A Durham student and a northern lass

Originally published on The Tab Durham in November 2014

Sometimes the divide between locals and students can seem insurmountable… especially if you’re a local yourself

Durham may not be my home city but after Newcastle it is the city I feel the closest affinity to. Sunderland may be closer but no self-respecting Geordie would admit to liking ‘the other place’ in public. I’m one of those lucky students who can just pop home for the weekend but it also means that my experience has lacked a little bit of the excitement that others have going to uni for the first time.

For those who have travelled halfway up the country a wild night in Klute might means that there is no chance anyone from home could ever see. While I’m not a Klute-goer (that sounds oddly like a disease), that’s not an experience a local student can guarantee.

I haven’t yet had the awkward experience of seeing an old friend spot me wearing some strange fancy dress but it could happen. Let me tell you though, encountering distant family for the first time in years on the walk back from Bill Bryson — while wearing a reasonably eclectic outfit — is as awkward as it sounds.

The rest of the world may have the image of Durham as an idyllic cathedral city but it is also a place that is more than a little rough around the edges. Some students might only stray as far down Claypath as it takes to get to Urban Oven and the bleak charity shop lined North Road is a far cry from the bubble of middle class privilege that surrounds the city centre.

The prevalance of shops such as Andersons of Durham and Jack Wills create an image of Durham as a bastion of wealth prevailing in the centre of an area that is still struggling after the recession. That isn’t wholly true though, as those more familiar with the area will know. When the students leave in the university holidays the city is incredibly quiet and the natural character of the place is clearer.

It shames me to admit it but I do understand the ‘town and gown’ divide. For the ordinary working people of Durham the late night antics of students, often including loud drunken chants about Hatifeld, can be tiresome. For the inhabitants of Durham going about their daily lives I understand that students can seem frustrating or obnoxious and for me that is challenging to deal with.
Moving away from all of that, it can sometimes be humorous – or downright strange – to see people’s preconceptions of the area you live in. ‘The North’ seems by some students to be viewed as a strange and exotic place and the comments of a DUCK ragraid representative to a group of freshers I overheard at the Charities Fair sums this up.

She told the group, using words to this effect, that it excited her that Durham was ‘practically in Scotland’ and it meant that the country was easily accessible. To me at least that seems like saying that Dover is ‘practically in France’ but there is a key distinction that is missing. In that case, it is the English Channel and here it is the small issue of almost a hundred miles, including hideously winding country lanes.

It is uncomfortable how ‘the North’, as in anything north of the M25, is often portrayed as an exotic and distant place as if we inhabit different countries and speak a different language. Students from southern regions were complaining of the cold and shivering in their winter coats while I was still walking around in a long sleeved t-shirt.

At least this aspect is mildly funny.

Less so is the way in which people sometimes struggle to understand my accent. My speech isn’t littered with ‘whey aye man’s and other Geordie phrases, I swear; I just speak fast and don’t speak in the RP manner that many other students do. Despite this there are still time where I feel I need to tone it down for people to comprehend me fully.

In Freshers’ Week this led to someone asking me if I was from Ireland because apparently I sound Irish. I mean come on, my accent is commonplace in this region and I had assumed that it was as recognisable after the horrors of Geordie Shore as the boisterous tones of the TOWIE crew.

Apparently not…

For a local, events such as the Newcastle Freshers’ Trip can be met with dread. Standing atop the Castle Keep in the pouring rain staring down at the train station where you recently witnessed two drunks try to shake hands with the passengers of the East Coast London-Newcastle train is a sobering experience.

It can be difficult being both a local and a student here at Durham University but sometimes, just sometimes, it can be the best thing of all.

Especially when there are home-cooked meals and a night at home up for grabs.

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Taylor Swift and the future of the music industry

Originally published in Palatinate Comment, November 2014.

Music is dead, or so the cynical might claim. Industry income was around a depressingly low 59.7% of the 2003 level at the end of 2013 – and this was an increase on the previous year’s figure.

In this difficult climate Taylor Swift’s recent platinum album, 1989, is impressive. Even more so is that she has shunned Spotify, despite the growing importance of streaming services at a time when the financial value of album sales (physical and digital combined) is actually declining. But is a ‘Taylor Swift’ model achievable for other musicians, or is it an increasingly untenable dream to be able to succeed on the back of album sales, as the musicians of old were able to?

Streaming services can be a godsend for the average consumer. The student lifestyle isn’t exactly conducive to spending £10 on a new album but logging into Spotify and hearing an artist’s latest album is quick and easy. Even better, it can be done for free. From the perspective of a musician however, it is not so clear-cut. For the sale of one album, the artist will net approximately £1, although of course this figure varies. In contrast, each Spotify play has been estimated by journalist Barry Collins to earn a musician $0.008. Shockingly, this works out at approximately 7875 plays to be able to buy some sweets from Poundland — never mind actually earn a living!

It is easy to see how artists, especially those as prolific as Swift, would be highly frustrated at this system. However, while high-earners might be able to neglect the potential benefits of music streaming, many cannot. One issue with music streaming is that it does not leave behind the detritus required to make most albums memorable. There is no longer a bloated music library on your computer or a pile of CDs perched on the edge of your desk — there is simply a list of played tracks. The loss of this tangible, real-world aspect of music is more than a little upsetting but undoubtedly it is most damaging for the sea of musicians hoping to be remembered.

When considering the future of the music industry perhaps it is not only the sales and financial aspect that need to be considered. After all, music is not analytical and logical — it is abstract and can be incredibly touching. It should be considered whether there is actually any benefit in reducing music to simply a discussion of the financial state of the industry. After all, despite the damage arguably done by the digital age great discoveries have also been made.

