What the hell am I doing here?

I read an awesome blog post yesterday and it made me think a lot. I’ve promised a bunch of people for a while now that I’ll write a post like the one below, and felt now was a good time to do it.

My first experience of moving significantly outside of my class came at Cambridge University. It was the first dinner there. I had no family or friends to tell me how to wear the stupid over-sized gown, so I improvised, searching Google to find images of people wearing them, so I could work out how it was supposed to be worn.

That first dinner was a fascinating experience. It was black tie with silver service. What would now be termed ‘imposter syndrome’ oozed through me as I sat at the top table, watching waiters and waitresses bring out the three course dinner (with wine and port). Staring at the cutlery in front of me, I pulled out memories of how to best use it, using the only experience I had; years of waiting on tables and performing silver service at Cheltenham race-course. I wasn’t comfortable enough in my surroundings to ask for help – I already felt like i didn’t fit in, and felt a stronger bond to those waiting tables than those sat around me. A quick look around me didn’t seem to show anyone else who felt the same way.

Socio-economic equality is so much more than about whether you went to a school which provided you with the right opportunities, the best teaching and whether or not you left with good grades. Without a doubt, these are all crucially important factors, and these have an incredibly significant impact upon what a person is able to do with their life.

However, that is often where the conversation about equality ends. But there are many insidious results of growing up poor which often aren’t discussed.

How and where you grow up affects how you think – about the world, about others and about yourself. Coming from a working class, or lower socio-economic background, and trying to culturally fit into middle class lifestyles and jobs can be incredibly difficult.

I grew up in a poor and incredibly dysfunctional family. My childhood experiences lie in clearing sick off my father as he lay comatose on the floor, stealing money from his alcohol fund to pay for lunch for my sisters and myself, hiding behind sofas and cupboards so as not to get beaten (again) by my mother. It lies in learning how to cook at a young age, having to get a job at 13 (yes – 13, not 14 which was the legal minimum) so I could make sure I could buy food for myself – and even occasionally some new clothes. From 16 onwards, in my own house, I became the queen of saving money where I could; turning off fridges and every gadget in the house to save electricity – the only thing in the fridge was cheap wine (to make life feel better – and I could drink it warm) and milk (which could be kept cool in a saucepan of cold water). I would go on dates strategically timed at the end of the month, because I would have run out of money to buy the cereal, beans on toast, and beans in soup that I lived upon. I loved working lunch and dinner shifts in kitchens as they were a great way to get fed on a regular basis at no cost to myself.

I would rarely let on how bad it could be at times – mostly smiling, keeping it hidden even from my partners – because I was embarrassed.

If we are a collection of our experiences, can you imagine how difficult it can be then to sit in polite conversation and try and engage about childhood holidays, where you learned so ski, and how to fit orchestra practice in around your job? As a person, I have literally nothing to contribute that others feel comfortable hearing (and I have been told more than once that I shouldn’t make others feel uncomfortable about this).

These are the types of conversations I’ve had to navigate almost daily since working in the professional world – and every time I’m involved in these I am instantly reminded of my past and have a voice in the back of my head telling me I don’t belong in this space. A voice telling me I’m an outsider. And in many ways I am. As are the countless others who also come from poor or dysfunctional backgrounds and are trying to find someway to navigate through middle-class life.

Middle class is a scary place, full of unwritten rules that are alien to someone coming from a background where survival is paramount. Growing up poor, your brain is constantly working out how to get through today; and planning to work out tomorrow when it comes to it. It’s hard to plan a future, a route through career structures, pensions and life – when you have grown up focussing on the next pay packet, and are thinking about how to make sure you have enough food and electricity to last.

