‘Don’t look for answers in inanimate objects that can’t love you back – look for it in each other’

The relationship between old friends is a bit like refusing to turn your back on that favourite jumper held together not by threads but by bits of dried Weetabix, or industrial concrete as I like to call it, and splodges of pasta sauce; its sentimental value a protective façade against the years of wear and tear that should have justified regulation from wardrobe to charity box.

It’s not an easy thing to predict which people will remain a life-time staple in the interminable buffet of potential friendships. Each major life transition – from primary to secondary school, and then onto college and university – brings new rounds of relegation. You might still like each-others posts on Instagram, but the once strong connection is now forgotten like the lipstick-turned-cactus impaled by years of capsized tobacco and Argos pens shipwrecked in the bottom of your faux-leather bag. The ones that have stuck have done so through a mess of histrionic Facebook posts, fatuous bickering, dodgy landlords and the now six-hour-train separation. And yet, the intermittent texts suffice because the strong emotional connection forged long before adulting took precedence transcends the lack of regular communication.

The value of friendship is on my mind as of late. My teens and early twenties were rough – my friends found themselves unexpectantly having to support a drug addict, hooked on a cocktail of Class A-drugs, through rehab, relapse, and recovery.

We all know what addiction looks like because it permeates every corner of society intruding on most of our lives. Many of us watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix, a polemic on the dangers of social media and its malign influence on our relationships not just with friends and family, but the world: through our fingertips, we can interact with information and people on a global scale. The twenty-four-hour news cycle once the pantheon of broadsheets now reduced to a hundred-character limit on twitter, catching-up over an intimate phone call replaced by ‘snaps’ as an expedient way of tackling the onslaught of daily interactions.

The genesis of addiction to drugs, technology, gambling, and sex, is a lack of connection with others, of deep and meaningful relationships, based on trust, acceptance, and love. Lying in bed during those first weeks of lockdown in March I’d think about the people, physically isolated with only the superficiality of Zoom to remedy those lonely summer nights, who would turn into the precarious ‘comfort blanket’ of instant gratification that ostensibly a bottle of vodka provides.

The junction between the consequences of addiction and the dopamine-rich release that technology, drugs, and alcohol provides, reached its fatal final crescendo this week after harrowing news of the death of several university freshers. After taking a batch of dodgy ketamine and MDMA two female students at Newcastle University and a man at Northumbria University overdosed. I wonder if this was a product of a year of coronavirus restrictions, turning the faucet of pressure off with drugs in reaction to months devoid of physical human contact.

Tangible, face to face conversation with your best friends and family members is vital. Connection is what humans strive for, it’s a natural prophylactic to the disease of mental health and addiction, to the external pressures of the outside world. Don’t look for answers in inanimate objects that can’t love you back – look for it in each other.

‘It’s not a park boozer unless someone’s had a fumble between the industrial bins’

If you’re bored, having mauled off your nails and memorised your wallpaper, then you’re not alone. My brain’s natural autopilot descends into procrastination as follows; drawing palm leaves in black biro in the corner of my notepads, matching up my socks, educating my housemates on Princess Diana’s guilty pleasure of bread and butter pudding (stale Hovis and raisins just became a classy affair), reading through old journals cringing at the Jane Austen phase that resulted in emotions described using words like ‘felicity’ and, arranging the contents of my stuff draw into ninety-degree angles.

Previously, I spoke about freshers developing new coping mechanisms because of restricted access to pubs, clubs, friends, and family. In hindsight, I should have predicted what followed.

Whilst I’m picking the grub out of my fingernails for what feels like the hundredth time these teens, carotid arteries thick with home bargains vodka, have spent their evenings turning the accommodation residence into an insalubrious townie park. Strolling through the aftermath, I saw lacy black knickers kicked surreptitiously behind a bush because it’s not a park boozer unless someone’s had a fumble between the industrial bins. Cigarette butts discharged scattershot across the floor like the accompanying exchanges forgotten and blurred by warm beer. Grass skirting the designated smoking area turned brown and slushy, an ode to welly boots that should have spent the summer fashioning Glastonbury into a dirt-bath. Concluding the festivities an admirable attempt to throw a party in the block opposite, only going belly-up when raided (which had me imagining a police firearms unit busting down the door shouting “SIR, STEP AWAY FROM THE WKD!”).

