2018: The year of change

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I sit and wonder who I am
And wonder where I have come from
I sit and wonder who I am
And wonder where I’ll go

I sit and wonder who I am
And dream of broken roads
But when I stand, and march ahead
There’s no path but my own.

— Poem by Stirling University Creative Writing Society member

Lounging around, as I do, it’s easy to think I do nothing and go nowhere. However, as 2018 has shown, this is not true. I took bold risks and first forays into new parts of life, in areas that seemed unthinkable in January, bringing with it a roller-coaster of emotions and experiences. All of this amid the backdrop of a country gripped by Brexit, trans rights, and Dec without Ant. With the end of undergraduate studies approaching, I knew this would be the year of change — and that it was, albeit not in the way I expected. This is why.

ACADEMIC

Take little victories when you can.

— Daniel Wright, Vice President Education at Stirling Students’ Union

The year began with my dissertation equivalent: the Journalism Project. After much teeth-gnashing, my supervisor and I went for the broad area of rural life.

The eureka moment came when I read in a newspaper about a group of people in the village of Buchlyvie, in Stirling County, planning to orchestrate a community buyout of a local pub, the Buchlyvie Inn, to prevent it from being converted to flats by a separate commercial buyer. That would be a great microcosm for the modern struggles of rural life, I thought, classic country folks taking on modern city ways. The actual result was a bit muddier, figuratively speaking: bank branch closures and transport costs dominated the booklet.

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The Journalism Project ultimately made me graduate with a first class degree.

This year, Royal Bank of Scotland bore the brunt of criticism for drifting away from small rural branches towards bigger city buildings and digital-first banking, with mobile bank vans plugging some gaps. For example, the branch at Kyle of Lochalsh on the Isle of Skye will shut down this Hogmanay, forcing customers to travel 34 miles to Portree. Despite a political campaign getting a reprieve for the Bannockburn branch in June, this proved similarly futile, as that branch closed down in November, effectively being amalgamated into a new Stirling city centre building. But even here is no guarantee of safety in this modern world: a traditional sweet shop prominently located on the edge of Dumbarton Road closed down in May, citing low footfall. The Postman Pat world is all but over. Nowadays, Pat would not only be an unfamiliar figure, he would probably work for Hermes, and throw your package over the garden gate if you failed to answer the door in 15 seconds. Probably.

I hope that those banks and building societies who are focused on access for people will grow and prosper and that people will in large numbers do to RBS what it has done to them and walk away.

— Alex Rowley, former acting leader of Scottish Labour Party

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One of the goats at Gorgie City Farm in Edinburgh.

Speaking to Emma Cooper of the rural issues group Scottish Rural Action was a great help, and for that I am most grateful. She delighted me with tales of how a £9 set of Rawlplugs prompted a £56 delivery charge because she lives on the Isle of Bute, just across from Oban. Astounding.

One of the highlights was undoubtedly visiting Gorgie City Farm in Edinburgh, in which I got to see a lot of cute animals city children and adults otherwise may not see in person. One of the ladies working there, bucket in hand, told me about how dense some visitors can be:

It’s not just the kids that ask awkward questions. We once had a woman who thought boneless chicken lived like that, as chicken without any bones.

— Gorgie City Farm supervisor

Unable to resist a good pun, I titled the project ‘Farmageddon: The fight to save rural Scotland’. That’s the best part of the document, along with the abstract cow cover image. One thing this definitely proved was I was not ready to be a journalist. With a much reduced structure, the rot of procrastination set in. This should have been the first sign my adult life was in serious trouble.

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I ran for Union President against incumbent Astrid Smallenbroek (pictured in the pink coat in the background), a tough but exciting challenge.

In February, I took a bold risk, effectively put the project on hold, and chose to run for Union President in the student union elections. As a lone wolf for life, going against an incumbent seeking a second term, I knew this would be tough. But I did it anyway, because I took the mantra of ‘give it a go’ to heart. I wanted to do this for the first year and autistic students of Stirling, the memories of my difficult first year abundantly clear. I did most of the campaign myself, including publicity design and manifesto writing.

All the sabbatical officer candidates were amiable, but one in particular resonated: Daniel Wright, a fellow media and humanities guy, who would go on to win his Vice President Education election. He told me that, even on down days, you should take note of achievements you make on a given day, even if it starts (or ends) from something as simple as washing the dishes, as it can help you develop a winning streak. I scribbled his phrase — “take little victories when you can” — on a notepad.

The incumbent’s curse at student union elections means any sabbatical officer seeking re-election is likely to achieve it, because students will know exactly what they’re getting. In that light, the shock was not that I lost, but that anyone took me seriously as a candidate at all. About 18% of voters picked me first, which I still find hard to believe.

