The Year 7 Disco

Emily Pickles is breathless with excitement. Tonight is the big night, the night when she will finally venture into the forbidden kingdom of the boys’ school across the road. In the term that has passed since she left primary school, she has been shut up in a girls’ school the equivalent of a feminist nunnery and has read an awful lot of Cathy Cassidy, so can be forgiven for having completely forgotten how to talk to boys. Her memories of boykind are so addled and hazy that she holds high hopes of this being the most romantic and passionate night of her life. She fully expects at least one smouldering slow dance, if not a kiss. She has already spent a small fortune on a sparkly dress from Debenham’s, and is now getting ready in her room with her new friend Ella, who is pretty cool. Emily knows she should be grateful because Ella has curled her hair and even shared her mascara (contraband in the Pickles household) but she can’t help eyeing Ella’s Topshop skirt and heels with envy.

The girls are dropped off by a tearful Mrs Pickles, who makes Emily promise to ring her every half hour and whispers in her ear as she hugs her goodbye, “Remember: you can just say no.” Emily rolls her eyes at Ella upon receiving this cryptic message; mums are so embarrassing. As they enter the school, the girls’ voices are swallowed up by a deafening blast of Tinie Tempah. Emily has no idea what ‘frisky’ means, but she thinks it sounds extremely cool.

The darkened hall is almost unrecognisable as such, save for the old photos lining the walls. Emily feels vaguely uncomfortable at the notion of notable alumni watching as she attempts her first bust-thrust. Once her eyes have adjusted, she becomes aware that the hall is a remarkable, perhaps unique, example of voluntary gender segregation. The girls dance in one corner, the boys, high on rainbow dust, in another. As Emily joins her peers in an awkward circle, she tries a seductive glance at the nearest group of boys but she is not wearing her glasses so all she can really see are the glow-sticks festooning their arms, which they wave around wildly to the beat of ‘Get Hyper’.

As the evening wears on, disappointment gathers in the pit of Emily’s stomach. The Hermione-Granger-at-the-Yule-Ball moment she’d envisioned never materialised, and her seven years of ballet lessons have done nothing to prepare her for dancing of this kind (namely stepping from side to side and occasionally jumping up and down with one hand in the air in the unlikely event of a decent song playing). She becomes even more upset when Ella plucks up the courage to talk to a boy. Never mind that he is shorter than her, wears glasses as thick as double-glazed windows and has a retainer which makes his speech little more than an unintelligible slurping; the green beast of jealousy is eating Emily up as she stares in their direction.

Perhaps if she could actually hear their conversation, she would not feel quite so jealous. Ella makes the first move with a coy smile and flick of her side fringe, asking in husky tones: “So, what primary school did you go to?”

“Coronation Park. You?”

“St Hubert’s.”

“We always beat you at gym, innit.”

After a short awkward silence, Ella ventures, “So…where did you come in the eleven plus?”

“281st. I didn’t get in at first. I had to be on the waiting list,” he says with a jaunty Bieber flick. Ella’s heart flutters. She always did have a thing for the bad boys.
They exchange numbers, then each retreats, slightly relieved, to their own groups. Maz (short for Magnus) is greeted with a round of hearty back-slaps and Charlie, whose mum lets him play GTA, is ousted from his current position as Top Lad of the group, a role not dissimilar to that of Alpha Male in a pack of mandrills. Ella is already planning the wedding.

Sadly the relationship will not last that long – three weeks of texting ‘Wuu2’, ‘Nm u?’ and ‘Luv u bb’ and the novelty will soon wear off – but the promise of such romance in which she will not share is enough to have reduced Emily to tears in the loos, where she is being comforted by the reassuringly dull Katie. Her voluntary confinement means that she is not there to witness the stunning entrance of the Year Nines, the queens of the disco. Dressed from nipple to crotch in Jack Wills, their eyebrows have been drawn on with the skill of a Grand Master and their skin is the colour of fresh orange juice. They are everything Ella aspires to be, and inevitably will become (though by Year Nine she and Emily will no longer be friends, Emily having entered her ‘emo phase’, which will involve a dubious fringe, lots of whiny ‘80s music and many angry feminist rants on Tumblr).