At Reading festival 2013

The only positive outweighing the hours of robbed sleep listening to this carnage play out is that it’s managed to fill many a dinner time chat. Poring over the juicy details of who did what and when like a school-girl gossip is addictive. LIVING. FOR. THE. DRAMA.

However, because I’m a boring fart, I do have an adult observation I wish to impart. One, alcohol is a prosthetic for the melancholy mind and poor one at that. I used to be a big-time party girl skiing down the stairs of my four-storey house, taking drugs that transmogrified my friends into goblins and ending up paralytic in the back of an ambulance hair accessorised with brick-hard sick. From my window, I can watch all these young, elastic faced things as if I’ve put a VHS recording of my life at seventeen into a tape player and yes, it is fascinating but also sad. I used to be part of a large friendship group that without alcohol as a sticking glue, drifted apart. I was depressed and scared about my future and, flying headfirst into a vat of Captain Morgan’s felt easier than facing down my anxieties. Why else would freshers get so drunk if it wasn’t to speed up the bonding process without having to deal with awkward icky pauses?

Not only this, but it’s also made me realise how unoriginal drunk people are. It’s funny to think how rebellious I thought I was being when really, I was following in the footsteps of countless teens before me. Oh, and I certainly don’t miss the mornings waking up in a stranger’s bed, bank card gone, rooting around for pennies in my purse for the bus ride home. But hey – it’s the circle of life right Rafiki!

Learning how to knit in my mid-twenties makes me think I’m only a fig-biscuit away from a matching chintz sofa and dolly dress but does that mean what I’m doing is any less fun than these park town shenanigans?

I wonder when the febrile excitement of partying wears down what hobbies these kids will turn too. Sometimes I get FOMO but, for the most part, I’m content with my idiosyncrasies. Of course, I’m no longer searching for an identity and acceptance within my peer group. Alexa? Order me another set of black biros.

‘My peers are either pushing out a baby, getting hitched or have fancy job titles in their twitter bios’

It sounds like a conflict zone in my halls of residence; the door’s slamming BANG, BANG, BANG like someone going trigger happy with a Kalashnikov. Most students arrive today, including freshers. Walking to the shop this morning I saw fake-tanned legs in shade ‘Garfield’ tentatively hauling bags out of a taxi. Tanning is a complex operation, a rite of passage when anything PVC is concerned and a staple of British nightlife. However, given the situation at Manchester Met where 1700 students are currently self-isolating that kind of grooming feels a tad optimistic, especially when partying is firmly off the cards. Breaking the ice with Bacardi Breezers is a non-negotiable during freshers week, and it made me think. With the usual coping mechanisms out the window, what advice can I give?

Clubbing as a teenager (I’m in the centre)

My heart goes out to the young whose independent living foray will be a complete aberration without the norm of intermingling and boozy nights. University, for most, is a formative period where you learn how to be an adult, transfer from the provided to the provider. Learning about personal responsibilities like realising it is now your job to scrape that mouldy apple core off your desk to avoid co-habitation with a legion of fruit flies – the rule of six guys! -, to ensure a constant supply of loo roll at home, that if you don’t settle your overdraft, the scary bank people will never let you onto the housing ladder (note to self, cough cough).

Students this year face a syllabus taught exclusively online, virtual fresher’s week, potential coronavirus outbreaks, intimidating hygiene regimes, and a non-existent social life. Daunting for anyone, not least young teenagers leaving home for the first time. Imagine, banned from going home at the holidays and – worst of all – a cancelled Christmas. Desperate to grow up yet wanting to run back into Mum’s arms at the first sign of trouble is the ultimate paradox. Except this year, you might not be able to that. So, no booze, and no Mum. How will they cope?

