A Short Journal Entry

Last week, full of hope and promise, I made a list. I made a list of all of the small things I could do which might improve my mental health. There were 10 points (there are always 10 points on my lists): eat healthier, buy a radio so I can listen to music without shutting the world out, go swimming, get help. Nothing groundbreaking. I took it to my therapist, and she listened.

Then she told me everything on that list is an ‘action’, and I cried.

It transpires that I am having an existential crisis. Because I am pathetic and childish? No, because the world is a dark and terrible place with no meaning, there is no reason to live, capitalism is working against us all (unless you are Beyonce), and meaning can only be ascribed to anything by your relationship to it. God was invented by man. You are not important. Your very existence is at best futile. Mine too. So I am defining my own meaning by grasping for control of the forces of chaos that brought me here, in this society, at this time, attempting to understand and force my way through – and all of the time the abyss is watching me, waiting for me to fall backwards. I can’t go to work five days a week; I have panic attacks; I sleep for fourteen hours or three; my wonts are irrational; my ambitions are crumbling around my feet whilst I play useless party games and laugh about things I want to change. I can’t go on this way.

Here is my new list. It is not numbered, there are not a round number of points. They are achievable goals, they will help my mind grow healthy but will not impede its activity in other directions.

  • stop drinking. this is also to save my relationship, which is suffering under the strain of my pent up rage and overwhelming sadness, something no amount of nice, guilty breakfasts can apologise for.
  • finish one project. just one. there is one that has been there for years, as yet unfinished, that would be an achievement to myself.
  • prioritise my degree over everything. seeing friends, boyfriend, work, hobbies, fitness, reading for pleasure. it’s what makes me happy and what i want to spend my life doing.
  • buy a radio. did this one already – i was actually working on the last list!

I don’t want to die or I would have done by now. I want to live the best life, but ‘best’ is linear, is conformist, is self-serving. I am certain that it is impossible to be the ‘best’ and to be happy. Is that not the closest thing we can do to give meaning to the damnation that is our existence?

“Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.”



[fiction] based on the dream I had last night.

She opens up, the crab woman. She opens from her areola the harsh, stiff claws that move with purpose. She is a woman, naked from the waist up and dancing, humping sensuously, as she unfurls her claw-breasts.

He is a man with the dark and orange ringed fluff of a large spider on his body, all over where the hairs should be. He sits back and watches deformed beauty, femininity, dance for him.

Are they my breasts, that spawn orange-pink exoskeleton legs? Can I touch his body without recoil, or see him without a scream? He is forcing himself on me. Sat down unmoving, he is forcing himself on me through fear. He knows that I am scared.

[fiction] I found this note on my phone and don’t remember writing it.


The stage is dim. A suitcase stands by the sofa. The voicemail machine light flashes red on the cabinet. The clock on the back wall indicates 10:35pm. Offstage a door is unlocked, opened then slammed. The upstage door opens. Enter DECLAN, limply holding a dangling rose bouquet. and dragging a suitcase. He throws the roses onto the sofa and flicks on the light. Lights on STAGE RIGHT go up. He sees the suitcase and savagely kicks it. He sits, leans forward, rubs his temples. He sits up, crosses to the cabinet, and pours himself a [DRINK]. He downs it, then notices the flashing voicemail machine. He presses the button to hear the message, pours another drink, crosses back to sit on the sofa.

RECORDING: You have one new message.

Enter JESS through door at stage left, holding a phone. Gradual light fades up on STAGE LEFT; a clock indicates 7:00pm. She paces anxiously, uncertain whether to dial. She takes a deep breath in and hurriedly dials.

Declan pulls out a ring box from his jacket pocket and fiddles with it, drinking.

RECORDING: Message received today at seven oh two pm.

JESS: Hi, it’s me.

(Declan reacts to hearing her voice. He is frustrated but anxious.)

JESS: I know it’s seven o’clock so you’ll be driving to the airport now. I guess by the time you get this, you’ll know I’m not coming. (Beat.) That’s a bit weird.

Look Declan, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m not coming, I’m sorry about the holiday. You’re going to hate me, but I know about the proposal. I’ve seen the ring, I found it last week… It’s gorgeous. I was going to accept, I was so excited. But I… I’ve… been thinking and I don’t… feel… right. We’ve both felt like everything’s been going great, really great, with us just recently, but I don’t feel like this, like we, are… forever. We want different things. (Beat. With certainty:) We’re very different people.

(Her tone is conciliatory, but slightly insincere.)

I mean, you know if we got married or whatever, me not eating meat would irritate the life out of you. Cooking would be so frustrating for us both and it would be a really awkward home dynamic. And at work my hours are only going to get longer. You already hate it when I’m late home, how I’m exhausted and moody. That’ll only get worse. These are things I think about and it seems they don’t even bother you. We’re really different.

(Declan grows increasingly agitated and frustrated, shaking his head as if to dismiss what she’s saying. He tears at the rose petals.)

I think our relationship has only worked for us so far because we’ve only got this far, because we’ve not taken any bigger steps, if that makes sense? I want things to stop while everything between us is still good. I don’t want for us to risk things getting sour, and all this resentment growing, and then breaking up, relieved or happy to see the last of each other. I want us to end whilst you still love me.