For now, though, the disco is over. The DJ plays ‘Sweet Caroline’ as the lights come on and the students stagger out, their ears ringing, the boys’ football shirts stained with Pepsi, the girls’ feet blistered and aching. The teachers left behind stare at the filthy hall with sinking hearts as they contemplate the magnitude of the task ahead. They don’t really mind, though; the Year Thirteen prom is the real killer, the guts of party poppers and nuclear-waste-like juice from glow-sticks being infinitely preferable to empty cans of lager and canisters of laughing gas.

(This may or may not be based on my own experiences at a girls’ school the equivalent of a feminist nunnery)


London on a budget

London has a well-deserved reputation for being an expensive place and, as an impoverished student, this can be offputting when planning a day out. However, as my friends and I discovered over the summer, it is still possible to do and see plenty without bankrupting yourself. Here is an account of how we spent – and how much we spent on – one packed day out:

Borough Market


We wandered around here first thing in the morning, when it was lively and bustling and everything was fresh. The food was fairly pricey but almost all the stalls offered free samples; consequently I tried a dazzling variety of mustard, bread and vinegar! Although we didn’t actually buy anything here, it was fun just to soak up the atmosphere and look at all the weird and wonderful food varieties. Of particular note was the fish stall (see above) where they seemed to be selling a giant starfish and the man behind the counter was holding the biggest swordfish I have ever seen in my life.

Tate Modern

yellow-triangle.jpg Shopping list

One of the best things about London is that all the art galleries and museums are completely free to visit. We chose to go to the Tate Modern because it is always entertaining. Reading the captions is just as much as fun as looking at the art: take, for example, the sign beside ‘Yellow Curve’, which read, ‘Can a yellow triangle be just a yellow triangle?‘ Or that for ‘Monochrome Till Receipt (White) 1999’: ‘A shopping receipt may seem like a strange thing to put on an art gallery wall. How can this be art?‘ – a sentiment which I rather agreed with.

Pizza Express

We spent no money at all on our meal at Pizza Express! No, I am not confessing to a minor crime; we simply used Tesco vouchers we had saved up to pay for the meals and we all drank tap water. Not only this, but we went to the branch on the South Bank (one of my favourite places ever because it always feels so vibrant and lively) and had a view out over the River Thames and Southwark Bridge.

The Monument

monument-1.jpg monument-2.jpg

I always feel that the Monument is very underrated. For only £3.00 (student price) you can climb right up to the top and spend as long as you want on the viewing platform, looking out over London (see above for some of the views). Then, at the end, you get a certificate for your trouble!


Statue clock.jpg Greenwich

Here we took a bit of a detour out to Greenwich, which is one of the joys of having a day travelcard; you can go anywhere you like in London spontaneously and at no extra cost. We rested our tired legs in the park, then walked up the hill to the Royal Observatory. There was a beautiful view out over London and, though we did not go inside to see the Prime Meridian line, it was perfectly visible through the gate so we thought that was as good as anything.

Emirates Air-Line

river.jpg o2.jpg cable-car.jpg boats.jpg

This was probably the highlight of the day. For a mere £3.40, we sailed over the Thames in a cable car. We picked a good time of day as it was the afternoon and the sun was low in the sky, so the sunlight sparkled beautifully off the water. It provided us with a unique perspective of London and the chance to view many familiar landmarks from a different angle.

Oxford Street

We ended the day in Oxford Street. It was just as busy in the evening as in the day, and the flickering lights, crowds of people and darkening sky created a very exciting atmosphere. We sniffed various different bath bombs in Lush before heading to H & M, where I bought a big floppy sunhat at the bargain price of £3.00.

So, travelcard aside, the grand total spent on that amazing day out was £9.40! Not only that, but I have a certificate, floppy sunhat and several panoramic photos of London to show for my efforts. Next time I will see if I can do even better…

Alison Weir at Layer Marney

At this year’s Essex Book Festival, one of the events which caught my eye was Alison Weir, the noted historian, giving a talk on Katherine of Aragon at Layer Marney Tower near Tiptree. I was immediately drawn to this not only because I have a long-standing interest in the Tudors, but also because Layer Marney Tower is itself a beautiful Tudor building, where Elizabeth I was once a guest.

When the evening for the talk came, I was not disappointed. We arrived after darkness had fallen, and the setting was beautifully rural: when we got out of the car I could hear the bleating of sheep and see the pinpricks of stars through the naked tree branches. Then I almost fell into a cattle grid, which made me feel less favourably inclined towards the countryside.

