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International Women’s Day 2017

20th century women – three generations in my family exploring what it means to be a woman.  My mum, who believed that it was for men to lead and inspire, but who led and inspired, nonetheless, despite herself.  I grew up wondering why I was so crap at being a girl (the endless Christmas and birthday gifts of cookery books and embroidery sets and dolls, all rebuking me for my ineptitude and lack of interest), but finding a way to be the kind of woman I wanted to be without the trappings that irritated and puzzled me.   My daughter managing to be so good at being a girl (all that pink, the Barbies and Bratz, the make-up and handbags) and being a fierce and clever and brave woman at the same time.

I thought of us all whilst watching the film 20th Century Women.  Annette Bening’s Dorothea was my age in the film, but Mum’s generation.  Dorothea died in 1999, five years after my Mum.  Their lives and experiences were so very different but there was something about her – the fact that she gathered around her people who needed shelter, nurture, companionship, the way she invited anyone she encountered to come to dinner, her desire and real effort to understand what mattered to her son and the younger women who were part of her life.

I managed not to weep, until the very end.  When Jamie says that he can’t explain his mother to his son, that’s when it got me.  Because I would have loved to see my Mum, watching my children grow up, and to see them turning to her for the love and pride and support that would have always been theirs.  And all I can do is to tell them about her.

If the women in 20th Century Women are all white, straight and comfortably situated, the young women in Girlhood (Bande de filles) certainly are not.  They inhabit the banlieue, their home lives are chaotic, their choices limited (by economics, by expectations).  The opening sequence is possibly the most powerful cinematic expression of the challenges so many young women face that I can recall – a girls’ American football team on the pitch, physically powerful and fearless, jubilant in victory, they pour out of the stadium a babble of raised voices, laughter, solidarity and shared experience.  And then they approach the apartment blocks, with the young men almost seeming to be on guard there, in ones and twos, and their voices are quietened.  One by one they slip away from the group and into their own lives.  But whilst the film gives us no cosy reassurances about what they face, it gives us along the way other moments of joyous girlhood – for example as they dance and pose and mime (in shoplifted frocks) in a hotel room to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’:

So shine bright tonight,
You and I
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky
Eye to eye,
So alive
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky
Shine bright like a diamond
Shine bright like a diamond
Shining bright like a diamond
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky

And they do shine, they are so alive, they are beautiful.

We’re half the world.  We’re all races and religions, all shapes and sizes, all political persuasions. We have disabilities and we have none, we are healthy and we suffer pain and indignity, we are independent and we need help to get by. We have money to burn and nothing at all.  We are mothers and we are daughters and sisters, we are friends and wives and lovers.  We are gay, straight, bi, trans, and every variant or combination of the above.   We are feminists, and we are ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ and we are most decidedly not feminists.  We believe in our right to choose, and we believe that women’s fertility should be controlled by the state, by the church, by men.  We wear pussy hats, and ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.

I can’t speak for Women.  I’m middle aged (at least…), straight, cis-gendered, without disabilities, white, university educated, comfortably off.   I am as baffled and dismayed by what many other women believe and fight for as I am about what many men believe and fight for.  I can’t claim to have experienced direct discrimination, I’ve never experienced sexual violence or domestic violence.  Everyday sexism, yes, of course, over the years I’ve clocked up a fair number of examples of that, in the workplace, on public transport, on the streets.  But the fact that, say, FGM doesn’t affect me or mine doesn’t mean I don’t give a damn about it, or that I shouldn’t campaign about it.  The fact that my career has encountered no overt obstacles due to my  gender, that I live in a society with laws to protect my rights to equal pay and equal treatment, doesn’t mean I have nothing to say about the women around the world for whom this is not true.  I can’t speak for Women, but I can and do and will speak about the experiences, the threats, the challenges, the obstacles that so many women share (even if I haven’t and don’t).