And while I, y’know…


Oh god.


Oh god, I can’t say… I won’t … lie. This isn’t about work, or cooking or dogs or anything stupid like that. Declan, I know. I found out. This is about 2008.

(Pause. These words have hit Declan like a slap in the face. Jess steels herself.)

At work today I had to scan in loads of closed files, to streamline the system before we move to the new building. So I was working my way through all these pages when suddenly there was your name. The file was… long, and I thought it was odd because you’d never mentioned needing a lawyer. So I just stopped and read through it. So, I know. I know it all.

(Horrified, Declan’s anxiety propels him from the sofa. The shredded roses and drink both spill. He is disoriented, panicking. )

I was just… in shock. I went to the toilets and I felt… totally disconnected, from you, from work from… everything. I just didn’t understand. I was shaking. I couldn’t understand. In my head there was a loop going round and round: “how could he how could he”. I felt like I was reliving Josh’s accident. What I read changed you. You became cretinous, negligent, monstrous. You became one of them who’d killed my brother, who’d shattered my life, my parents. But it changed me too. I became complicit, just by loving you. You made me feel repulsed by myself. I wanted to scrape off every bit of me that you had ever touched, that you had ever looked at, to peel back the layers of skin, to be clean from the stains you left on me.

(Declan stumbles to pour himself another drink. He spills it down himself.)

DECLAN: Shit, shit, shit.

JESS (continues over Declan): I told Julie I had a migraine and was going home. This sounds weird, but I drove to Dorking. They still live there. I had to… see what you’d done. I had to know it was real. I said it was part of client care; they gave me tea.

(Beat. Declan backs away from the machine, kicks suitcase.)

I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I mean, what the fuck were you doing? What the fuck was so important to get to that you were doing sixty on a bend in a residential area? And how could you keep it from me? I get it’s not like first date material but, fuck itDeclan, you were going to propose, you were going to propose to me, knowing about Josh? We nearly had a fucking life together. We might have had kids, and maybe you’d have driven them down to Brighton or Marwell Zoo or Alton Towers. But it would’ve always been false, somehow you’d have been lying, because there’s this unspoken little girl in your past who can’t do any of that. A girl whose parents yearn for a normal teenage argument, a day trip, or a panic over homework. For them, all that mundane, boring, matter of life stuff is fantasy. I don’t think you understand what you’ve done.

(Declan turns to suitcase, drags to centre stage, opens and pulls out Jess’ clothes.)

And me, what about me? I’d have just blindly kept trusting you, trusting in… I don’t know. Some naive sense that the people I know, the people I love are kind, responsible, thoughtful. But you’re not, Declan. You’re… selfish. Reckless. You… deceived me. I know what it’s like to have someone taken from you because people, people like you, can’t be fucking bothered to think of anyone else. You’ve taken someone.

(Declan holds the clothes to his face, smelling them. He crosses to the cabinet and grabs a pair of scissors he returns to the suitcase and begins to cut up all Jess’ clothes.)

I guess that for you it’s all in the past, you know? Josh died when I was nine, you hit Molly years ago… But that’s not how it works. You get back in the car, you keep driving, you sit through the trial, do what the court orders. But for us, for my parents, for me, for Dawn and Fraser… There’s more than one way of dying, Declan. Dawn and Fraser and little Molly are still breathing, yes, but they’re not… Even though she biologically survived you can see Molly’s ghost in her parents’ eyes. The life she could’ve had haunts them; it hovers in the pictures of before the accident, in how they speak to her, how they ask her questions as if they’re still hoping her empty face will fill with life again. The hope, that’s killing them. There’s no closure for us, Declan.

(Declan is tearing randomly at the clothes with the scissors. He is gasping.)

My childhood was filled with this absence, like Dawn and Fraser have now. After the accident Josh was almost more there than when he’d been alive. We wanted him back so much that whenever we did anything, anything he’d have enjoyed… You’ve inflicted this on someone else. Of all the wrong in the world this is my… this is unforgivable.

(Longer pause. Her voice is little, her fury spent, she almost pleads.)

It hurts me too Declan. It’s like you’re dead too. I’ve suddenly found out that the man I loved never existed.

(Declan is overcome, surrounded by material. He notices his thumb is bleeding; he sucks his thumb. Jess is regretful, confused.)

I wasn’t going to tell you. I was going to… make it normal. Break up because we wanted different things. Something ordinary. I don’t know where this came from.

(Jess sits down heavily, at stage right of her zone. They almost touch. Jess is exhausted.)

I can’t forget this… I can’t be with you. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to talk to you. I’m going to come and get my bags and stuff tomorrow. I don’t want you to be there. You mustn’t be there.

Fuck you.

(He flinches.)

(Awkwardly:) Bye.


RECORDING: End of new messages. Press two to repeat, three to delete, five-five to call back, six to go to main menu, seven to hear these options again.

Silence. Jess cries silently. Declan’s face is hidden. Gradual fade to blackout.

[old rant] How the fuck do you expect us to afford uni?