When you come from a poor background you are unlikely to have cultural experiences that can form the basis of many conversations. You don’t have the same shared experiences of locations visited, shows, plays and museums seen. I was nearly 20 before I saw my first play that wasn’t on a school trip. Food is different (hummus is awesome – I didn’t know of its existence until the first time I had to make it working as a chef), clothing is different (you mean you don’t just buy the cheapest things that look ok?) attitudes towards people are different (there’s a lot more subtext, nuance and casualness among friendships), relationships are different, and your cultural reference points are different.

When you come from a poor background, you are less likely to have support in education outside of school. There are no tutors, and the family often cannot give you much (if any) support. With a sibling and parent boasting of receiving the lowest possible Gs on GCSEs/O-levels, there was no-one at home who I could turn to for support academically. If I didn’t understand a topic, tough. Far from parents pushing for me to get ahead academically, encouraging me to get better grades and go to better schools, my family actively persuaded me not to attend a private school to which I had a full scholarship because ‘I wouldn’t get along with those types of kids’. For many people from poorer background, you don’t have after school classes in music and dance.

Coming from a poor background there is often little or no familial support in choosing universities or A-levels. As with me, these things are alien to your family; and they have no way of knowing how to understand the systems you are facing.

You are less likely to have role models and you don’t have access to the same informal career advice that many others do. You don’t get insight into what it’s like to work in a lawyers office, as a doctor, or as an academic over the dinner table. My families friends were all unemployed, long term sick, or working in supermarkets. You can see and understand other jobs exist, but they are far more abstract, and it’s never people like you who do them. It’s always people who laugh and talk about their holidays to exotic places, or the semi-famous people they’ve met. Personally, I could never find a way to relate to them. I know others have felt the same.

You are more likely to want to stay hidden, to not make a fuss or rock the boat. At talks and events, I will rarely raise a hand. I don’t have the confidence in myself to navigate that situation. I’ll go and talk to someone after a session and make the comments I’d have wanted to raise. I try to ask questions at times, and am getting better at it – but the desire to hide and not be seen is strong; I’d rather influence the debate and discussion afterwards, quietly. Even in small groups it can be tough, and I’m much more likely to go quiet, and look at my phone than say anything too challenging.

I get stuck when people ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t know as a child; my only desire was not to be like my family. I’ve managed that, through some odd and weird route. Yet, I’m still trying to work out what it is I want; what my dream is. I’m driven, but in a very different way from those around me. Growing up I didn’t know what else there was, I didn’t know that there was another possible life where I wasn’t a waitress, running a bar or working in a supermarket.

Coming from lower income backgrounds, we start off feeling inferior – because life and our experiences have told us that we are. We then risk continuing to feel inferior because we are stuck in circles surrounded by people who constantly have access to knowledge and cultural experiences we haven’t.

Those of us who leave our backgrounds behind have to cope with not really fitting in where we are now, but growing in a way that makes it hard to fit in where we came from. We have to prove ourselves to ourselves repeatedly, reminding ourselves that we can belong here. Being surrounded by others who don’t seemingly understand that experience makes it even more difficult for us. There needs to be more of us who are willing to talk about our experiences, and we need to make sure the conversation about equality doesn’t just end on formal education.

On being vulnerable

I suck at letting myself be vulnerable. Really I do.

I hate being judged, told I’m not good enough, or that I’m wrong. I also really (really) hate feeling stupid. I know many people dislike being in these situations, but I get so wound up by these feelings that I don’t put myself in situations where I risk being told these things. Especially in public.

In private, and in one-on-one conversations (or even on twitter), I’m more than happy to vocalise and share thoughts. And the knowledge and thoughts I have has helped inform public debate, reshaped some of the conversations around some of the topics I consider really important, and gone into academic and policy papers – indeed I help write some of the latter. Somehow the conversations and emails leading to these felt transient and safe.

When it comes to something that feels more permanent, or if it’s a situation in which I don’t feel comfortable, I hide. Most of the time not literally (although it has been none), but I make sure I’m not in a place where others can criticise me. Why? Because I’m scared of being judged badly. And my threshold where that fear kicks in is rather stupidly low.