The danger zone for all over-thinkers is late at night. Reflecting too hard about the pressure my generation is up against I induce an infamous Gillian McKeith style hysterical breakdown, and I’m twenty-four. This year’s cohort of students must have stress-levels off the charts! I may be a mature student, but I still feel the external powder keg of pressure to grow up. My peers are either pushing out a baby, getting hitched or have fancy job titles in their twitter bios, all in alarming synchronisation and whilst fighting an invisible, Flubber-esque type pathogen. They are maturing like cheddar cheese whilst I’m stuck in the fermentation period of self-doubt and antipathy to change. Even so, watching the freshers delicately wheel around their suitcases and packing boxes today made me think that my insecurities are a bit… well, pathetic.

Life is about perspective. I find solace in thinking thank God I want to be writer, where life experience trumps employment record (SHOVE that up your ass Curriculum Vitae). The pandemic has given me space to cultivate my passion and shown me that I can cope in adverse situations which is a vital, life-affirming skill.

So! New students: this time may feel scary but be comforted knowing that in three years, the dust will have settled. You’ll realise how brave you were forging ahead with your future ambitions despite the tsunami of uncertainties faced. You will learn to create new, healthier coping mechanisms and the discipline that online learning requires will be a bulwark when jumping into the job market. You’ve made a massive leap of faith, and you should be proud. I know I am.

‘If I wanted to listen to Nico warble on painfully out of tune, I would have stayed at home next to my groaning radiator’

Yesterday I went to one of those fancy arthouse cafés. I hate to be a moaning myrtle but, asking for the Wi-Fi code greeted with an eyebrow that shot up so quickly it could rival any grand jeté you’d find at The Royal Ballet left me feeling lacklustre about my own supposed green-credentials. I scuttled back to my laptop in shame and opened my book instead, hipster eyes burning fiery Yingying’s into my back (or so I imagined). I wanted to scream “I don’t write what-I-eat-in-a-day blogger tosh, I promise sir! Serious stuff over here!”.

Luckily, I wasn’t the only one getting a telling off (misery loves company). The poor bloke next to me asked for some butter for his sourdough toast to which the waitress barked “No butter here, vegan!” swanning off before he could reply. Who knew Lurpak could be so divisive?!

These types of uber-trendy caffs are full to the brim with men wearing Thai beach shirts and women clad head to toe in tie-dye. Although both sexes admirably discuss climate change, they do so whilst using every orifice in the wall to charge their phones the size of swimming pools. At least I felt smug with my medieval Lenovo. How is it that hippies are so tech-savvy with the latest Apple products and yet still manage to suffer a superiority complex? What happened to the nice LSD chomping, tree-hugging, free-lovers of the ’60s? Or were they also just as stuffy and exclusive? And if I wanted to listen to Nico warble on painfully out of tune, I would have stayed at home next to my groaning radiator. I like Nico, but not when I’m trying to not be depressed.

Oh, if only they knew how diligently I clean out my tuna fish cans before chucking them into the recycling, refuse to learn to drive, darn my own clothes and buy my lamb shanks from the local butcher.

It does get some brownie points. For one, it was an absolute tit-fest. Yes! Free the nipple! Two Women Running on The Beach by Picasso on the wall, and another glorious pair framed in Athenian robes (artist unknown). The cake was moist – the olive oil apparently – and the coffee criminally good. Will I come again? Probably. It’s too conveniently placed near to my flat and, at least it oozed character with its sui generis hodge-podge of furnishings, plants, and artworks. I’ll just have to sneak in my own butter next time.

Let’s Talk About… Shame.

Does anyone remember that programme Super-Size Vs Super-Skinny? Falstaffian ‘fatties’ – the super-sizers – would have the unenviable task of switching diets with petrol-guzzling Tiny Tim’s – the super-skinnies – which was grossly unfair (by the way I’m convinced if the world had Monster during the 1973 Petrol Crisis, it could have been avoided). Wouldn’t you rather eat Chinese takeaway or cream cakes for breakfast than confront liquid lunches and a lone jammy dodger for dinner three days straight?

I admired the stoicism of these men and women, humiliated on TV and all whilst cameras shoved in your face to an audience of millions. The programme tried to fob itself off as educational by wheeling in Christian Jessen as a passive-aggressive Mrs Trunchbull, carting off the Super-Sizers to Las Vegas to spend a day with wheel-chair bound double amputees in a stark warning that “If you keep eating all that sugar, the risk of diabetes means this could be you”.