To take out a student loan, you must agree to the terms and conditions, like any financial contract. However, the terms of the student loan state that you must agree to any retrospective changes made to the loan. What other financial obligation, ever, would change after you’ve already taken it out? Tracker mortgages, endowment investments and any volatile fiscal arrangement all operate within the parameters agreed to by both parties, in their success or to their detriment, the contract binds.

Let’s look at the alternatives to taking out a student loan: you could take out a bank loan. These are far more expensive than student loans, with much higher interest rates and you are required to pay them back immediately. You might be sponsored: in the US, where student fees are notably extortionate, many bright pupils are funded by companies who they then go and work for. There are very few programmes like this in the UK run by private companies, although it is possible to get funding through the army or certain branches of the NHS. There are very few of these, and they are only suitable if you are prepared to sign your life away before you know what for. You might have wealthy parents. This option is only for the select few: my daddy-kins certainly does not have a spare £27,000 to pay my tuition up-front, neither does my darling mummy have the dollar to give me all my spendoes whilst I’m here or to pay my accommodation costs. And there is always prison. I am seriously considering committing a crime that will get me 7 years and using that time to live rent-free, capitalising on our prison education system for my MA and PhD. It can’t possibly be worse than some London digs.

It is, for these reasons, not optional for most people to take a student loan if they want to enter higher education. Because of this, it is not optional to agree to the terms and conditions therein. It is not difficult for student debt to reach £50,000 nowadays, and knowing that we won’t have to pay it back until we have the money was the only reason some people (particularly those from less financially well-off backgrounds) accepted this horrendous state and went to university. What other occasion would you not simply let but encourage a young person to live beyond their means, to take on a mantle of debt as they are just entering life?

This is not a party political issue. How is it fair that any government can make a promise, a brutal ‘compromise’ and then go back on their word? Did you think it was excessive, that students were living it up, that the stories of only eating baked beans and dried noodles were cultural capital for gap yah kids? Let me tell you that this generation (like every other) is hardworking, determined and innovative, by and large. We have swallowed internships and ‘work experience’; we have earned and borrowed and some of us have taken from our parents, when they could give; we have agreed to your incredible deal under pressure – do not make it any worse for us by changing our terms.

The changing of the loans is not a student issue. It is a student example. I do not think that the government ought to operate as a private company: the state works for the good of the many, it protects us and we should hold it to different (although NOT lower) standards than the private sector. But this is the same issue as teachers’ and firemen’s pensions. This is the selling off of Royal Mail and the ending of free school meals for infants. This is a problem with the rich, who do not know the security these things give to the common working person.

Imagine not knowing that your pension is secure after having worked twenty-five years expecting it, especially in a role like fireman where your life is on the line daily, you require levels of specific training and fitness unfathomable to the normal person. You are under intense psychological pressure (I have never seen a mutilated dead body, or a desperate mother whose child is in a smashed-up car), and there is a time limit on the job you do. Perhaps some firemen can work past 50, but these brave souls ought to be able to relax into the physical changes of older life without fear that their terms of service are changing. And so firemen are striking for continuity.

Media coverage of strikes is appalling, with Unions like the RMT being painted as villains, dragons who won’t back down and are getting in the way of honest working people. In contrast, I regularly hear friends talking about finishing work at 9pm, not getting lunchbreaks, living below various poverty lines and, crucially, not being members of a Union. Anybody who looked at anything the striking tube workers said would know that it’s not money (not always, although many people ought to practise what they preach) but changes in contract that they were protesting. We would still have child labour, dangerous working environments and incredibly limited suffrage if not for the Unions and the collective power of those who actually do things. Working people.

To my mind, the government is exerting its power over the NUS – a well-functioning, high-profile Union which has a significant amount of members – as an example to us all. Nobody is immune from austerity (except people whose independent wealth happens to cushion them), nobody is immune to changes (except the bankers and journalists who remain unregulated), and they are making unquestionable, entirely legal changes. Students cannot strike, academics were striking just last year, and who has sympathy left to spare for the young?

Fundamentally, we the taxpayer are getting a worse deal if we let this happen. We the ordinary workers, we the working and middle-classes (for these changes affect everyone from dustmen to doctors) who keep the country running. We whose purchases are allegedly the lodestone of the whole economic system, whether they are taxed or helping growth of small companies or bringing big business to the UK. We who the welfare state is protecting – we are at risk of our basic right to get what we have agreed with the government (because what is a contract if not an agreement?) removed. MPs have forgotten their place – the reason they are waged is so that any man, regardless of his standing, may enter the House. The reason their wage is so high is to keep them above corruption. But they have forgotten, if they ever knew, what it is like to be young or vulnerable.

In the aftermath of everything we’ve been through and have yet to go through, let me ask on behalf of the younger generation who stand in solidarity with workers everywhere – how are we supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps when we’ve had our shoelaces taken away so that we don’t hang ourselves?

I will never be rich.

It was last night, as I watched a friend discard the top slice of a loaf of fancy sourdough, that I realised I will never be rich. That rich is an attitude; not a figure or a percentage, but an attitude to other people and your own money.