As such I don’t blog or write as much as I should, I don’t accept invitations to, and I rarely ask for help from others. And I do my best to hold on to control in all manner of different situations.

It’s stopping me from doing a number of things that I want to do, and it’s preventing me growing in ways in which I’d like to grow. And I’m really determined to try and change that.

So this year I’ll be doing my best to ask myself why I run away from certain situations (and the answer of ‘it’s because of my past’ isn’t going to be good enough, even though it is understandable). And I’ll be trying to reduce the effect that my fear has on me. This means, for instance, blogging a lot more – and not waiting for thoughts and ideas to be ‘perfect’ before sharing them. And I’m going to accept more speaking invitations, and force myself to ask for help more.

And this is all rather intimidating prospect. But, I’ll do my best. And hopefully, I don’t f*$k up too badly. Or at least in ways it can’t be fixed.

Reading – Oct to Dec 2013

After a long time of not reading any books at all, I made a concerted effort to start reading again. And have turned back into the book hungry monster I used to be…

The Rapture of the Nerds – Cory Doctorow:

I normally love Cory. I.. I just couldn’t get through it. I found the writing slightly.. not quite lazy… but something. In crafting the new world, simple descriptions were given eg. the coast of France was described as being radioactive. In brackets.While I get the value and use of describing these changes casually… it just didn’t sit comfortably for me. First book I learned to put down.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury:

“It was a pleasure to burn”

Such a strong opening line, and a brilliant first couple of pages. But the promise of these weren’t fulfilled.

I had been waiting a long time to read the book, and was always careful not to hear any spoilers. However, I think this meant I expected too much from the book. It had always been mentioned by others in the same breath as Huxley’s Brave New World and 1984, both books I have lost myself in multiple times, and I just didn’t find it lived up to these.

While in awe of some of the scarily presentient ideas contained Fahrenheit 451 (with one scene reminding me strongly of Police, Camera, Action) I found both the book and Montag as a character too disjointed. I couldn’t connect with Montag (and I always get *far* too emotionally involved with lead characters), and found I cared little about what happened to anyone.

Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen – P. G Wodehouse:

Not my favourite of Wodehouse books – but I do enjoy any visit to the world of Wooster and Jeeves. There is a bittersweet irony as it is believed to be the last novel fully completed by Wodehouse before his death.

The Beautiful and Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald:

I couldn’t get through the book. The story is slow, and while I don’t need to like the characters in my books,  I found Anthony and Gloria were neither interesting nor likeable. The blurb tells me that ‘their marriage is a passionate, theatrical performance’, but I found it excruiating, unhappy and I just wished for both the marriage and the book to end.

Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose – Sandy Balfour:

This was a delight to read. Delicate, enticing, the book pulled me to keep reading until I had pulled together an understanding of the authors life. While also exploring the fascinating issues of culture, national identify, politics and history, this autobiography is centered around cryptic cross words. While this may sound bizarre – it works. Really works. And even though I’ve never been the biggest fan of cross words, I have been left with a fresh appreciation for them.

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie:

Agatha Christie books are something of a dirty secret for me – like having fallen into bed with an ex against all good judgement, they touch all the right spots, filling me with suspense, before culminating in a great climax, and then leave me feeling empty and hollow.

‘And Then There Were None’ is a masterful book by Christie, in which she lays out the premise early on, building up suspense (to almost breaking point by the end of the book), knowing what but not who. Without a Poirot or Marple like character, the reader is left not knowing who to trust – leaving you very disoriented, questioning the motives of all. I found it absorbing to read – but I won’t think much of it again.

Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D. James:

The first half of the book felt like a step into a world I thought I would never get chance to re-explore. Stepping back through the wardrobe to the world of Pemberley was bliss.

