains to be seen, but his boundless energy will be an asset to any Government.”

MyExeter: Broken Windows, Bulldozers & Bundles of Fun

In 2009, when I applied to study at Exeter, I had never visited the city—let alone walk around the nearby University campus, with its winding paths and redbrick buildings. (Embarrassingly, I also applied to Cardiff University, solely on the basis that I had been to a couple of mosh-pit-filled gigs at its Students’ Union as a spotty-faced sixteen-year-old.) Instead of being completely unaware, though, I had done my research into University of Exeter: I knew, for instance, that it boasted one of the UK’s best English Literature courses, that its top men’s hockey team had been playing in the National League, and that I wanted to live in Pennsylvania Court, one of Exeter’s best catered halls.

Eventually, I ended up playing for EUMHC. (Completely by chance, I also made an appearance for the 1s.)

Eventually, I ended up playing for EUMHC 6s. (Completely by chance, I also made an appearance for the 1s.)

 
Come September 2010, having been accepted onto my chosen course, I was put into catered halls at University of Exeter. But rather than a double-bed, en-suite room all to myself at Penny C, as it is commonly known amongst students, I ended up sharing a musty-smelling, carpet-stained room in a 16-man detached house—yes, a house—named Lazenby. Rumoured to be a former GP surgery, you can find Lazenby on the very edge of Exeter’s campus. Boasting a large back garden, with a towering pine tree right in the centre, it really is unlike any other Exeter’s halls. The year before I arrived, for example, whilst most student residences already had Wi-Fi, residents were made to arrange their own internet access with BT. During my ten-month tenancy, meanwhile, a broken ground-floor window provided an easy means of entrance whenever you stumbled home, blurry-eyed, without your keys and phone. The absence of a full-time resident tutor also made it a great location for parties—although, being well-behaved first-years, of course we never dared to host one.

The year before I arrived, for example, whilst most student residences already had Wi-Fi, residents were made to arrange their own internet access with BT.

Since July 2013, partly due to staff numbers increasing, Lazenby has been closed as a student residence and used instead for office space. Across campus, in fact, as part of the University’s £275 million investment scheme, a number of blocks among Exeter’s lower-standard halls have been closed and redeveloped. During my first year, due to this substantial investment, the University’s campus often felt like more of a building site than one of an academic institution. In Lazenby, usually at around 9am, and with the mouldy curtains—naturally—still drawn, the distant drum of a pneumatic drill splitting concrete would suddenly rouse my roommate and me. For the students affected most by the noise, the University eventually gave them the option of moving to accommodation—Birks Grange—on the other side of campus. One morning, whilst still in their underwear, a female student was even greeted by a hard-hat-wearing builder at their window, who had scaled the building’s scaffolding.

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Old Lazenby, where some students reportedly kept live guinea pigs in the bath.

 
In May 2012, after two years of nine-to-five noise, the Queen herself opened the Forum, the shining centrepiece of University of Exeter’s investment programme. Inside the award-winning building, which some students have jokingly compared to Heathrow’s Terminal 5, the refurbished library is perhaps its most popular (or most used) section. Finally, whilst working, no longer did we students have to hunch over rickety, wooden desks, with grey bricks and dim, flickering lights surrounding us. Instead, including a room full of touch-screen technology, the University provided us with a host of state-of-the-art facilities—which, in my mind at least, fully justified The Sunday Times’ decision to name Exeter as its University of the Year for 2013. During the same period, in almost a constant stream of good news, Exeter broke into the world’s top 200 Universities and, perhaps more importantly, joined the Russell Group, an organisation of the UK’s leading academic institutions. All of a sudden, as lower-year school friends began their UCAS applications, my Facebook account became clogged with messages, asking: ‘What’s Exeter like? Would you recommend it? Do you really have to read that many books?’ From these enquiries, one thing appeared clear: Exeter was increasingly becoming a first-choice student destination.

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The Forum – which really does, trust me, look a little bit like Terminal 5 inside.