Once this race was over, I had to go back to the project. The bulk of the work was rushed through in two weeks, which makes the 67% grade all the more remarkable. Against the odds, all my 3rd and 4th year modules came out at 2:1 or 1st level, and I graduated with a first class degree in Journalism and Politics. Nobody can take that away from me, no matter how much I complain about myself. The question of “if I graduated” became “when I graduate”, and it seemed the world was at my feet.

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In June, I graduated from Stirling University in Journalism and Politics, only to return to do a Masters in TV Production three months later.

But then reality set in. Far from being a jubilant occasion, graduation was one of the worst days I’ve experienced this year. It brought what was, at the time, a sense of finality to my university days, a blunt reminder that I should be a grown-up now. That was tough to cope with.

As a friend quite rightly pointed out to me in December, I have become so accustomed to being led down the garden path that when my hand was let go I had no idea what to do. In essence, I have curled up into a ball in the bed, literally.

In July, I applied for a number of Masters options at Stirling, and decided the one in Television Content Development and Production was the one I most ‘felt like’ doing. It was only meant to be a backstop option but soon turned into reality. Again, while others would see this as an achievement, I considered it a step backwards, away from other things I had wanted to do — but then, it was my fault for not making enough effort.

A Facebook post I wrote in September sums this up best: “Why I am spending £6,000 on this one-year course I have no idea, but I am just going to let it happen to me. I’ll take my cheap satisfaction where I can get it, moulding my chameleon state, regurgitating my guilt, and throwing my tantrums, but otherwise I’ll just keep on rolling. As a future organ donor, I might as well try to put this vessel to good use.”

And with sentiment like that, how could I not do well? All three modules in the autumn semester acquired grades below the 50% threshold required to pass, mainly because not enough had been written for the essays and other assignments. Sure, exploring the business of TV is interesting, I thought, but what is the point?

On the plus side, I gladly held the mantles of Head of Proofreading at Brig Newspaper and Equity Officer at Debating Society until June, and was given honorary membership of the latter. In October, I did get my first executive council position on the student union, as Communities Officer, but other commitments got in the way of my duties. Perhaps next year will spark a new upturn, but then that’s what I thought last year.

PERSONAL

People say to me, “I understand that you suffer from Asperger’s”, and I’m like: “No, I have Asperger’s. I suffer from idiots.”

— Anne Hegerty, ‘Chaser’

To paraphrase US disability rights activist Rebecca Cokley, I do not suffer from Asperger syndrome. I suffer from how society treats me.

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Despite winning this award in May, anxiety and fear of the future have posed an ongoing threat.

However, there is a lot to be said for my self-pitying behaviour. Ironically, the looming fear of graduation undercut a major award win in May — ‘Column of the Year’ at the Scottish Student Journalism Awards — for an article I wrote about how I almost, but didn’t, commit suicide. That fear continues to run even now. On returning as a postgraduate, I decided not to return to the mental health support professionals I previously had when studying as an undergraduate. They were an excellent help to me, and it is nice to have people there to talk to, but there is only so much they can do. I basically know how the mill of my anxious mind runs now: I struggle with something I’m unsure about, get help, feel useless, slouch into a corner, and try not to cry until something else makes the thought process go away again. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying this is my life now.

What pulls me through is knowing that, even if things are bad today, the next day might be better. The mantra of ‘give it a go’ has worked for me, and can again. I have talked through my complaints with people before, and can get through it again. As I wrote in that article: “To open up about your insecurities is not a sign of weakness because you are vulnerable. It is a sign of strength because you are honest.”

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I was a contestant on Countdown but failed to get the famed teapot. Image: ITV Studios

In January, I made my first TV appearance, as a contestant on the game show Countdown. My excuse for not winning is being put up against a seven-time champion chasing octochamp status. In any case, the trip to Manchester left me with two thoughts:

1. I was a lot calmer on-air than expected, albeit through careful self-filtering.

2. This is a TV show long past its prime, and it either needs a revamp or scrapping.

In February, my Cancer Research UK charity shop work went one step further with me being assigned ‘volunteer manager’ status, and I looked after the shop on a couple of occasions. On one level, it was manageable enough, but I definitely haven’t got the knack for knowing the value of charity shop items, or dealing with random requests. In any case, it proved to be a nice escape. However, by October, the stress of other commitments was taking its toll, and I decided to leave.