Inside the venue there was a lively atmosphere; a buzzing bar was stocked with drinks and there was a table stacked with the author’s latest books. We made our way into a great hall with oak panelling, rich red curtains and a magnificent Tudor fireplace. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the place was almost full and I was forced to squeeze into a seat right at the back; I had no idea there were so many fellow history nerds willing to give up their Thursday nights for a talk like this!

The talk certainly deserved the high turnout: Alison Weir was an engaging and eloquent speaker. She spoke primarily about her latest book, ‘Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen’, the first in a series of six novels told from the perspectives of Henry VIII’s wives and based strongly on historical evidence. Weir explained the history and thought process behind the novel, occasionally interspersing this with dramatic readings. This was followed by questions, one of the most inventive being, ‘Where do you think Katherine’s favourite place to visit in England would have been?’ It was lovely to see how excited and interested everyone was by the book, and it was certainly a wonderful experience to learn about Tudor history in a room where Tudor people had once eaten, danced and laughed. As the floorboards creaked, I almost expected to see a lady in a long gown and hood appearing in the doorway.

If you ever get the chance to attend a talk by Alison Weir or fancy a trip to Layer Marney Tower, I would strongly recommend both!

Why I disagree with ‘getting women into science’

‘Getting women into science’ is a phrase I have heard bandied about a lot lately, and it is really starting to irritate me. As an arts student, I find it patronising and degrading; the idea of nudging women away from the arts and towards the sciences is one that suggests that the choices we have made already are not good enough, that somehow if more STEM were thrust in our faces we would wake up and realise that we were being silly, that sciences are obviously the better subjects.

First of all I should say that I understand why the initiative is in place. It is true that there are disproportionate numbers of boys taking science subjects as opposed to girls, and that many of these girls may be put off by the gender imbalance if they choose to study science subjects beyond GCSE level. I completely support the idea that women should be able to study whatever they want without feeling threatened or intimidated.

The word ‘want’ is the operative word here, because in my personal experience, the idea of ‘getting women into science’ has gone so far that it has swung the other way and now girls are being pressured into studying subjects they don’t enjoy. Two of my close friends who had always shown a leaning towards the arts decided to take science and maths based subjects for A-level, only to struggle, lose all their enthusiasm for the topics and decide that they wanted to do an essay subject at university. Unfortunately, they are now not up to the same standard as their peers who have taken arts subjects all along. When I decided that I wanted to take four essay subjects for A-level (English, History, Latin and German), reactions were mixed, ranging from the mild ‘that’s a lot of writing’ to a slightly sneering comment by a friend’s father: ‘Aren’t you doing maths?’ My teachers also tried to steer me towards science subjects, with such pathetic remarks as, ‘It would be a shame if one day you decided to edit a science journal and your science wasn’t up to scratch,’ after I mentioned that I was vaguely interested in publishing. My reluctance to study science subjects was not due to lack of exposure, nor to a fear that I would be outnumbered by -gasp!- boys, but simply because I was naturally worse at them, I didn’t have the same level of interest, and I didn’t enjoy them as much.

To me, this all seems to come down to snobbery, to the societal notion that science is more useful than, or superior to, the arts. There is a massive difference in the number of men and women studying for degrees in English literature (27% to 73%) but when do we ever hear of schemes encouraging men into English? The statistics are the same even for French, a subject which few people would disagree is useful. Of course science is important – developments in engineering, medicine, physics and technology are all vital to our lives in the modern world. But we need a mixture. What does a doctor do after a long day at work? She watches her favourite programme on TV, or listens to some music, or reads a book. Science helps us to live, but arts give us a reason to be alive.

Yet sometimes even I catch myself poking fun at my choices and laughing at my own hypothetical unemployability. When the school offers another opportunity for women who want to ‘get into science’, I feel like I’m somehow betraying the sisterhood by choosing to stay in a traditionally female-dominated sphere.

Now I’ve decided this has to stop. One piece of advice I’ve heard from many ex-students across the years is simply to ‘do what you love’, and though I may be inexperienced, I agree with the principle. Whether your passion is theoretical physics or translating Tacitus’ annals, you, male or female, should be able to do what you want without being coerced into something which you don’t enjoy. And I hope that in this country we can reach a happy medium of encouragement for women who want to study science, and equal encouragement for those who do not.