 
Sadly, whilst the University wholly deserves its recent plaudits, there have also been some negative aspects to its rise in popularity—notably, and somewhat ironically, the sharp rise in the student population. Between 2011/12, my second year, and 2013/14, when I returned from my year abroad, just over a thousand more students have arrived at Exeter, as the University accepted almost a third more applicants. Of course, across the whole Streatham campus, one thousand extra students hardly sounds like a significant figure—yet University of Bristol, in 2012, became the UK institution with the highest student in-take increase with 1,029 more overall students. Within Exeter’s nightclubs, particularly in the most popular ones (such as Arena or Timepiece), this increase manifests itself far more noticeably. Earlier this year, for instance, as scores of drunken students danced upstairs, part of Timepiece’s middle-floor ceiling crumbled, with debris just missing those beneath. As TJ Nartey, a final year undergraduate, says: “In comparison to when I first arrived at Exeter, there are certainly more students. The clubs are crowded and the queues outside are far longer. To an extent, it does spoil the city’s student experience.”

The clubs are crowded and the queues outside are far longer. To an extent, it does spoil the city’s student experience.

Between my first and fourth years, then, spanning from 2010 to 2014, University of Exeter has changed remarkably, finalising large-scale investment projects and thus becoming a far more prominent institution in the higher-education sector. Of course, from what I have learned—whether academically, about myself or about other people—I really do owe an enormous amount to University of Exeter. (In financial terms, ironically, I actually do owe them quite an enormous amount.) Naturally, as I move on from Exeter, the friends and memories I have made here will remain with me—unlike my first-year fancy dress costumes—for a long, long time. With its rising population, though, which has indirectly resulted in more than 100 students having to live in hotels until after Christmas, another issue remains in my mind: Has University of Exeter made itself an unwitting victim of its own success?

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Lazenby 2010/11, a great group of people that I will never forget.

 
This article was originally published in the Express & Echo on June 25, 2014.

Paris, Sandy Hook & The Second Amendment

Minutes before mid-day on Thursday 16th May, 2013, with the Eiffel Tower just over a kilometer away, a middle-aged man strolled into a Parisian nursery school on rue Cler and, in the school’s hall in front of twelve children, pulled the trigger of the sawn-off shotgun that he had removed from a bag and directed deliberately towards his face, instantly killing himself. Most of us, luckily, can only ever imagine the sort of wild-minded chaos that immediately ensues after such nightmarish moments, and how devastating the subsequent mental trauma can be to individuals, families and, at its worst (in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, for example), to entire communities. However, though there were no fatalities during the shooting at La Rochefoucault nursery, these sort of incidents have become increasingly prevalent in recent years across Western society, particularly in the United States. Indeed, when I first read the headline ‘Man shoots himself dead in front of schoolchildren’, I instantly presumed, as I am confident most of us would nowadays, that the incident took place in America, a country that boasts 89 guns for every 100 of its 316 million citizens.

Firmly founded on the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, specifically on the ‘need for a well-regulated militia’, America is very much the arms capital of the world. However, since it was adopted on 15th December, 1791, when state-authorised police forces were very much still in their infancy, the world has changed significantly. Now the United States, on a federal level alone, possesses a plethora of them: the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Bureau of Pensions, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the United States Secret Service, the United States Coast Guard and, finally, the Transport Security Administration. Unless American citizens themselves need protecting from them, such an exetensive list of law-enforcing authorities questions the assertion that guns are needed, such as a semi-automatic shotgun, for civilian self-defence. London’s Metropolitan Police say that ‘by carrying a knife, you are far more likely to get stabbed yourself’, and the exact same principle, whether in the United States or in the United Kingdom, applies to guns. The very possession of arms, regardless of their intended use, dramatically increases the risk of gun violence, slowly creating a fear-filled culture that, if sustained for long enough, becomes the very reason for civilian gun-possession being justified.

Despite the ongoing global recession, the United States is still the world’s most powerful country, meaning that its currency is used, officially and unofficially, across most continents. It also means that it receives an unparalleled amount of attention from the international press, and it may be due to this attention, with school shootings becoming an increasingly pertinent issue in American society, that the middle-aged man decided to shoot himself in the nursery school in Paris, a city without any previous incidents of a similar nature. Though this may not actually be the case, the information about guns that we encounter, as with any other subject, certainly effects our attitudes towards them, a notion the American author Stephen King suggests in an article for The Guardian, written in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting:

 ‘During my junior and senior years in high school, I wrote my first novel, then titled Getting It On…Ten years later, after the first half-dozen of my books had become bestsellers, I revisited Getting It On, rewrote it, and submitted it to my paperback publisher under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. It was published as Rage, sold a few thousand copies and disappeared from view. Or so I thought.