The reality is that these sorts of programmes are about one thing and one thing only: shame. It was unadulterated voyeurism on gluttony. ‘Shame-TV’ luckily, has become unfashionable. Jeremey Kyle style finger-wagging called out for what it was; bullying, but on a national scale. Morally, the onus wasn’t on helping people with their issues but bringing us – the customer – the opportunity to ridicule, gawping with orange-tinged fingers tips as we whipped out our third packet of Doritos. We projected onto them our own shame and struggle to meet unrealistic beauty standards.

I remember my first real heart-wrenching bout of shame because I documented it in my teenage diary. Horrified at the black curly hair suddenly sprouting underneath my armpits, I wrote long, agonising paragraphs of complete repulsion and self-contempt (yes, yes it’s funny, I know). It wasn’t like that in the glossy magazines at the hairdresser, what was wrong with me? I loathed my bodies revolt, and Instagram exacerbated it.

Shame doesn’t work. It’s counterproductive as a deterrent, and it rarely changes behaviour, especially if its roots are in childhood. Did Jessen think he could cure years of comfort eating and emotional baggage in a three-day clinic on national TV?

When Matt Hancock barks on about ‘Don’t kill your Granny’ shame is his ammunition. The community spirit invoked at the beginning of the pandemic dismissed in favour of snitching and social humiliation. If you want the nation to alter its ingrained habits, this isn’t the way to go about it. Mostly, adherence to the rules has been good. When the government said lockdown, we cleared our calendars, took children out of school, packed away our social life and turned indoors. The tone has grown significantly worse since then in favour of spying over the neighbour’s hedge and lambasting the young for wanting to see friends and have fun. And it doesn’t work.

What we all respond to is incentives, gentle nudging, social and personal responsibility, and a sense of doing the right thing. Whether it’s losing a few pounds or learning to socialise in a different way: this is how people change.

Hostile Living

A few years ago, I found myself living in supported accommodation – a sweat-box of thirty women, all with complex mental health needs. The staff had a monumental task as brokers of peace, diplomats for the broken. Domestic abuse victims, alcoholics, drug addicts and girls turfed out of foster care at eighteen, it was a place of refuge. Due to the ephemeral nature of hostels residents constantly move onto different properties, usually those much older, only to return after a few months. Being twenty-two at the time, I stayed longer than most: almost a year. During this period, I bore witness to the grim reality the housing crisis has wrought on the forgotten underbelly of society. Those that, as a democratic and civilised nation, we should protect.

Sitting at my laptop outside a coffee house near where I live a man called Sean approaches me. Although his face shows signs of a life full of hardship, his eyes are bright and friendly, and we start chatting. Soon, he divulges his experiences living in a hostel during the pandemic; how his computer, a present from his brother, was recently stolen; how his eyesight prevents him from working; how worried he is that soon he will be asked to leave. He rolls a cigarette, a soothing antibiotic for the stress. Dragging it in contemplation, he relays in detail his struggle out of homelessness only to find himself living in cramped quarters with little provision for his exigencies as a recovering addict. I listen quiet and attentive, reassuring him when he apologises for intruding every few minutes that, no, of course, he wasn’t disturbing me. I don’t reveal my grapple with the housing system, but my heart swells with empathy. Before he parts, he thanks me, pulls a pink peony out of a white plastic bag to put next to my computer and says goodbye.

Coming to university was my get-out-of-jail-free card. It allowed me to find meaning in life, forging a new identity away from poverty. Without that, I don’t know what I would have done.

Supported housing is a stepping-stone. The pandemic demonstrates the government can pull people off the streets: hotels where provided, and applicants fast-tracked. I sympathise with local councils struggling to house rough sleepers when constrained by government funding. If given access to adequate finances, then this year has shown the power councils have to change lives.

But housing the homeless is only the tip of the iceberg and the Sean’s of this world are the forgotten masses. More attention needs to be paid to help them reintegrate back into society, not turf them out back onto the streets when the money dries up. Social mobility in any form is so important, having a purpose in life is what motivates people to change, move up in the world. Listening to Sean speak about his problems highlights the point that simply cooping people up in chicken boxes isn’t enough.