I am often accused of being a champagne socialist by my friends because, in the words of the FT, I know how to spend it. Because I have it in the first place, even. This same friend from last night has vocally disagreed with all of my politics, normally with the words “but that’s not fair” to argue with policies that would deprive him of nothing but what he might have, one day, to pull up those who would never have it otherwise. Although I buy ‘stuff’ and ‘things’ and have a good job and am white and middle-class it makes no discernible difference to my political views. I worked hard in my life, and so did my parents and my grandparents, but I check my privilege every day, and I know that I haven’t had to struggle like people of colour or people who are even one generation closer to working-class than myself.

My parents both come from incredibly working-class backgrounds and their attitudes to money couldn’t be more different. My dad loves the ‘stuff’ lifestyle: he drives a vintage Jaguar and has Bang and Olufsen everything and buys CDs to add to his collection whenever nobody is looking. But it means nothing to him. They’re just comforts. He wanted to spend the money my parents bought their first house with on a CD player, and just go on living like they were living. My dad doesn’t understand saving for rainy days because the day will never be as rainy as being an impoverished teenager whose future looks like a factory in Staffordshire; he will never again need a government grant to save him from that kind of life. And he supports governments that give grants to kids like him, because he knows that although he was intelligent and hardworking and he earned it there would have been no point in trying if he hadn’t had that support.

My mum, in contrast, worries about money, even though by her own admission she never needs to. She has savings (as long as she keeps an eye on my dad), she has out-earned her husband for most of their married life and her parents for almost all her professional life – she certainly isn’t going back to Bradford, ever. She is a magpie for those yellow reduced stickers in supermarkets and is generous with everyone except herself. She has thrown herself into middle-class life, baking artisan breads and being a responsible cyclist. Without any Joneses to keep up with or measure herself by she considers the money less important than the values she has got from being working class, and values the theatre and holidays and the freedom to do charity work.

I have working class attitudes.

  • If I have leftovers, I can’t throw them away – they will be refrigerated and cooked again or, if they won’t last another day, given to the homeless near my house or whatever friend I can persuade to come over. I eat things well after the recommended sell-by date.
  • I mend things. I fix everything. Laugh at the mental image of me darning black opaque tights alone in my room and going out for overpriced London cocktails in them later that day all you like, but I do it.
  • I look after my things. My granddad told me to polish my shoes every day, and I respect the pride he told me to take and the lessons that he gave me. The first time I out-earned my granddad was at the age of 15, and since then I have paid more heed to his advice than anyone else’s.
  • I am miserly when I shop: I eat cooking apples and reduced products as a matter of course. I wouldn’t buy anything before waiting a few months to see if it goes on sale. Often I won’t buy it until it is on sale.
  • I do not love money and I do not love to accrue money, although I am proud of myself when I manage to save and of my odd expensive possession.

I am lucky to have the money to do what I want – be it engaging in ‘stuff’ culture, buying gifts for friends or eating out too much – and I do it. This is a mix between the attitudes of my parents, and I live within my means and I practise what I preach.

I am a socialist, and a radical one. I couldn’t be anything else. Whilst I believe in the establishment and have faith in the BBC and law enforcement officers and Hansard and all  the silly things that make us British, I expect better of all of them, and of myself. The politics I favour would not make my life harder, it would merely make it less superior and myself more equal to all the common people – the people who I count myself one of, the people who struggle

My values are working-class, and I work for the best life not just I can live.

On Education (I)

Working as a school librarian, I am currently in an interesting place in the education sector. I am able to work on the front line for the benefit of our nation’s children, without being hampered by pressure for results or the oft-criticised National Curriculum. Because of this, I sometimes see places where we can march forward to a better standard of universal education. So, I would like to bring up the issue of mobile telephones.

Like everybody else I know, I read and shared the articles this week citing a report that “PHONES IMPEDE THE PROGRESS OF OUR CHILDREN” and “SCHOOLS THAT BAN PHONES GET BETTER RESULTS”. However I would like to question, if not outright disagree with, the survey’s findings. Is the reason for this is that we are not using the technology to its fullest effect?

Obviously if you’re texting in class and not getting enough sleep because you’re up late on tumblr then that’s not helping your education. Obviously the selfie is not a classroom media revolution. But suggesting these are the only ways to use your phone in class is the same as saying pencil & paper impede your learning because people pass notes.

Phones are a vital part of modern life: I’m sure Swallows & Amazons, or even my own parents, didn’t have to send a text to say what time they’d be home, but by my adolescence in the noughties my parents would have been furious if I hadn’t done so. Schoolchildren are more likely to own a smartphone than a book – not actually that surprising given the social and safety security they bring. Your child would be considered illiterate if they could not navigate word-processing, spreadsheets, the internet and generally communicate effectively using modern technology. The best way to ensure your child’s social and intellectual wellbeing, as well as their freedom and safety, is to procure for them a smartphone – historically the most effective hire purchase you can make (although, of course, there is no choice: library provision is FREE across England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. You do not need to own books to have them in your house and provide them for your children).