 In February 1996, a boy named Barry Loukaitis walked into his algebra class in Washington, with a .22-caliber revolver and a high-powered hunting rifle. He used the rifle to kill instructor Leona Caires and two students. Then, waving the pistol in the air, he declared, “This sure beats algebra, doesn’t it?” The quote is from Rage’.

What Barry Loukaitis read in ‘Rage’ planted a seed into his mind, a rotten one, instigating the deaths of six American citizens, and it is no different with regard to the articles we read about such school shootings: they are just as much a source of inspiration for gun-violence as ‘Rage’ – perhaps even more so, in fact, with their non-fictional genre. Consequently, as much as Americans who advocate civilian gun-ownership are responsible for sustaining an environment in which 68% of murders are caused by firearms – an eye-widening figure when it is compared to the 1.6% rate of the UK (although the US, interestingly, does have a lower rate of per-capita violent crime than the UK) – the international media must also hold some degree of responsibility for the high number of school shootings in America, predominantly with regard to the extensive publicity that it often gives to the shooters. In a Google News search for Adam Lanza, for example, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooter, there are nearly as many articles on him (over 8,600) as on his 27 victims (nearly 9,200), identifying a patent imbalance of news coverage, one that priorities a pre-mediated murderer over their innocent victims – twenty of which were between the age of six and seven. Sadly, this bias is a common trend in the international media’s coverage of these incidents, yet the most shameful aspect of such prejudiced coverage is that we, its readers, with our strange obsessions with the psychologically disturbed, or at least those who seem to be, hardly seem bothered by it at all. Most of us, if we are completely honest with ourselves, probably enjoy reading about the cruel, callous actions of notorious serial murderers. Indeed, how else has the case of Jack the Ripper, the first serial-killer to incite an international media frenzy, endured so strongly in popular and academic culture over the past century?

Although many of us may indeed have an interest in the unstable-minded, which may explain the prejudice of the international press, that does not justify the insufficient reportage that school shootings victims receive. Therefore, as Republicans and Democrats continue to bow obediently to the collective wills of gun-supporting groups (such as the NRA) in Congress, causing any legislation that limits gun-possession of American citizens to be repeatedly blocked, the international press could consider the following in the meantime: during its coverage of the next school shooting in America (for there will be another one), it might consider paying particular attention to the victims because, as the incident in La Rochefoucault nursery might suggest, giving the sick-minded violence of school shootings such widespread international press might risk making it more of an international problem.

This article was published originally in The Student Journals.

Should Drugs Be Decriminalised?

Between the ages of eleven months and seven I grew up in Henleaze, a small suburban community located on the outskirts of Bristol’s centre. My family and I lived in a semi-detached house of average size that separated us from our neighbours with wafer-thin walls, and my bedroom was next to that of a kind and charismatic teenage girl, Katie, who my parents regularly used to babysit my brother and me. During the first few years in the area her and I spent a lot of time together, generally consisting of us drawing half-scribbled pictures (well, mine certainly were) or us playing nonsensical, but wonderfully fun, games that we spontaneously invented, such as Who Can Say the Alphabet Fastest. Katie’s visits to our house became far less frequent as I grew older, though. Her absence was also accompanied by strange scratching noises, akin to the sound of rats gnawing into wooden floorboards, that usually emitted from her bedroom in the early hours of the morning. Katie, we soon discovered, an intelligent girl who aspired to study medicine at university, had become addicted to drugs.