I check my privilege, I acknowledge it, but it doesn’t have to limit what or who I care about.  And I know that in most countries, most of the time, women have to face a whole lot of extra crap that men don’t – they share the burdens of poverty, persecution and oppression, natural and man-made hazards and disasters but with the additional burdens that arise from the way they are viewed in too many societies, by too many men.  That their choices are deemed irrelevant, their aspirations ridiculous, their personal integrity always violable.  Whether these oppressions are enforced by law or merely by convention, they do oppress, and it takes immense courage to challenge them.

To all those who do, thank you.

And to my Mum, who would never have called herself a feminist, but who inspired me in that aspect of my life, as in so many others,  thank you.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/08/feminist-battle-women-activists-campaigns

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/08/feminist-stickers-china-backash-women-activists

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/mar/08/im-proud-of-my-sin-the-criminal-stars-of-iranian-tv-promoting-womens-rights

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The 24 Hour Inspire 2017

This year will be our fifth 24 Hour Inspire.  I would never have believed, if anyone had told me back in 2012 when we were planning the first one, that we could achieve anything like this.  We really had no idea what we were doing, and it’s thanks to the support of colleagues at the University who did know what they were doing when it came to events management that the first lecture marathon went so smoothly, and gave us the confidence to carry on.

The basic format hasn’t changed – 24 hours of talks on everything under the sun, all pitched at non-specialist audiences.  Each year there’s more in the way of fringe activities – art, poetry, music and more – and we have a pop-up radio station broadcasting throughout.

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Of course, most people won’t do the full 24 hours.   If you’re in the vicinity, dip in and out, come for just one talk, or as many as you wish.  If you’re not, listen in to the radio station (there’s a taster here: https://www.mixcloud.com/24HrInspire/24-hour-inspire-warm-up/)

As you’ll hear in the podcast, the 24 Hour Inspire is supporting the University’s We are International campaign.

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It’s at the heart of what a University is about – the sharing of knowledge, ideas, and expertise, regardless of borders and nationalities and across all of the barriers of language, religion and politics.   Our speakers, the MCs who will introduce them, the volunteers who will sell the tickets and the coffee, come from all over the world.  And many of those who are from the UK have spent part of their working lives overseas.

Not only that, but some of our talks reflect those international values – Paul Collini’s lecture on TB in the 21st century is based on work he undertook in Ghana.  Kate Shaw, who did her doctorate in Sheffield, is now based in Italy and works for Physics without Boundaries, and will be talking about their work in Nepal.  And whilst we start with a celebration of Sheffield (city of art, beer and music), our closing talk will take us to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

Over the last few years, this event has raised significant funds for a number of cancer charities.  This year the beneficiaries will be Weston Park Hospital Cancer Charity and Teenage Cancer Trust.  Most of the funds are raised on the day, through sales of wristbands and refreshments, but you can also donate by texting INSP24 £10 (or whatever you wish to donate) to 70070.

It’s been called ‘the Glastonbury of lecturing’…

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and it’s a joy.  If you can, be there.  If not, do follow what we’re doing on social media, and on Radio Inspire (broadcasting from around 15.00 on 30 March), help us raise lots of funds for our chosen charities .

Be inspired.

 

 

 

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2016 – what the actual??

It’s been a funny old year.  Not so much of the ha ha, either.  Is there anything to be said that hasn’t already been said, better probably?  I doubt it, but I can’t write about the books, films and other cultural pleasures of the year without acknowledging the seismic changes and alarming portents that it has presented.

Reasons to be Miserable:

Daesh initiated or inspired terrorist attacks clocked up more deaths and more terrible injuries than the mind can encompass.  As always, most of these were Muslims, in Muslim countries, although our news media inevitably foregrounds the attacks in France, Belgium and the USA.  As appalling as those murders were, on my very rough calculations, Iraq was the worst hit, with over 450 deaths, followed by Pakistan.  I tweeted the names of the dead from Brussels, Nice and Orlando, but will never know the names of most of those murdered in Kabul, Istanbul, Jakarta, Baghdad, Ouagadougou, Quetta, Grand Bassam or Aden.