I’m reminded of a quote from Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure that I recently jotted down in my journal. ‘That excessive regard of parents for their own children, and their dislike of other people’s, is like class-feeling, patriotism, save-your-own-soul-ism, and other virtues, a mean exclusiveness at the bottom’.

Although here the protagonist Jude is talking about fostering, in a way it is just as relevant in the context of homelessness. The government has a responsibility for those who were failed miserably by the state as young children and subsequently as adults.

We must do more.

‘Looks like the two spiders in either corner of my university-hovel will be my only classmates this year’

Looks like the two spiders in either corner of my university-hovel will be my only classmates this year. Timetables were released yesterday and, with only two face-to-face sessions out of a possible nine, the prospect of any semblance of normality feels like a distant dream. Actually, it’s more like a nightmare – except this time it’s not the bogey man underneath the bed but the threat of poor internet connection and hypothermia from my single glazed windows. Studying over Zoom will be a brand new experience especially with the myriad of issues that online learning presents.

I feel for the university with national measures in flux and new updates pummelled out daily in attempt to keep up. Less than a week ago, Boris Johnson implemented the new rule of six which made sense. Clear, concise messaging is cogent when most ordinary people struggle to keep up with the onslaught of rules and regulations. But, as cases reported to double every eight days and more local authorities ordered into partial lockdown, I wonder if this has been in vain. It will soon get to the point where it will be easier to say what areas are in lockdown then those that aren’t. Winter is coming, what will happen then?

We don’t want a pyrrhic victory over COVID; a bruised and battered economy, the death of the high-street, mounting homelessness, mass unemployment, a mental health crisis, the ruination of the young and more study disruptions. Boris Johnson needs to show strong leadership at a time of so much uncertainty. This mixed messaging is in no one’s best interest, let alone the governments. What if a vaccine isn’t available soon?

It’s difficult for the government to know what’s best, having to balance popular opinion, economic forecasts and infection rates. U-turns can be work: the Marcus Rashford campaign for free school meals over the summer showed a tory party willing to listen. But if every week involves back-pedalling, how can we move forward?

I’m worried about myself and my fellow students. What cost will we have to pay for a lack of government foresight? Timetables aside, the financial outcome of my investment in the future is bleak. I worry about my studies being affected, not being able to find a job with a mountain of debt and having to put further strain on my loved ones at a time when everyone is navigating so much. Give the universities what they need Mr Prime Minister: clarity.

The Little Miss Under Grad Obligatory Introduction

I could become a plastic bag distributor for Tesco’s the amount I have stored under the bed at my university halls. I’m paying for the move this morning; back pain and sore arms from lumbering up crates full of but-what-if-I-need-it doctors letters, bank statements and receipts, 80’s pop-star memoirs (for spiritual guidance) and a spice rack so obese that even my solitary can of cannellini beans runs of the risk of being seriously sexed-up.

Move-in dates are being staggered so, being the only one here, I spent last night gobbling up the only comfort-food that doesn’t make me fat; Avril Lavigne. Binging on lyrics like “it’s so contagious” felt apt. The Best Damn Thing got me through teenage heartbreak so I’ll be damned if it doesn’t soothe my anxiety about sharing one oven between eight housemates/milk-thieves. The rest begin their move in on Saturday, two days from now. With Liverpool a second wave hot-spot and a government announcement due on Friday the only thing celebrating freshers this year with a six-pack will be the recycling bin. All events are being conducted via Zoom (boxercise and virtual discos yay!) and, with the new rule of six and imminent curfews, it’s a wonder the university even bothers.

All this moaning and I haven’t even introduced myself, tut-tut. My name is Lydia and, I’m going to be studying Philosophy and International Relations: I want to be a journalist and a writer. This year is going to be a new experience for everyone. I want to share and connect with all of you the ups, the downs, the politics and, my speciality: general moaning.

Here’s a picture of my face before mask-wearing turned my chin into human bubble wrap.

Au revoir!

Lydia