Instigated and subsequently encouraged by a drug-dealing boyfriend, her habit slowly consumed her, eventually leading her to attempt to abstain from her dangerous diet of ecstasy, heroin, cocaine and smack – to go cold turkey. Indeed, those scratching sounds I sometimes heard were the result of her desperate efforts to do so (all of which, as far as I know, were unsuccessful) as she tried, literally, to climb up her bedroom walls, driven to near-madness by her cravings and confinement. Being a drug-addict, as one would expect, induced significant changes in Katie’s physical appearance. By the time I was eight her skin was pallid, her teeth were tinted grey, and her fingernails were bloody – bitten back to the quick. By the time we had left Henleaze, though, Katie had stopped scratching the walls: although that was only because she had started working as a prostitute in the back-streets of Bristol by then, feeding her illicit habit with equally illicit activities. But whilst the means through which Katie satisfied her habit may have been illegal, should the fact she was a drug-user have incriminated her, too? (I use the past tense because, though I hope I assume wrongly, I assume that Katie died several years ago, having failed repeatedly to stop taking drugs by the time my family left Bristol in 2005.)

Judging from the lowly social status of drug addicts nowadays, it seems that many of us, including myself at times, often fail to show any sense of understanding towards such individuals, identifying them as weak-willed people who have squandered their last chance at having a respectable life. Though we are generally responsible, of course, for upholding such a disparaging opinion of drug-addicts, our government and media have also encouraged us to think of them in such a negative way since the War on Drugs began in the UK with the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971. Throughout this period, despite the consistent rise of drug-users worldwide and the illegal-drugs industry becoming the third most valuable in the world, now estimated to be worth around £294 billion, drug-users have been persistently punished for taking drugs, founded on the principle that being a drug-addict is immoral and, crucially, a lifestyle choice one makes. However, whilst taking drugs for the first time may be a lifestyle choice, though most people are probably peer-pressured into doing so, being a drug-addict is not: the principle on which hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of drug addicts have been incarcerated is completely false. ‘Addictions can be seen as a loss-of-control over what starts out as a voluntary behaviour’, says former government drugs advisor Dr. David Nutt. ‘Thus addiction is not, as some like to suggest, a lifestyle choice. It is a serious, often lethal, disease caused by an enduring (probably permanent) change in brain function’.

Having seen Katie descend into vice – one time she attacked an elderly woman, robbing her handbag, which she then tried to sell to someone else – I have seen this psychological change myself, one that can rip relationships within families and friendship groups apart. Consequently, when illegal drugs cause so much harm to its users and to those closest to them, why is it that current governmental law persecutes drug-addicts for their condition, a veritable disease, particularly when other addicts (such as nymphomaniacs or alcoholics) are not persecuted at all for theirs? In terms of its impact on the individual and on wider society, alcohol is ‘more harmful than heroin or crack’, according to a recent study in the UK’s Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. This study also states our country’s ABC drug-classification system ‘has little relation to the evidence of harm’. It is somewhat strange, then, that alcohol, a substance our government spends nearly £6 billion a year policing, is not subjected to the same rigorous legislation as Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), Methamphetamine (Crystal Meth) or Morphine diacetate (Heroin), although it could be because the United States tried to prohibit it during the 20th century – and failed hopelessly.

There are obviously those who are still vehemently against the decriminalization of drugs*. Ann Widecomb, for example, the former Home Office minister, is quoted in the Telegraph saying: ‘There are only two ways of doing it, either you decriminalise all drugs or only the soft drugs. If you decriminalise just the soft drugs, all the efforts of the drug barons will then be poured into the hard drugs’. Her recommended drug policy, unsurprisingly, is ‘zero tolerance, from hard drugs down to the possession of soft drugs’. However, it is precisely this conservative, zero-tolerance policy that has been used for the past forty-two years – and it simply has not worked. ‘We’re in a recession’, says Steve Rolles, member of the anti-prohibition of drugs group Transform, ‘yet across the whole criminal justice system we are spending around £4 billion a year on drug enforcement that plainly isn’t working because drug-use and drug-related crime is going up’. Indeed, the failure of the War on Drugs in the UK is perhaps exemplified most by the fact ‘95% of all establishments’ in the restaurants and clubs of Kensington and Chelsea, according to The Guardian, recently tested positive for cocaine, an eye-widening figure that clearly indicates the severe extent to which drug-taking has become endemic within our society.