According to the UNHCR, the number of migrants dying whilst crossing the Mediterranean reached 3800, a record. Fewer are making that journey, but they are making it via the more perilous routes and in flimsier boats. Worldwide, over 65 million people are forcibly displaced, over 21 million are refugees, and 10 million stateless.    The vast majority of those displaced are hosted in neighbouring countries in Africa or the Middle East. Six per cent are in Europe.   Over half of the world’s refugees came from just three countries – Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.

With regard to Syria, anything I say here may be outdated before I press Publish, but there can be no doubt that we are seeing one of the greatest tragedies of our times unfold, and that war crimes are happening there which will be remembered with shame and horror.

 

I’ve been told to shut up about Brexit, that the people have spoken and they’ve said we must leave Europe and that’s that.  As if democracy means that once the votes are counted, those whose views did not prevail must be silent or be regarded as traitors, as if, had the vote gone the way everyone (including Farage and Johnson) expected it to, they would have shut up and let ‘the will of the people’ prevail.  Firstly, whilst a majority of those who voted said we should leave Europe, that is all they said.  They were not asked and so they did not vote on whether we should leave the single market, what should happen about immigration controls, what trade agreements should be in place outside the EU, what would happen to EU citizens based in the UK or vice versa, what would happen to those employment and wider human rights and other legal provisions currently under the EU umbrella.  And so on.  All of that has now to be negotiated and worked out, and that’s a job for Parliament.  How else could it possibly happen?  If anyone thinks they understand how the EU works and thus what are the implications of hard or soft Brexit, they need to read Ian Dunt’s book – Brexit- What the Hell Happens Now? Dunt isn’t talking about the arguments pro or con Brexit, but about what could happen now, what the options are, what the most likely consequences of each option are, and so on.

The US election outcome was described to me by an American colleague recently as ‘somewhere between a mess and a catastrophe’.   I am (for once) holding back from comment – I know how deeply this is felt by US friends, some of whom are now seeing fault lines in their families and friendships as some support what others find inexplicable and irrational.  We’ve seen a bit of that here since June. A left-wing Brexiter said to me recently that his view was that the EU was so compromised and corrupted that we had to break it in order to fix it.  My fear is that some things that get broken simply can’t be mended.  Something of the same feeling seems to have prevailed in the US – and that’s one of the reasons why the arguments against Trump failed to stop him winning.

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This is the year when I’ve felt closest to despair, for all the above reasons, and because the Labour Party, which I’d thought was my natural home politically, has been so ineffectual in opposition.  I took the hard decision to resign my membership – I doubt that I will join another party, perhaps I have to accept that there is not, and never will be, a political party to which I could sign up without caveats and qualms.  In that case I have to be led by my principles and values and be willing to back, vote for, work with those politicians and activists who seem closest to them, whether they be Labour, Green, Lib Dem, Women’s Equality or any combination of the above.

 

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On the other hand…

The Hillsborough inquests returned their verdict, and concluded that planning errors, failures of senior managers, commanding officers and club officials, and the design of the stadium, all contributed to the disaster.  The behaviour of fans did not.  Thus the tireless, dignified campaign fought by the families, survivors and their supporters, was finally vindicated, fully and unequivocally.  Read Phil Scraton’s Hillsborough – The Truth, updated in light of the inquest verdict, and Adrian Tempany’s account of that day and what followed, and his excellent book exploring the broader picture in contemporary football, And the Sun Shines Now.

Too early to say whether Standing Rock will turn out to be a victory for the Native American and other environmental protestors – but it was truly remarkable to see the army veterans who had joined them on the site asking for and receiving forgiveness for the long history of oppression and genocide against the indigenous peoples.