Adventures in an abandoned hotel

During our stay in Tenerife, my friend and I had observed a rundown hotel across the road from us. The walls were covered in graffiti and it appeared to be empty. The swimming pool was a dry basin, the windows were gaping holes, and I assumed it was unfinished.

Front view

On our last day, we decided to go for a walk. The town we were staying in was small and very soon we reached a dead-end street. We were about to turn back and go home when we noticed a door in the wire-mesh fence surrounding the hotel. Not only that, but the door was wide open as if inviting us inside. The temptation was too great to resist.


We crept through, feeling not unlike Veerle and Kris from the ‘Forbidden Spaces’ trilogy. We certainly weren’t the only ones who had visited, however: the walls were covered with graffiti. Broken mattresses and litter were strewn haphazardly across the floor and I even spotted the remnants of a barbeque, complete with grill, ketchup and abandoned burger buns.


We rounded a corner in the courtyard and came to the stairwell. There were no railings on the stairs and rubble was everywhere. As we ascended I was expecting every moment that something would give way beneath my feet.


Halfway up the stairs, we decided to take a break and explore the hallways. The fussy salmon pink of the paintwork made a strange contrast with the rubble coating the floor and the cavernous holes in the walls. We snuck into what should have been a bedroom, but its only features were a toilet, bath and precarious-looking balcony. It was absolutely devoid of anything personal that would give away the hotel’s secrets. I wanted to know why it had been abandoned, why they wouldn’t bother opening a hotel that seemed so nearly finished, but all evidence had vanished long ago, presumably with the squatters and locals who used it as a barbeque venue.


We carried on up the stairs and, to our delight, found that we emerged on the roof, face to face with the artificial structure supporting the brash red claim of ‘Merlin Resort.’

Merlin Resort

The views were stunning. This was the tallest building for miles around, and we could see everything. On one side, the skeleton of another hotel and the dust bowl of an abandoned swimming pool looked like ruins excavated from a desert.


The roof itself was not without its points of interest: there was a sunlounger, a metal object which looked like the wheel of a giant cruise ship and these concrete structures. I’m still not entirely sure what they were, but as we walked among them it felt like we were in some kind of bizarre astroturfed lunar landscape.


Eventually we left, stopping only to explore a couple more rooms on our way down. As we crept out we were horrified to see a man sitting in front of the door, frightened that he would get us into trouble. However, he simply gave us an unconcerned glance and continued eating his sandwich.

The next day we flew back to England, and for a while as I swung back into the rhythm of everyday life I forgot all about the abandoned hotel. It occurred to me again in a spare moment and, on a whim, I looked it up. One of the results the internet yielded was this:


So the hotel was not simply unfinished as I’d thought. It had been in use; that barren pit of a swimming pool had been filled with water, the rooms we crept through had been inhabited by laughing families on holiday. And the creepiest thing of all? You could still book a holiday there…


The Pain-Free Rounders Survival Guide

The summer term is upon us. With it comes the promise of long sunny days, ice cream, tourists who look like boiled lobsters and of course…rounders.

Am I the only one who hates this supposedly ‘fun’ activity? I cannot think of anything worse than standing in a field with the sun in my eyes, dreading the moment when a ball flies towards me and everyone screams ‘CATCH IT!’ If they’re so bothered, why don’t they catch it themselves? Don’t try the ‘it’s good exercise’ excuse on with me either. Those mild bursts of running juxtaposed with hours of standing in a field heightening my risk of skin cancer are not going to benefit me at all.

Luckily, after suffering through so many torturous PE lessons, I have picked up a few skills that make playing the game just about bearable. So if the sight of a wooden bat makes you shudder, if your nightmares involve a PE teacher yelling ‘catch it, butterfingers’ and if you would find cataloguing the contents of your fridge more interesting than a game of rounders, then I salute you as a kindred spirit. This is the guide for you!

1. ‘Deep field’ in a very obscure position (preferably one that is rarely touched by hedgehogs, let alone rounders balls).

2. Stand in a position that looks vaguely as if you are about to catch a ball (ie not with your arms crossed). This gives the teacher one less reason to yell at you.

3. In the unlikely event that the ball comes within ten metres of you, pretend to suffer from Delayed Reaction Syndrome then jog towards the ball painfully slowly. Flail your arms around a lot and it doesn’t matter how fast you run; the teacher will be mildly impressed.