The argument for the decriminalization of drugs is strengthened further, also, by the study published by The Cato Institute with regard to the effect decriminalization has had on Portugal since it was passed as governmental law in 2001, the only member of the European Union to have done so at the time of writing this article. Having had one of the highest user-rates of intravenous drugs across Europe in 1998, notably heroin, Portugal has seen a 17% decrease in drug-related viruses (such as HIV/AIDS and viral hepatitis) since it decriminalised drugs. With the Portuguese government investing a large percentage of money it saved on policing drugs, 147% more drug-users, after overcoming their initial fear of being prosecuted, have received rehab treatment. Instead of being penalized, drug-users are now referred to Commissions for Dissuasions of Drug Addiction that use social workers and psychologists, amongst other governmental and legal representatives, to adjudicate ‘administrative drug offenses and imposing sanctions – if any’. Indeed, according to the report, the commission will often suspend all sanctions if an ‘addict agrees to undergo treatment’, a decision I deeply wish my neighbour Katie was forced to make.

*Note: decriminalization does not mean drugs will be legalized; it means ‘either that only non-criminal sanctions, such as fines or treatment requirements, are imposed or that no penal sanctions can be’.

This article was originally published in The Prisma.

The Alpha-Male Illusion

When I joined my university’s gym in Fresher’s Week 2010 – a decision that cost me nearly a fifth of my term’s student loan – my priorities in the gym, as a keen hockey player, should have been improving the physical attributes such a sport demands. However, instead of endless stretching and becoming a sweaty-mess on the treadmill, I followed the example of my peers (well, most of them) and went straight to the weights room, driven by the narcissistic desire to improve my physique, to get BIG. Though usually available to both sexes, it is usually young men who use this facility at university: young men who, like me, have been unhappy at some stage in their lives about their physical appearance. Consequently, as you can probably imagine, a municipal gym – a place where men weighing more than sixteen stone, with shoulders almost as wide as your typical garden shed, sometimes roar loudly whilst bench pressing 150kg – can often be an oppressive place for an 18-year old gym-newbie (as I certainly was two years ago). From my own experience, the imprinted figure on the side of the weights you lift becomes a surreptitious means through which others silently judge you (and a means through which you judge yourself as a result), often making you feel exposed, spied-upon and anxious. However, for both young men and young women, it is almost impossible not to feel insecure about our bodies in today’s oppressive, image-obsessed society. ‘Every young girl’, says American comedian Tina Fey, ‘is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin…a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet…the hips of a nine year old, and the arms of Michelle Obama’. Young men, meanwhile, according to Mike Shawcross, Deputy Editor of Men’s Health Magazine, are expected to aspire towards ‘the more rugged’, ‘slightly bigger’ look epitomised by actors Daniel Craig or Ryan Reynolds, two of Hollywood’s current heartthrobs.

Men, in general, certainly seem to be getting musclier, dedicating a greater number of sessions to lifting weights – usually heavy ones – exclusively. The rise in popularity of the metro-sexual male over the past decade, arguably due to the cultural impact of perfectly-groomed male idols (such as David Beckham), is perhaps the main reason for this cultural change. On nights out young men are increasingly eager to flaunt their physiques, showcasing their physiques in t-shirts, usually purchased from Hollister or Abercrombie & Fitch, that seem a size too small, perhaps even two. In comparison to men’s fashion in the mid-1990s – an era in which baggy jeans, invariably displaying most of one’s boxers, and thick turtle-neck jumpers were still in vogue – the contrast of style is startling. Indeed, by wearing such tight-fitted clothing, men have arguably adopted the same tastes in fashion generally preferred by women, the sex that, stereotypically, obsesses most over their appearance. Michael Addis, Professor of Psychology at Clark University, Massachusetts, attributes women, interestingly, to be the origin of this shift in the perception of masculinity. ‘As women gain more financial power in society, men are expected to bring more to the table’, he says. ‘In addition to being financially successful, they need to be well-groomed, in good shape, emotionally skilled in relationships and the emphasis on looking good is just part of that package – the stakes have been raised’. However, whilst men may indeed feel a greater need, consciously or not, to compete with women in modern society, there is also the unwavering influence of the patriarchal system, a fundamental aspect of the male psyche. ‘Patriarchy is what makes us think that ‘balls’ are symbols for aggressive go-getting behaviour, writes Caroline Criado Perez in the New Statesman. ‘Patriarchy also makes us think that this is the type of behaviour that should be rewarded above all others. And patriarchy also means that any man who doesn’t ‘live up’ to this stereotype is thereby considered a lesser man – perhaps even, horror of horror, ‘a girl’.