Too early to say, too, whether Gambia has taken a historic step towards democracy, or wheher the defeated dictator will be successful in his attempts to overthrown the result of the election.  (Meantime in Ghana another peaceful general election brings about a change of government ).

Too early to say whether hard right parties in Europe will prevail, or whether the tide will turn against them before people go to the ballot, but at least the Austrian electorate rejected the Freedom Party’s presidential candidate in favour of a former leader of the Greens.

 

If 2016 leads us to expect the worst (after two nights spent sitting up waiting for election results which delivered the outcome we feared most, against the predictions of the pundits), then we have to remember that this does not mean that the die is irrevocably cast.

So, reasons to be anxious, reasons to be angry, reasons to be sad – but not reasons to lose all hope.

I’ve tried, throughout this hard year, to hold on to my own brand of faith. It’s not been easy, and it won’t be easy.

In all of this, though, I have found joy in family and friends, in working for Inspiration for Life and in our extraordinary 24 Hour Inspire, in books and film and music and theatre and opera and TV, in my PhD research, in walking in the lovely countryside on our doorstep.  I’m bloody lucky, and I do know it.

If I’m going to sum up, somehow, what I want to say about 2016, I think I will leave it to Patti Smith, singing Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain, at the Nobel Prize ceremony.  She stumbled, apologised, and began again.  In her performance, and in Dylan’s song, there is humanity and hope.

 

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Aberfan: the sorrow and anger of fifty years

‘In that silence…’ A powerful and moving commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, from That’s How the Light Gets In.

That's How The Light Gets In

Fifty years ago today, on 21 October 1966, at 9.15 in the morning, the children of Pantglas Junior School had just returned from morning assembly to sit at their desks in their classrooms when spoil tip no. 7 tore down the mountainside, taking just five minutes to smash through houses and the school, burying everything in its path in a sea of thick, black mud. By that evening, as miners from the nearby pits toiled under arc lights, scrabbling with their bare hands at the slurry, the village of Aberfan knew that 187 souls were lost, 116 of them children. A generation had been  wiped out.

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It was Heaven

Tramlines.  A concentration of musical joy into one exhausting, exhilarating weekend.

We saw 18 bands – could have fitted in a few more, perhaps, and certainly there were so many more that we wished we could have seen.  But heavens above, what we did see…

The sheer variety is one thing.  Even limiting ourselves to a cluster of City centre venues, we went from indie pop to instrumental jazz to hypnotic electronic trance to grunge to ska to bluesy soul.

Only two bands were known to us, and both of those only through previous Tramlines.  Nordic Giants‘ visceral post-rock with accompanying films left us stunned last time and no less so this year – we stumbled out of the City Hall ballroom and took refuge in the Cathedral for Beaty Heart’s psychedelic drum pop.

And we went back for more from Allusondrugs, having been blown away by their urgent psych-grunge with accompanying manic leaping about and flailing of locks a couple of years back.  Still just as potent, and the venue enabled the more fearless members of the audience to hurl themselves about with abandon too, joyfully thudding into one another, and screaming out the words.  The bass player – and his bass – surfed the crowd too at one point.

Saturday afternoon means the World Stage, in the Peace Gardens.   The sun shone for us all and the music was infectious and energetic.   Steel City Rhythm‘s reggae fusion featured mad ska dancing and we all danced too, albeit with rather less energy and agility.  And Danish band Whiskeyordnen turned up in dapper suits (jackets were soon discarded) and delivered what they variously describe as Worldtheaterjazzfunkrock, Chaoslounge, Fusion, Technojazz, instrumentally tight and delightfully engaging.

Sheffield Cathedral has always been one of our favourite Tramlines venues.  It’s not just the deliciously transgressive feeling of sitting on the floor of the Cathedral drinking Moonshine (this year sitting just behind a dude in a Antichrist Bootcamp t-shirt…), it’s that, with the right band, the acoustics become part of the performance.  Most bands playing there for the first time are very powerfully aware of the nature of the place, the associations it has and the atmosphere that its architecture creates.  This year the music seemed especially well fitted to the venue.