The Belgian choir Scala and Kolanchy Brothers, for example, have been able to share their music online to create a global audience. They have provided the backing to trailers for both The Social Network and Sunday night favourite Downton Abbey, yet their UK debut only reached eighty-two on the chart. It is clear that, whatever the negatives, the increasing digitisation of music can be beneficial for some.

According to BPI, 94 million albums were sold in the UK last year. This illustrates that despite other sobering statistics the music industry is still surviving and functioning well. With the rise of services such as Spotify and Google Play to the detriment of traditional music sales, it is hard to judge whether this is a period of innovation or degradation. Perhaps, as is so often the case, this will be for consumers to decide.

Review: Charley’s Aunt

Originally published in Palatinate, Indigo – November 2014.

Charley’s Aunt is a lesser known play. Thus, without a familiarity with the play itself, expectations were more guarded – although they needn’t have been. Despite this being some cast members’ first experience of university theatre, their acting was skillful and laughs abounded.

The role of Lord Fancourt Babberly, who played the impersonator of Charley’s Aunt was a challenging one. This role was played by first year student Archie Hill who, when he first arrived on the stage, did not appear as the ideal choice for the title role within the play. While playing Lord Babberly, his acting was slightly uncertain but once he was wearing the garish bonnet and dress of ‘Charley’s Aunt’ he appeared much more at ease. Through drawing on the dramatic irony of individual lines and at times adopting the most unbelievable falsetto, Archie Hill brought added humour to this already enjoyable play.

The more technical aspects of the play should be touched upon briefly. The minimalist nature of the props and set had both positive and negative implications. Transitions between scenes, including a substantial set change, which was set to music from the period, were carried out swiftly and efficiently. However, it would have been perhaps more atmospheric, especially at the less comical moments of the play, to have a more detailed set to allow the audience to visualise where events were taking place. This was, of course, no longer a problem once events escalated and the deception began…

The costumes were also interesting, with Lord Babberly humorously dressed as Charley’s Aunt. A red bonnet, pink dress and a strange jacket were an interesting approximation of the actually more fashionable Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez. While the suits worn by the other male actors were never going to be a point of consideration in their own right, the dresses were all beautiful.

One small issue was the delay between the advertised start time of the play and also the overly long interval. While these issues were of minor importance in comparison to other aspects of the production, they may be something for the production company to take into account in future.

From the roles of the Charlie to Brassett, the actors performed well and provided welcome enjoyment on an otherwise quiet Sunday evening, with the rest of the audience members appreciating this play just as much as I did.

While Charley’s Aunt is not a traditionally popular play, perhaps it should be, as it was highly enjoyable evening of theatre.

DUCK expeditions: money better spent elsewhere?

Originally published in Palatinate (Comment) in November 2014.

The application process for this year’s DUCK charity expeditions has begun and many students are currently waiting to find out if they will be spending part of their summer helping the less fortunate in countries as diverse as Romania and Nepal. Despite the good work that they will be doing there, their time and effort might be better spent in other ways…

While Durham is a predominantly middle class university, efforts must be made to ensure that activities are inclusive to all. Fundraising targets as high as an eye-watering approximate figure of £3900 for the Kilimanjaro trip were enough to preclude me from taking part, in the fear that I might have to fork out the difference if there was a shortfall. The idea of committing to raise such a figure was daunting, especially as I know that currently my family and friends would be unable to donate a substantial amount even to the causes closest to their hearts.

Regardless of the practicalities of fundraising, the most unsettling aspect of the costing was that the reminder, tucked away at the bottom of a page, that living expenses for the ‘tourism’ element of the trip are not covered. Just like the tales of gap years spent helping the less fortunate in far away and exotic lands, such events as these strengthen the existing disconnect between the experiences of affluent and less affluent students, both groups whom should be able to play a full part in university life.

The DUCK Commitment to Best Practice policy of 2010 states that the target is for 50% of the funds raised to go to charity; meaning that a large proportion of the money raised goes to funding costs such as flights, visas and accomodation for participants. If instead of running these expeditions all of the money could be given to worthwhile causes, the effect could be astronomical. It costs around £1 for a child in Uganda to be tested for malaria. Surely this is more important than what is, in part, a holiday? Charitable giving should be focused on benevolence and aiding the less fortunate, rather than on the promise of an exciting safari or a trip to see the Taj Mahal.

While this one is an argument that endlessly gets dusted off and used as an argument by many different groups, I can’t help but think that sometimes ‘charity should begin at home’. The recession and the austerity measures of this government have led to an increase in food bank users in Durham, with the percentage of food bank users attending the Durham foodbank due to benefit changes rising from 6% in October 2011 to 27% in September 2014. When coupled with the fact that over 900,000 people needed emergency food in 2013-14 alone, it really is clear that we need to do more to help those suffering on our doorstep. While I hope I am not being presumptuous by guessing that poverty is far from the experience of the majority of Durham students, I personally know many young people who are living what is scarcely more than a subsistence lifestyle and struggle to afford enough to eat.

Helping these people in areas of Co. Durham or further afield may not be as glamorous or as exciting as visiting India or Nepal but it can be just as rewarding. I am by no means denying the needs of those who are helped by the DUCK charity expeditions but simply suggesting that when we are surrounded by such privilege we should help those around us who have so little.

I am lucky enough to be writing this article in a beautiful Georgian townhouse but just a few minutes away is a community centre and the Salvation Army. This disconnection between our lives and the lives of many of the permanent residents of Durham is of real concern to me.

DUCK charity expeditions are a worthwhile endeavour and undoubtedly rewarding for those who take part but I can’t help question whether there is a better way of supporting the poor and vulnerable abroad — as well as at home.