One example of a young male who does not live up to the patriarchal stereotype is Nick Sinnett, a 20-year old university student who appeared on I Hate My Body: Skinny Boys and Muscle Men, a BBC 3 documentary that followed four men’s respective pursuits of an ideal physique over a twelve-week training programme. Short in height and initially weighing just eight and a half stone at the programme’s beginning, Nick is visibly insecure about his physical appearance. ‘Starting from the bottom (of my waist)’, he says in week one, ‘I would tone up the abs…broaden my chest a bit…broaden my shoulders in every way…and then get my arms a bit bigger’. However, like most young males, Nick has a false perception of physical strength, regarding it as the primary means – perhaps the only means – through which he can be completely happy with himself. ‘I feel like I’m being compared to people in magazines’, he says, ‘and I think that’s what people want’. In these magazines, probably GQ or Men’s Fitness, one usually finds images of serious-looking men with Popeye-sized, air-brushed biceps on the front cover, and it is indeed hard not to look at yourself and immediately think: ‘Shit, I need to put on some muscle – fast’. However, as Nick suggests, we do not think we need to because of ourselves; we do it to impress others, thinking it will guarantee earning their respect and friendship. If we adhere to the fitness regime prescribed by these magazine’s implausibly entitled articles (such as ‘Get Ripped in Six Weeks’), the gym suddenly becomes a second home, often controlling our lifestyles completely. With 38 million people visiting Men’s Health’s website each month – a figure that is over ten times the current estimated population of Wales – it seems a fitness-fanatic community has developed worldwide over the past few decades. However, with 80% of men in the UK saying they are unhappy about their physiques, has it really had that much of a positive impact?

Though a few years older, Martin Sanker, a London-based nightclub bouncer, expresses a similar attitude to Nick, regularly lifting weights in order to verify his masculinity – both to himself and others. However, having doubled in size over the past three years (and weighing around sixteen stone at the beginning of the programme), he is arguably the complete opposite to Nick with regard to body shape. Martin, like Nick, started using weights in the gym due to being unhappy about his physique, recounting one particular moment as the catalyst for his lifestyle’s drastic change: ‘When I was eight stone’, he says, ‘there came an occasion when I was walking in the town with my girlfriend; a guy (wolf) whistles right in front of my face (and) I couldn’t do anything about it’. Describing himself as ‘lost’ and ‘confused’ throughout the period in which he bulked up, Martin arguably typifies the mentality of a lot of young men who currently use the gym, spurred on by the relentless peer-pressure of the patriarchal system. I Hate My Body: Skinny Boys and Muscle Men shows how even those sweat-drenched men bicep-curling 30kg – the sort of male a lot of young men nowadays aspire to be – still feel deeply insecure about their physique. Indeed, judging from Martin’s experience, it seems the more some men focus on their physique the more insecure they become. Beneath his sculpted exterior still lurks an acute vulnerability about his masculinity, rooted deeply in his mind, which invariably surfaces when he enters a male-dominated environment, notably the gym. During one training session, for instance, the sight of body-building men working out nearby encourage him to switch to heavier weights, showing how Martin’s insecurities could dictate his behaviour completely. However, having realised his obsession with the gym was ultimately unhealthy, slowly corroding other important aspects of his lifestyle (such as his relationship with his girlfriend), Martin is far more confident in himself at the end of the programme, describing himself as ‘the happiest I have ever been’. He has, it seems, finally realised that being the biggest does not always make you feel the best: something any young man using the gym nowadays might also consider.

This article was originally published in The Prisma.