Mt. Wolf, Meilyr Jones, Beaty Heart, Dan Mangan, King Capisce all played with it in various ways, allowing subtle or soaring vocals to resonate, rhythms to echo, and harmonies to multiply.  Meilyr Jones at one point abandoned the stage to swim across the stone floor, still singing. And Dan Mangan too left the stage and the amps and performed for us as we sat on the floor around them.  The finale was Moon Duo, whose space-rock sounds were accompanied by a light show playing hypnotically across the Cathedral stone work.

What I’ve found myself unable to do this year is to pick one absolute, no real contest, stand-out moment.  We didn’t see a duff band this year, and that wasn’t achieved by playing safe.  With the two exceptions noted above, we knew nothing about the bands we chose to see, other than the brief (and often enigmatic) blurb in the programme. We took a punt on them, and were rewarded with performances that were at the very least enjoyable and engaging, and at best exhilarating, engrossing, moving and intoxicating.

Throughout the weekend, the city was suffused with music.  It seemed to be spilling out from every doorway, every venue packed, the vibes, or so it seemed to us, joyous, positive and inclusive.  There’s lots to be anxious about just now.  We know that the city is not as united as it seemed to be, as we flitted between gigs and street food emporia.  We know too that the aftermath, a sea of cans and bottles and general debris, will not look so lovely and will take a heck of a lot of clearing up.  But if we can be united in music for a weekend, dancing together in the sun, that gives me hope.  We walk back to the road, unchained.

The children of the summer’s end
Gathered in the dampened grass
We played our songs and felt the Yorkshire sky
Resting on our hands
It was God’s land
It was ragged and naive
It was heaven

Touch, we touched the very soul
Of holding each and every life
We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn’t, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day

Oh, to capture just one drop of all the ecstasy that swept that afternoon
To paint that love
upon a white balloon
And fly it from
the topest top of all the tops
That man has pushed beyond his brain
Satori must be something
just the same

We scanned the skies with rainbow eyes and saw machines of every shape and size
We talked with tall Venusians passing through
And Peter tried to climb aboard but the Captain shook his head
And away they soared
Climbing through
the ivory vibrant cloud
Someone passed some bliss among the crowd
And we walked back to the road, unchained

“The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party.”

(David Bowie, Memories of a Free Festival)

Our Tramlines 2016 was:

Friday 22 July

Leadmill: Northern Adolescence, Gramercy Park; Cathedral: Mt Wolf, Meilyr Jones

Saturday 23 July

Peace Gardens: The Unscene, Steel City Rhythm, Bell Hagg Orkestar, Whiskey Ordnen; Cathedral: Dan Mangan; City Hall: Nordic Giants; Cathedral: Beaty Heart

Sunday 24 July

Crystal: Starkins, Allusondrugs; Peace Gardens: Sushi; Leadmill: Reflektor, Hot Soles; Cathedral: King Capisce, Moon Duo

 

PS Early Bird Weekend tickets for Tramlines 2017?  Sorted.

 

 

 

 

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The Somme: they went over the top one hundred years ago this morning

A fine piece to commemorate the slaughter on the Somme, from Gerry Cordon’s That’s How the Light Gets In blog.

That's How The Light Gets In

At 7.30 on a sunny morning one hundred years ago today more than sixty thousand British soldiers, each with a bayonet rifle in his hand, began climbing out of their trenches along a 13-mile front and walked towards the German line. By nightfall 20,000 British soldiers were dead. In just a few minutes whole communities in Britain had been devastated.  This was the start of the Battle of the Somme. It went on, with little gain, for nearly half a year. By then, more than a million men were dead or wounded, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

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The 24 Hour Inspire

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We’re in the final run-up to an event that somehow or other I have found myself organising, and which – for all the panics, headaches and hard work it entails – is a labour of love, and the thing I’m proudest of in my career.