However, rapidly the focus moves away from Elizabeth. And good God, I found Darcy dull. I know the novel is set in a period of time of time in which the role of women was very different to now, however I had hoped that Elizabeth would have some part (indeed any part) in solving the murder mystery. She was the first woman I perceived as ‘strong’ in literature (in contrast to a number of strong girl characters I had ‘met’ in books) – so I was disappointed to see her take a back seat.

Following Darcy through a couple of hundred pages, was painful and tedious. I never understood my friends fascination with Mr Darcy, and now I do so even less. I found much of this rather dull, so skim-read the last 100 pages or so to find the resolution – only to find this rapidly taking place in the last 30. I really don’t think the pay off was worth it, and have no desire to hear from Mr Darcy for a long time.

I will certainly be reading the first half of the book again though. If nothing else, for this gem of a sentence:

“If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?”

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath:

Simultaneously the best and worst book I could read at this time – I found an odd solace in the book, empathising with the suicidal depression, exploring mental illness through a piece of semi-autobiographical writing, which drips with cynicism and humour.

I found the ending somewhat disappointing in a way – it didn’t ring true with the same rawness that I had found in the rest of the book. Although perhaps that’s more of a reflection of me than the book?

Outsider – Albert Camus:

This was a re-read of a book I had read years ago. For some reason, I can’t remember anything about it.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul:

Yes I was high on codeine – no, I don’t think this in anyway changed my impression of this book. Mad in all the right ways, and leaving my giggling with glee. Handed to me by a friend, largely to stop me moaning about being a) in pain b) bored, I rushed through this in a single reading. As a big Douglas Adams fan, I only have two questions: 1. Why did it take me so long to find this book. 2. Why are aren’t there more in the Dirk Gently series?

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams:

No sooner had I finished the Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, then I ransacked my friends house hunting for this book. Sad I couldn’t find it though, so I bought it for my kindle app and read through this in a few hours (spread over two days). Very happy to have bought it in such a way – as it means I can dip in and out whenever I want. I know the characters now. It’s exactly
that type of book.

Hackers – Steven Levy:

If I never hear the phrase ‘The Hacker Ethic’ (caps not mine) again, I will die a happy woman.  I found the book semi-religious in the worship of ‘true hackers’ and ‘The Hacker Ethic.’ While I’m really interested to learn more about the time and places the author was writing about (accepting that he was writing about only a few locations – and was missing other developments in other place – which is a problem itself), the lack of critical comment really disappointed me.

Two examples stand out clearly. One is not questioning the idea that “it was only the rarest hack who called the ARPA funding ‘dirty money'”. There seems to be something interesting about use of defence money and development of technology – and it would have been nice for that idea or concept to be explored.

Secondly, and more problematically, the author fail to question assumptions regarding the lack of female hackers. The single paragraph exploring this culminates in two sentences that I hear even today as justification for fewer women being in tech:

“Even the substantial cultural bias against women getting into serious computer does not explain the utter lack of female hackers. Cultural things are strong, but not that strong” Gosper would later conclude, attributing the phenomenon to genetic, or “hardware” differences.”

Yet the book also contains a number of unnecessary anecdotes about men getting laid, or trying to get other men laid which add very little to the story – or needlessly sexualised similes:

“Even if the time-sharing system allowed the machine to respond to you in exactly the same way as it did in single user mode, you would just know that it wasn’t all yours. It would be like trying to make love to your wife, knowing she was simultaneously making love to six other people!”


Little Women – Louise May Alcott:

It’s a ‘classic’ that I missed out on when growing up. I do wonder what I would have thought of it had I read this when younger. It’s unlikely to make the list of books I recommend to my niece when she starts reading – as I found it a little preachy, Christian, and teaching us to learn to be good, well behaved and demure.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov:

I’ve long wanted to read this – and finally found a library copy – but sadly, my brain has been in too many dark places in recent months for this right now. The start was interesting, but I found myself holding back from all the characters in a way I’m not happy with. I’ll put this back on the shelf for the time being.

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Omnibus – Arthur Conan Doyle:

I cannot say how much I loved this book. 5 stars.

Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control – Medea Benjamin:

If you are looking for a balanced book that  will give you the pros and cons of using drones in warfare – this isn’t it – written as it is by one of the co-founders of Code Pink. There were contradictions in the arguments at times (eg.as a remote pilot you can kill without remorse and you aren’t as affected because you are not in a war zone, but also the stress and impact of killing people must be high on remote pilots). However, it is an interesting easy-to-read primer on a topic that can be difficult to get to grips with. It did jump occasionally jumps between use of drones in a civilian and war backdrop a little quickly – and this could be confusing (deliberately so?), and didn’t contain quite enough references for my tastes, but a good read nonetheless. As with any book written to further an agenda  – I will be checking what I learned from it against other resources.

New Years Resolutions

2013 was, as some people will know, pretty tough for me. The first half of the year was filled with deaths, others being diagnosed with cancer, and a handful of attempted suicides. Then just in case I was planning to deal healthily with all the emotional ‘stuff’, I filled the latter half of the year with physical trauma – for instance half-blinding myself for a week. I also tore most of the ligaments in my right shoulder and collarbone at the beginning of December – which has still not quite healed. During December I also managed to injure my left wrist – and there were days that the arm not quite attached to my shoulder properly was the stronger of my two upper limbs, making the act of trying to do just about anything pretty tough.

Last year also saw a significant break-up, which seemed perfectly timed with a bunch of my London/UK based friends moving away (who needs moral support anyway?), a rather nasty sexual assault (which is part of the reason I hid for most of November), and a number of more comical but still awkward incidents like falling down most of Tooting Broadway escalator on my birthday when sober, and a bunch of other things that are too detailed or dark for a public blog post.

And despite going from situation to situation, all year – far more out of control than I would like – I achieved most of my work targets and my commitments. However, there were a couple of things both work wise and out of work that slipped more than I’d like, or I didn’t do as well as I’d have liked – and then being rather a self critical person, I beat myself up for messing up.

The period of introspection that November and December have forced upon me (while recovering from the sexual assault and the shoulder injury), has led me to create a couple of New Years Resolutions. They aren’t about specific numbers or goals – but instead broader ideas which I hope can change how I deal with the world occasionally.

1. Be kinder to myself.

I judge myself much harsher than I judge anyone else in my life. I get annoyed at myself for failing (which basically means not being perfect) and I get annoyed at myself for not knowing as much as I think I ought to – which is often defined by some of the most knowledgeable specialists around.

I need to get much better at remembering not to judge myself too harshly in comparison to others. And I need to get better at letting go of my idea of perfection. Most of the time, I haven’t actually messed up as badly as I think. And I need to be better at stopping myself getting into negative cycles. I have a really bad habit of not letting things go – and getting into a cycle of beating myself up for messing up at something, or not knowing something – and then beating myself up for beating myself up.

Yes, I fail occasionally. We all fail. But, one thing I need to remember much more is that it’s OK if I do. Instead, I should try and learn from it, try not to upset too many others by messing up, and then let it go. It seems that by doing that, I can actually not fail at the next thing as well. I also need to be better at recognising my own achievements.

2. Let myself be more vulnerable.

I have a habit of making sure I have things under control and not letting go enough, and while this is totally understandable given my past – this limits what I let myself do now. I’ve worked hard to get to a place where I feel safe in life, and even now there are enough small things that put me outside my comfort zone on a fairly regular basis.

3. Remember my friends better.

One thing I really learned in 2013 was that I’m surrounded by a bunch of really freaking awesome people – although it must be said, it’s not always the people I thought were there. There are a bunch of people who when there were some tough times, just stood next to me and gave me a cuddle. Or let me cry. Or gave me the keys to live in their empty house for three weeks. And, I want to make sure they know just how awesome they are.

I want to grow in ways that I can’t if I keep holding on to all of the control and keep being scared of failure.

This scares me. A lot.