In November, I decided to go vegan for the #VegPledge challenge Cancer Research UK were doing — effectively ‘Veganuary’ but in November, and I managed to raise £30 for the charity in the process. It was more manageable than I thought it would be, and after the month ran out I decided to keep it going, albeit with the caveat I wanted to use up the animal-based food I already had from before. The Christmas holiday effectively trashed this plan, so I shall need to give it another stab in January 2019.

In March, I went to my first music artist concert, for George Ezra in Edinburgh. My respect (and, if I’m being honest, infatuation) for him continued to grow this year. The album Staying at Tamara’s is well worth a listen if you haven’t already.

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In July, I got my first job. As of this blog post, it’s still going.

In July, I managed to get my first job, as a car driver for Pizza Hut Delivery. I was immediately scared of being perceived as a careless scrounger and fired. This did not happen. Instead, bizarrely, it became quite good fun. I have a theory for why this is: the job is simple, methodical, repetitive, and induces a sense of usefulness. It also comes down to having a familiar cast of managers and drivers with which to communicate, and I even enjoyed a social gathering in one of their houses. It didn’t seem such an alien idea by that point.

Undoubtedly, I have made some careless mistakes. I’m so accident-prone, I cut myself with my own fingernails. And I would rather not be in this job for the long-haul. But, for making my way out into the real world, it’s a good starting point.

POLITICAL

For the first time in some years, 2018 wasn’t an election year. Well, almost.

Firstly, some policy highlights. Free sanitary products are now freely available in Scottish educational facilities. The minimum unit pricing law on alcohol took effect. Plans to create opt-out organ donation systems in the UK were published. And austerity began to end, allegedly.

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Nicola Sturgeon became the first serving First Minister of Scotland to lead a Pride march, in Glasgow this summer.

On the LGBT+ rights front, more than half of people responding to a Scottish Government consultation were in favour of streamlining the gender recognition process for trans people, and recognising non-binary people in law for the first time. The first Hebridean Pride was held in the Outer Hebrides, and Nicola Sturgeon became the first serving First Minister to lead a Pride march.

Brexit trundles on. For much of the year, focus lay on what kind of deal, if any, the UK Government would get with the European Union. The Chequers plan agreed in July was rejected not only by the EU, but by Boris Johnson and David Davis, setting the wheels in motion for a divide that became painfully clear by December. It’s a sign of how far things have come when a plan that includes no membership of the Single Market, Customs Union, or freedom of movement is regarded as ‘soft’. Broadly speaking, there are now two camps of political-heavy mindsets. One is the hard Leaver, who prefers the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit as it guarantees the EU will not have supremacy over the UK, though that is theoretical. In the other, a group of mostly Remainer folks who have had enough of this nonsense and think the issue should be resolved via a ‘People’s Vote’, to either soften or even cancel Brexit altogether. Apart from the fact there is no electoral mandate for a ‘People’s Vote’ — a pretty strange term, given that is literally what a referendum is — it would probably not provide sufficient clarity for politicians, who struggle to understand what ‘the people’ are thinking at the best of times, and actually increase the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, assuming the Article 50 withdrawal period is not extended. It’s unusual for me to despair at all the major political parties, but the handling of Brexit from both Remainers and Leavers has generally been a short-sighted shambles.

The sky will not cave in with a no-deal Brexit, but it will cause significant disruption in the short-term. As my Journalism Project mentions, the UK Government has guaranteed farming subsidises until at least 2022. Best not to count the cruelty-free chickens before they’ve not hatched, though.

The idea of a citizen’s assembly, a randomly selected group of people to deliberate on the best way to implement Brexit, was a good idea suggested by an audience member on David Dimbleby’s last Question Time programme. But at this point, that ship has sailed, and the clock is ticking down. So far, to my mind, the most likely escape route for the UK Government is through a compromise with the Labour Party. That may sound like a long shot, but stranger things have happened. As things stand, there will almost certainly be significant economic damage next year, but whether the same is true of political damage is not yet clear.

And what of the party responsible for starting all this? UKIP has shed a skin, lost most of its top brass and local councillors. The party has long struggled to insist it is not racist, a stance not helped by Henry Bolton, who in February was ousted as leader after his girlfriend sent racist text messages. Gerard Batten then took over, and pushed the party in a more Islam-obsessed direction. This continued with the appointment of the founder of the English Defence League as an advisor to the party, a man called Stephen Yaxley-Lennon AKA Tommy Robinson AKA The name-changer game-changer AKA Baldrick. But you know the kind of person UKIP still appeals to, and why. For all our justifiable pooh-poohing, opinion polls have consistently placed them just above the Greens. Do they have a cunning plan?

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Despite canvassing for the SNP earlier in the year, I cancelled my membership in August.