First caveat is that whilst I am the chair of the charity and I drive the planning of the event, actually putting it altogether is the work of many people.  My annual thank you list is only marginally shorter than the credit sequence for a Marvel superhero movie.

Second caveat is that, given the scale of the event – 49 speakers, delivering half hour talks over a 24 hour period, with a range of fringe events – the panics and headaches are very few, and the hard work by and large doesn’t feel like hard work.

It all started with a friend and colleague being diagnosed with a terminal cancer.  This particular friend and colleague was one of those people who was not only respected but held in enormous affection by those who he taught and who he worked with – he inspired people, and the news of his illness hit many, many people very hard.  I remember calling the admin and technical staff in the department together to tell them the prognosis, and their shock and tears – and anger at the disease that was claiming him.    Right from the start he was determined to do something positive with the utterly lousy card he’d been dealt.  And he did.

He had far less time to do anything than he – or we – had hoped.  All the more reason for us to ensure that we did something creative, joyous, inclusive and inspiring, in his name.

monifaThat first year it was incredibly personal. A fortnight after the funeral we were still raw with grief and one of our speakers commented on the intensity, a kind of tension that underscored the celebratory mood that we had, nonetheless, achieved.

It’s different now, of course.  Many of our speakers, most of our volunteers, never met Tim.  But the event has taken on a life of its own. It is – and was even that first time – a celebration of what the University is all about.  There’s a lot of cynicism about institutions like ours – we have to jump through so many government initiated hoops, we have to somehow be viable financially, it would not be surprising if the ideals that we proclaim were a bit tarnished and compromised.  But acknowledging all of that, from all of my experience as a member of staff, as a student, I know that those ideals are still burning brightly.

Give people a chance, an excuse almost, to demonstrate and to share the passion that led them into teaching and research in the first place, and they seize it.  When we ask people to take part in the 24 Hour Inspire, they so often respond with a Yes, and.  Yes, I will do a half-hour talk, and would you like me to bake some cakes as well?  Yes, and why don’t you ask my colleague A, because he/she is a brilliant speaker? Yes, and how else can I help to make this a success?

That applies whether they are Professors, Pro-Vice-Chancellors and the like, or PhD/MA students at the start of their academic careers.

So on 12-13 May, 49 speakers from across the disciplines – engineers, lawyers, physicists, historians, medics and more – will be sharing their ideas, their research, their love of their subject with a diverse audience.  Between midnight and 6 am speakers, and many members of the audience, will be pyjama clad.  True, some members of the audience may actually be asleep, but I believe that’s not unknown in daytime lectures either…

Other colleagues will be hosting a pop-up radio broadcast, featuring interviews, Desert Island Discs, a quiz, and lots and lots of music. Some have contributed artworks for a small exhibition, others may be busking live in the foyer.

Of course it has another purpose, alongside the celebration and sharing of knowledge.  We’re raising funds, this year for the Teenage Cancer Trust and Impact Young Heroes, two organisations who work with young people with cancer.  Everyone who buys a wristband, a cupcake or a book, everyone who donates on line or on the day, contributes to that invaluable work.  Since Tim set up Inspiration for Life in 2012, we’ve donated £17000 to a range of cancer charities as well as to the Snowdon Trust who provide grants for students with disabilities.  I’m very proud of that.

But most of all I’m really excited about what’s going to be happening this Thursday from 5.00 pm.  I know that by 5 pm the following day I will be exhausted, but I will also be exhilarated, and that by the following day, I’ll be starting to think about the 2017 24 Hour Inspire…

Do pop in for a bit, if you can.  If you can’t, follow us on Twitter, and tune into the radio station.  It’ll be a blast.  It’ll be an inspiration.

@inspire4L

#24HrInspire

https://inspirationforlifeblog.wordpress.com/

http://www.inspirationforlife.co.uk

https://www.facebook.com/Inspiration-for-Life-340350772727621/

 

 

 

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