This post is not about safeguarding children online. Even one child being harmed is too many, and so safeguarding is and I’m sure will continue to be the major issue for schools regarding technology; but overblown fears of online bullying or grooming are being used as an excuse to not move with the times. 90% of the children we work with are carrying around better technology than the school can afford to equip them with. Most students have smartphones, and many providers expect you to upgrade yearly and provide packages tailored for you to do so. It would be much easier and extravagantly cheaper to have a ‘hardship fund’ for the two or three children in school without smartphones, and for the government to strike a deal with a company (for example, Nokia, who are flagging behind the market leader despite their advances) to give a renewal discount to school pupils, than it would be for each school to buy iPads, or even a class set of hideous and clunky RM laptops, and need to replace them every three years as is inevitable. For once, by simply rewriting a single policy document, the public sector could be on the same footing as private schools who have money to burn, regularly, on hard and softwares, books and photocopying when all these things could be hosted or downloaded at a fraction of the cost if we utilised what the pupils, in most cases, already have. In addition, because people would inevitably be working on different operating systems the whole class would learn to be intuitive rather than instructed. Bonus.

We underestimate the maturity of our pupils and the skill of our teachers when we refuse to let them adapt to the modern world. We deny teachers the right to be creative in their lesson delivery or to vary their teaching – or not, nobody would be forced to use technology, just like not everybody is forced to use mini-whiteboards or worksheets or smiley face stickers when they’re marking. We deny teachers another privilege to revoke and another way in which we might equip the future generation with the skills they need to make them rounded and also employable humans. We treat children like children and, as a consequence, they behave like children. We treat every child and group of children without discrimination and we dismiss the skills that they already have and could learn with.

I do not suggest ‘carte blanche’ phone use in schools, by any means: I am fully aware of the potential for harm pupils can do to both one another and teachers, but we need to assess which functions would cause more harm than good (example – cameras) and what would benefit a class full of pupils (example – pupils can be quizzed at their own pace, without needing to book out an IT suite or waste time with inevitable problems logging on) and alter our policies accordingly. Perhaps information literacy should become like maths, where you must learn to do things both with and without a calculator. Such as it is still possible to do sums wrong on a calculator, spellcheck isn’t always right and signal isn’t always there. We should be teaching children how to learn and think, not spoon-feeding them information, and they ought to be able to problem-solve on a computer and IRL. The thing the media as a whole really appear to have not grasped or even noticed is the difference between directed and non-directed ICT use: a teacher telling you to look at an article online is not the same as a cheeky peek at facebook, which isn’t any more or less conducive to a pupil’s learning than it is to you keeping your phone in your top drawer and checking buzzfeed or texting your SO. Directed ICT use is encouraged by groups as varied as OFSTED and Pintrest’s teacher community – the only difference with mobile usage would be the platform.

In an ideal world, perhaps the government would write an app for schools, or lead-line school roofs and force children to use schools’ safety-monitored wifi, but they normally deal with these things in such a ham-fisted way I am loathe to suggest that. Instead, smartphones ought to make it onto the lists of things parents are expected to buy – uniform, dictionary, textbooks, revision guides, scientific calculator, homework planner (all but one of those replaceable by an internet-enabled phone).

School technology is overpriced, generally of a poor standard and rarely updated because of the crippling expense. Despite the inherent difficulties, I really think phones in class is the answer – somehow.


Computers/phones are bad for pupils: BBCGuardian

Popularity of phones vs books: Telegraph

Proper report, like (secondary reading): LSE

Statistics (probably out-of-date but still relevant): Royal Statistical Society

Thanks to Darren Flynn and the School Librarian Network for their insightful comments on directed/non-directed IT use and the other functions of mobiles.

The Definitive Guide to Taylor Swift’s Complete Works (circa 2015)

Do you want a long read to ease your bank holiday weekend hangover?

here's one


Let’s make this clear: I have never listened to Taylor Swift. I know some of her songs, on the grounds that I don’t live under a rock, but she’s previously been the kind of artist that would make me switch the radio off; however, I am not naïve, and 2015 has clearly been Taylor’s year. With her current album causing the surge of support for Taylor’s music and public persona (and, whisper it, appearing to be quite good!), now seems to be the time to jump on the Tay-Swift bandwagon.

Never one to do things by halves, I couldn’t just buy the new album and call it acceptance of the new, pop Taylor: I bought all of her albums* (all deluxe), watched all of her videos, and am now here, objectively reviewing her complete works and assessing her growth as a person up to this point. I am the perfect person to write this review: I am a young, white woman (Taylor’s demographic), I have excellent music knowledge and taste (indisputable, sorry) but am not averse to some proper pop (context: I fucking love Girls Aloud) and can write a pretty mean song myself, making me hyper-critical of other writers (subtext: resentful of people more successful than me). At this turning point in Taylor Swift’s career I am offering a full and frank evaluation of her work so far, good reading (I hope!) for fans and newcomers alike.

  • Taylor Swift (2006)
  • Best Song: Teardrops on My Guitar
  • Worst Song: Tied Together With A Smile
  • In a nutshell: I gather quite different from the competition? Shows diversity, skill, potential blah blah

If I were going to listen to country music it would be The Eagles, and I would be switching the hell off at the first sound of a banjo BUT in the name of musical exploration, fairness and impartiality, and remembering my love of English folk music (and previous excitement at gigs by Paul Simon and Robert Plant when some old white man gets out a lute or an African zither), I grudgingly take my first foray into modern country pop.