4. When someone else picks up the ball, put on a disappointed face and shuffle back to your original position.

Get out. This is a double whammy because not only does it save you from having to run round the whole pitch, but you are also banned from batting for the rest of the game. The genius who invented this rule deserves a medal.

There are two ways of getting out, both equally low exertion:

1. Be run out. This involves a technique you are already familiar with – the Painfully Slow Run. Just apply this technique until the person behind cannot help but catch you up. What’s more, it is they who are yelled at, not you. Bonus!

2. Ensure that the ball reaches the post before you. The Painfully Slow Run comes in handy yet again here. You can run as far as you like with this method, but why you might want to is beyond me.

Run and hide.

Article: Are you an introvert?

Inspired by Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet’

Are you happy in your own company? Do you prefer having a few close friends to spending time in large groups? Are you secretly glad when plans to meet up are cancelled?

If your answer to any of the above questions was yes, the chances are that you, like me, are an introvert. And you’re not alone: a third to a half of the people reading this will have secured the same result (probably more, since introverts usually prefer solitary activities such as reading).

For many people, the label ‘introvert’ is a negative thing. Introverts have a reputation for being shy, socially awkward and pessimistic, even though they are merely people who feel energised by spending time alone (extroverts, by contrast, are refreshed by being with people in large groups).

In today’s outgoing, in-your-face society, people are encouraged to lose their introversion and learn to become sociable, outspoken people, even if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. It’s an accepted thing. If you don’t like parties, you’re antisocial. If you don’t want to speak out in class, you’re shy and reticent. If your private life isn’t plastered across the internet, you’re not moving with the times.

Yet it has been proven that introversion is hardwired into our DNA. It’s as much a part of anyone as black hair or brown eyes or pale skin. So why should we have to change who we are?

It’s not as if introverts can’t be successful. Lady Gaga, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Christina Aguileira and Angelina Jolie are all examples of introverts who have succeeded in traditionally extroverted fields. By contrast, Barbra Streisand is an example of a shy extrovert; she has a famously bubbly personality but suffers from terrible stagefright. Introversion and shyness are by no means found hand-in-hand. You can be confident without being sociable, commanding without raising your voice. Introverts can enjoy acting and singing and public speaking as much as the next person – it’s just that afterwards they’ll want to spend some time alone or with a few close friends to recuperate.

It has been proven that introverts can have an advantage in business as well as showbusiness. They are self-motivated, think carefully about issues and are good at expressing themselves in writing. They are often more empathetic than extroverts because they spend a lot of time thinking and therefore understand what goes on in people’s minds. They are good decision-makers; where extroverts may jump in straightaway, introverts will be able to think things through clearly and calmly, without losing their temper.

So why do extroverts have the position of dominance in society? There’s no clear-cut answer. Many people believe that the rise of extroversion came with the rise of consumerism; whereas before people had just been required to get the work done, now they had to market the goods. As buying became more important, so did selling. Charismatic, loquacious people were needed to promote the wares of their company and rise to the top. From the 1920s, the consumer industry has grown and grown and now there’s no stopping it. Even in class, a pattern emerges: the loudest people often get the most attention, even if they have nothing particularly intelligent to say.

But what about before that? It seems hard to believe now, but the people who were seen as the greatest in society were the people who were quiet, serious and noble. Loud, gregarious people were often viewed as ‘silly’. A strong character and good virtues were more important than having an exuberant personality. Even today, many Eastern cultures favour calm, reflective types.

As someone who is told in almost every school report and parents’ evening that my work is fine but I need to ‘contribute more in class’, I find a great relief in the sense that I can still be successful without changing my quiet nature. I’m not saying that we don’t have to push ourselves out of our comfort zones at times; no introvert ever got anywhere without a bit of discomfort now and again.

Neither am I saying that there is anything wrong with being an extrovert. On the contrary, I believe that the mix of introverts and extroverts is one of the things which makes our world so rich and diverse. If everyone was quiet and unwilling to work together, the world would be disconnected and hostile. If everyone was loud and spoke over each other, no one would ever come to a solution. It is the equal balance of both that makes many industries, friendships and relationships so successful.

I would have not have reached this conclusion were it not for a book called Quiet by Susan Cain. It is a book that I would urge you to read, even if you only dip into a couple of chapters. It has encouraged me to question some of the things we take for granted in society, and most importantly, to embrace my quiet side.