A Young Writer’s Mind

‘Every writer I know has trouble writing’ – Joseph Heller

Writing is never easy for me; it is never easy for anyone. You may ask as a result, ‘Why bother with it at all?’ After spending nearly twenty minutes contemplating whether to put a colon or a semi-colon in the opening sentence of this paragraph, I have already asked myself that very question several times today. However, each time I stop writing, frustrated by my mind’s apparent inability to form a coherent sentence, I always start again, forcing myself to squeeze some words of my imagination. To be a good writer, which is what I aspire to be, it is often said one needs to be insensitive. ‘Learn to brush off negativity from others – you need a thick skin’, says Vicky Breakwell, Head of News at Orion Media. However, in my opinion a good writer needs to be equally sensitive. How else can one relate to the people affected by the issues they write? If I had no compassion, if I did not care about other people, I would have no interest in political writing, and I would not secretly dream of a better, brighter future for my generation. However, I do not see myself as some saint-like figure – far from it. I am just someone who cares, someone who, quite frankly, is scared by what they see in their surrounding environment: binge drinking, drug taking and a dearth of self-respect. Every young generation is faced with something new, something different – my parents had colour television, for instance – and how one generation uses or deals with such things often helps to define the next. My generation is faced with social media, an energy crisis, cheap booze, computer tablets, unpaid debts, smartphones and the worst economic depression in modern history. Advances in technology have granted us fantastic opportunities (expressing ourselves on social media, for example), opportunities that may not have existed even a decade ago. However, we have also inherited unresolved issues, such as the Great Recession, that may force us all to completely change our perception of normal life.

I am, I guess, a moralist – maybe that is how others will describe me if I ever gain some recognition for my writing. But, in the same way that all writers are opinionated and egotistical (and I include myself in that description), all writers are moralists to some extent. Perhaps with the exception of writers of nonsense literature, it is almost impossible for a writer not to comment on their surrounding society in some way, mainly because it is the source from which most of them gain their inspiration. Take George Orwell, for example, a writer whose work, mostly his essays, influences my own writing greatly. Whether fictitious or not, each piece of writing for which he is famous (‘Animal Farm’, ’1984′, ‘Politics and the English Language’) is firmly rooted in reality. Sadly, there has been no other ‘great’ political writer since Orwell – well, there has been no one so widely celebrated as him anyway. However, as a writer’s work is invariably influenced by their surrounding world, perhaps there been no political writer as popular as Orwell because the political climate has, comparatively, been peaceful. With both fascist and communist parties coming into power during his lifetime, Orwell witnessed some of the most politically significant events of the last century (the Second World War, for instance), and such events arguably form the basis of his literary success. ‘Animal Farm’ and ’1984′ are both satires against a totalitarian government, and several of his essays, such as ‘The Prevention of Literature’, deal with the same matter in detail. ‘Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 (since the inception of the Spanish Civil War) has been written, directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it,’ he says in ‘Why I Write,’ one of his most insightful essays. The context in which Orwell lived influenced his writing, then, and the context in which I live equally influences my own. One day I hope my writing might influence others. Ultimately, I do not want to be remembered as a moralist, fatalist or pragmatist: I just want to be remembered, with writing as my primary method, as someone who made a difference to other people.

In truth, to suggest Orwell’s literary success is solely due to the period in which he lived would unfairly discredit his undoubted talent. Though one’s subject matter can indeed help to intrigue a reader, and sometimes compensate for poor writing, it is mostly the responsibility of the writer to entertain their reader. Orwell’s mastery in this sense is evident via the fact one of his best essays, ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’, is on a rather strange subject. The opening sentence reads, ‘Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest patch of water’. Orwell’s depth of detail and clarity of expression, evident in the quoted passage (the longest word used is ‘daffodil’), set him apart from his contemporaries. Orwell is not remembered so much for his intellect, but for his simplicity – his simplicity of language. ‘The great enemy of clear language is insincerity’, he writes in ‘Politics and the English Language’, and he is right: he is absolutely right. Like Orwell, I want my writing to have a societal impact, ‘to push the world in a certain direction’, as he puts it, ‘and alter other people’s ideas about the kind of reality that they should strive after’. I am not the next Orwell, though, despite how much I wish to be. History, literally, does not repeat itself: Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Francisco Franco, Orwell himself – all of them are long dead. My generation is now faced with new political issues and new fears: the threat of nuclear war looms ominously above Western civilisation, and one of the world’s largest economies, that of the United States, is peering over the edge of a fiscal cliff from which it may never fully recover if it falls. Whatever happens, I hope I will be able to write about it, and try to improve some part of society, no matter how small, in the process. It may be agonisingly hard at times but, no matter how much I complain about it, I will never stop loving writing – and I will never stop writing as a result.