I have to google who Tim McGraw is.

The song is fine, it works without knowing, but I was grateful for the context. This was Taylor’s first single and I gather it got radioplay, but on country stations rather than conventional radio. It’s pretty good, actually: a simple song about a love left behind but not forgotten. The chorus is the best bit, very relatable (who doesn’t want your favourite musician to be a pleasant prick of a memory to somebody you don’t know anymore?). I’m surprised by how well she conveys this complex emotion, and the song really does have a sense of nostalgia without a sense of loss – until the bridge, when she obviously gets him back.


I also find myself surprised by Teardrops on My Guitar: it clearly wouldn’t work in any genre but country, but I like it. It’s clever (“he’s a song in the car / I keep singing / don’t know why I do” is a perfect image), and heartfelt, and it knows its audience. The video is definitely aesthetically pleasing, sweet, and I find myself pleased that the story it tells doesn’t have a happy ending. I suppose we’re not yet rooting for Taylor to come out on top. I also desperately want to believe there’s a cloaked reference to female masturbation (“I’ll put your picture down and maybe get some sleep tonight”)… but I suspect that it isn’t really there. (Side note: country version is better than pop version. Huh. Who’d have thought it?)

Most of Taylor’s early songs are pretty plot-driven (by that I mean that the sentiment behind them is something people easily relate to and their appeal is their use of emotion to evoke, rather than tell, a story), and that’s no bad thing. Writing is definitely, obviously her skill from even this early point in her career. I’ve read that she wrote literally hundreds of songs before this album came out, that she would write every day about her experience at high school, which I think has helped the album.

One that isn’t too heavy on plot, though, is ‘Our Song’, which is sort of 21st-century La La La Means I Love You, taking the idea of the unspoken and making it into a jangly-pop singalong, with a strange sort-of metaphorical comparison between ordinary actions (“the slam of screen doors”) and teen life (“because it’s late and your mamma don’t know”) and big romantic gestures. Simple but sweet, and self-mocking enough for me to not hate it. Probably the best vocal on the album, too. Loses points for the heavy-handed god reference in the chorus – I’m sure that’s standard on country radio, but not on any British station.

Taylor Swift is surprisingly not bland or standard, and as a grown woman I didn’t find it too saccharine or angsty to listen to – more than I can say for any of my own writing from when I was that age. The subtle touches of heartbreak or love-at-a-distance feel true, as do the portrayals of young love as something that drives around in a truck listening to the radio rather than the all-or-nothing, totally consuming, locker-leaning Romeo & Juliet that tends to crop up in songs and movies (it’s OK to break up, kids!). A week after listening, however, I can’t really remember most of the songs on the album – it’s a fun, well-written album, but it’s not an opus.

  • Fearless (2008)
  • Best Song: Hey Stephen
  • Worst Song: Love Story
  • In a nutshell: surprisingly self-knowing

I’m not sorry that I hate ‘Love Story’. I hated it when it was new, I hated the video, I hate the sentiment, I don’t think it’s very well-written. I think it’s everything that her previous album wasn’t: babyish, unimaginative, with poor and generic references. I suspect Swift has probably actually read “The Scarlet Letter”, and definitely knows what it’s about, so why is she pissing about with innocent images that are transparently about saying yes to teen sex? With any other artist this young I would assume that their record label had pushed them in a direction of boring, uncontroversial teeny-bop-pop (which is why the country aspect is turned up to 11 – you have a USP, you stick to it), but Swift’s label is small and her drive is (allegedly) fierce, so I’m not sure. In the interests of fairness, though, I DID download a live acoustic version of the song so that I could listen without the country production and still found it a paint-by-numbers effort at an un-self-aware fairytale with a boring volta.

easy a gif

I found Fifteen a little self-indulgent: I’m aware it’s a bit of a fan-favourite, but how much of this is because of the glimpse of the real Taylor (in the form of the resurgence of red-headed Abigail from the Picture To Burn video and her uncryptic high school experiences)? I found it less honest than her earlier work, and less interesting. The hook is not ‘hook’ enough (“cause when you’re… FIFTEEN… sorry, what’s the rest of the line?”), the perspective is not fresh enough and the song is not upbeat enough to hide the unprofound lyrics. Fifteen is merely fine.

Hey Stephen, though, is fun, catchy and witty. It’s self-deprecating, which is a nice edge on the pop formula, and makes you tap your foot. Simple, but really effective.

I found You Belong With Me hugely endearing. I thought the country elements actually quite entertaining and found them toned-down enough to deal with as a mainstream listener. I liked the intonation and lilt in the singing (especially “you say you’re fine I know you better THAN THAT”), and I think she’s really grown as a singer in this album, able to show depth and emotion. It’s where the Swift persona as we know it is truly created – the ‘other’ that we root for, one of ‘us’ people who notices fashion (“your worn-out jeans”) but not enough to be self-absorbed (“I wear t-shirts”) – an archetypal girl-next-door figure, hung up on some guy friend. It also has a proper chorus, and is thus the advent of a slight change in her writing that enables many of the later period songs.

I liked Jump Then Fall, too – again, a slightly different structure to the previous album, with a simple hook and a focus on the first verse, which is much more conventional pop. I think it’s a really good opener that solidifies the Swift “je ne sais quois” – sweet country pop with subtle hints of sex (“I like the way you sound in the morning”), a good rhythm and some jangle.

As a whole, though, I thought this album didn’t ‘gel’ as well as the previous one. I thought it didn’t have an overall mood or theme, I thought it was a bit up and down, with a much more conventional outlook.

  • Speak Now (2010)
  • Best Song: Mine
  • Bonus best video: Story of Us (#librarianproblems their library is way nicer than mine)
  • Worst Song: Enchanted
  • In a nutshell: My least favourite

Not really sure why Taylor is obsessed with marriage. Are her parents divorced or something?

Mean: if I knew how to remix it without the banjo then I would. And who is the little kid in the white dress in the video? I have 100% seen her somewhere since she did this and I can’t work out where. But, yes, good song. Fairly average Taylor formula: emotive subject (the venom in “as if I don’t already see them” is subtle but astounding), self-othering with a sense of humour (mean as a word choice appears to be a post-modern playground image) and a stock image write large (“I can see you years from now in a bar… drunk and rumbling on about how I can’t sing”). Actually quite empowering – I can really see why the sentiment of being the bigger person appeals to Swift’s fanbase, because it appeals to me.

‘Speak Now’ takes Taylor’s self-othering to a whole new level, though, and it was hard to feel sympathy for her ruining her friend’s wedding whilst being incredibly snide about the woman he’s marrying, who is some kind of caricature bridezilla. There is no honest emotion here, no searing portrayal of their lost love or analysis of her own emotions. The song might be catchy, but it’s also simplistic and unimaginative. Enchanted isn’t even this interesting – it’s cliche city, living in the same world of high school Rapunzels as Love Story off the previous album, the whole song turning on the weary conceit of conventionally claiming to be “enchanted, I’m sure” upon meeting someone.

On the other side of the coin is Dear John, which is lyrically nice (“I took your matches before fire could catch me”) but sonically boring (it would be better acapella), and therefore less powerful, and Innocent (“wasn’t it easier in your lunchbox days”) which is a really good song, but drowns on an album of slow songs which all seem to focus on innocence/experience.

The album as a whole and the songs individually don’t hit as high as Swift’s efforts prior to this. It’s easily the most boring as a whole, and it holds up better when you don’t listen to it in one go. Swift is lucky that there were some beautiful videos and an acclaimed tour in this era which probably kept people interested, but I think this one is for proper fans rather than casuals like myself. It all sort of sounds the same, which is fine if you like that sound but it’s not my favourite.

  • Red (2012)
  • Best Song: State of Grace
  • Worst Song: The Last Time ft Gary Lightbody
  • In a nutshell: The strange case of the disappearing Nashville accent.

What I have learned by now is that Taylor writes a FUCKING CRACKING opener. State of Grace is far and away my favourite track on the album. It’s a signal of difference: straight up pop, no jangle, great bridge. Lyrically it’s typical Swiftian deep love with the ability to recognise it may not last forever (“we fall in love until it hurts or bleeds or fades in time”), but well-done, and fits really well with the energetic drums.

Red also sees the development of Taylor’s songwriting, in particular what I would call her signature technique, the metaphor. The title track explains what love feels like with a list of metaphors which are strangely compelling (“memorising him was as easy as knowing all the words to your old favourite song” – an obvious flashback to her earlier work). The country sound is back for this song, but mixed with a rock-pop sound that’s clearly aimed at breaking out to a wider audience, and probably testing out the waters for radioplay. I think this is an excellent song which explores why you fall for somebody and why it doesn’t work out, and I think it’s perfect for the teen girl market because it is simultaneously suggesting love is easy, natural and powerful AND that it is painful and life altering.

On the other hand, Taylor is here trying her hand at pop writing, and Red gets conventional and predictable in places. Mainly, actually, the collaborations (do you remember the days when nobody had really heard of Ed Sheeran? They feel so long ago).

taylor gif

These guest appearances are dirges in comparisons to the fresh, individual looks at exciting young love Swift has been showing us throughout her career.

To contrast this dullness, Swift has added ‘Stay Stay Stay’ and ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ – popsongs with not much fire lyrically but a much-needed upbeatness to save the album from the Speak Now-era dullness.

I’m definitely too old for WANEGBT. I can appreciate the ‘Mean’-esque playground taunts (“you go talk to your friends talk to my friends talk to me”), and the self-deprecating humour of the track (“some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”), and I can appreciate that even typing that has got the song stuck in my head, but the whole portrayal of a breakup like that just seems gauche and not particularly observational. Great video, though – that’s peak Swift.

‘Stay Stay Stay’ has a similar sense of humour, and a much more honest perspective on relationships. There’s a couple of great images (“you come in wearing a football helmet”) that are kooky enough to catch your attention, but somehow make a point (I suppose the point of that one is that talking is hard but you have to take the knocks?)

One last question: why is this album so LONG? I know it’s 22 tracks and you are 22 and the lead single is called 22 and whatever you’re probably superstitious about the number 22 but FUCK ME I could NOT listen to this album in one go! I also count a major loss of points for overt christianity in the Knew You Were Trouble video. Just get an ostentatious cross tattoo like all the other pop stars if you need to flaunt your religion, then we can ignore it if we are so inclined.

  • 1989 (2014)
  • Best Song: Welcome to NY
  • Worst Song: How You Get The Girl
  • In a nutshell: actual brilliance

I was slightly distressed to learn that one of my favourite tracks is apparently Zoella’s favourite song (Wildest Dreams), but we move on from that and into the nitty gritty. Wildest Dreams is, to me, the direct descendant of Taylor’s ‘plot-driven’ work from her first album: it’s not a ballad because it doesn’t go anywhere, but it works like a ballad by telling its listener how things ought to go (“let’s get out of this town”, “my last request is”).

By this stage, however, Swift has learned (or, cynically, begun working with people who know how – I see that Ryan Tedder has a credit on this album) to construct a formulaic and more than respectable popsong: this is the album where Swift has learned how to construct a bridge and use the traditional verse/chorus pop standard structure to put her images in a vessel that makes them more punchy and immediate. For all the hype about Swift’s ‘squad’, it is this pop power subtly masking the vulnerabilities we have seen in Swift before (“I wish you never hung up the phone… like I did”) that makes this stand out from the crowd. Her self-referential tendencies build on the weak images from earlier in her career (“we show off our different scarlet letters / trust me mine is better”) and show a more complete, complex image of Swift’s public persona.

This album barely has a weak moment. It’s cohesive and listens well from start to finish, but the individual songs are usually pretty good too. It’s not immune from being formulaic – lead single ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘How You Get The Girl’ are simplistic and rely on their catchiness credentials and Swift’s core audience of not-quite-alternative girls with crushes to carry them (‘Shake It Off’ is much more successful with this – ‘How You Get The Girl’ falls back into the genericisms of the ‘Love Story’ era and a boring boy-meets-girl story), but they slot well into the album and keep it upbeat and fun between the ‘Styles’ and the ‘Cleans’ that make are more mature explorations of relationships. Much of the speculation about Swift’s personal relationships ought to be considered a credit to the record – like Beyoncé’s ultra-relatable ‘Becky With The Good Hair’ moment, it is difficult to believe from a pop singer that what she’s talking about here is imaginary. I don’t think for a moment that’s accidental, or even unembellished – the press hasn’t exactly stopped the record selling. I also think that this record has allowed both Swift and her audience to grow up – there is a string to be drawn from ‘Teardrops on My Guitar’ to ‘State of Grace’ to ‘Out of the Woods’ and from ‘Our Song’ to ‘Red’ to ‘Clean’, both thematically in the lyrics and in a distinctively Swiftian sound that’s been there all this time. This is no longer the music of the gauche early/mid 2000s, but is pop for the YouTube generation that prides itself in not being fake whilst it covers itself in a thick slake of gloss.

IMMA LET YOU FINISH. (I’m not sorry. I had to make reference to it somewhere.)

I am transformed, and on Taylor’s side. Not without criticism: the video for Bad Blood deserved the hype less than a James Cameron movie and fell into lazy female stereotyping; it contains a RAPPER (?! why though? Why is Kendrick giving a couple of saccharine verses that add nothing? Go somewhere you can be more controversial, Kendrick), looks way too much like Toxic by Britney Spears and has the typical American attitude to the rest of the world (I find this in rap and urban music particularly) where you expect us to know who your celebrities are? Mate, I’ve got better things to do with my life than watch “Law & Order” or baseball.

I have not paid any attention to her songs on film soundtracks and I don’t particularly care about her relationships or her squad or her live performances. I only listen to what I deem to be the best songs: mainly the singles, and not quite all of them, but a few of my own favourites too. I am not a fan enough to care about the rest of her catalogue. I still hate Love Story, the song that originally turned me and my radio off from Taylor Swift, but I accept that this song is, essentially, in her large collection of published juvenilia.

I appreciate Taylor’s songwriting and persona creation. I am wholeheartedly convinced that the face the public sees IS a persona, so I would be cautious about discussing anything regarding her personal life (except to say congratulations, if I were a celebrity I would bang all of the attractive men too. Own it.) I find myself listening to her music, sometimes. I think I might have become a fan?

But where is the shame in recognising talent?

I was surprised to find not merely well-crafted hits, but songs I connected to on an emotional level and genuinely good writing (I do love a good metaphor). Even avoiding difficult subject matter, Taylor’s work occasionally conforms not only to its genre but to conventions in the American poetical canon – though it is most often like a good, all-American high school movie: cynical, funny, self-mocking and trope-heavy, but fundamentally to be recognised as more than just entertaining, and to be unironically liked.

breakfast club

*NB: an EP is not an album, and I draw the line at christmas music.