My own political activism with the Scottish National Party continued, as I canvassed with them in Stirling and Clackmannanshire a couple of times. The practice of going door-to-door seems relatively simple, but I struggle with nerves. After all, there’s every reason for local residents having their activities disrupted to be unwilling to cooperate with yet another conversation about politics. Not knowing what to say will never not bug me.

But by August, after some consideration, I chose to cancel my SNP membership — though not before voting in the depute leader contest Keith Brown would go on to win — because I didn’t feel it was right for me anymore, and now identify as independent. I am a Scottish nationalist in the sense that I want to see Scotland become a separate country in my lifetime, but I am not a nationalist in the sense of insisting on pantomime villainry for its own sake. The enthusiasm of some of my SNP colleagues to be reactionary and stick the boot in is scary to watch at times. A friend of mine in the SNP shared my sympathies, but then looked to their opponents and said to me: “That’s why I’m still in the party — they’re the best bad option.”

In my Union President campaign, the one question that shook me more than any other was being asked what I ‘actually’ believe in. The honest answer is I’m not entirely sure, and I’m sure many others my age feel the same way. I’m not even convinced the SNP know either. The solution is not to blindly cheerlead, for that is not helpful, but to calmly play to your strengths, and foster particular areas of interest.

My politics remain fluid, and it appears I have drifted slightly rightwards as time has gone by. Sure, I think, ambitions are great, but where is the money for that thing coming from? It seems that old adage about having a heart and a brain is true.

CULTURAL

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Brandon Wisdom, who I met at SitC before, appeared on this year’s Small YouTubers panel.

My YouTube habit of seemingly only uploading in August returned this year: I wondered off about making four videos about online video convention Summer in the City. This year’s jaunt to London was a communal flat stay, allowing me to get acquainted with some friendly new faces.

Unusually, I arrived feeling like I was losing faith in SitC. However, I can’t deny there’s something about the buzz the place generates that still gets me. It transformed what could have been a soul-destroying weekend into a fun-loving experience. As well as friendly new faces, I re-acquainted myself with some great old ones, like Bob Currie and Brandon Wisdom. The moment I caught MaxUnmotivated’s eye, he looked genuinely happy to see me, and I got some strange warm feeling in my chest. We chatted about where our lives are at and moved on.

That said, all of this doesn’t change my attitude of laziness and ambivalence towards YouTube, more of which I’ll discuss at the end. I was struck by one thing Emma Blackery said about criticising others at one of the panels:

My rule is that if I wouldn’t say it to their face, I wouldn’t say it when they’re out the room.

— Emma Blackery, YouTuber and musician

A lot of characteristically British figures associated with light entertainment died this year. Jim Bowen, Bullseye presenter. Denis Norden, who pioneered outtake television with It’ll Be Alright on the Night. Dale Winton, Supermarket Sweep shopkeeper. Barry Chuckle, of The Chuckle Brothers, entertained Stirling University students at Freshers Week in 2017, and powered through 200+ booth photos. Emma Chambers and John Bluthal, respectively Alice Tinker and Frank Pickle in The Vicar of Dibley. John Cunliffe, who brought Postman Pat and Rosie and Jim to our screens (and fell victim to the latter’s mischievous behaviour on the narrowboat). Peter Firmin, who along with Oliver Postgate brought the Clangers, Bagpuss, and Ivor the Engine onboard. Avicii, whose light-hearted EDM romps became a soundtrack to the 2010s, will also be a reminder of the consequences of relentless mental health problems and an unrelenting music industry.

Stephen Hawking, Tessa Jowell, John McCain, George H.W. and Barbara Bush, and Paddy Ashdown are some of the heavyweights now consigned to history.

In March, one of the UK’s most famous TV duos of modern times was unexpectedly put on ice. Ant McPartlin was involved in a three car collision — fortunately, nobody was seriously injured — and subsequently convicted for drink-driving. With a hastily re-arranged running order, Dec and the ITV Studios team did a remarkable job keeping the show going, and a commitment to take families to a Universal Orlando Resort finale production was honoured. Oh, and about that production: the London Studios closed down in April. Plans to revamp them were later abandoned by ITV, who instead put it up for sale. No sign of a major competition giveaway so far, though.

New Channel 4 reality show The Circle immediately struck me for some reason. A group of strangers, isolated from the outside world and put under surveillance by a fixed rig camera crew, are made to communicate and compete with each other in particular ways in a popularity contest in which the viewers (allegedly) decide the winner, all watched over by a mysterious upper force. No idea why that sounds so familiar.

Big Brother ended on Channel 5 after seven years, not that many people cared. And that’s the problem. How is it that, in a time where reality TV and concerns about technology taking over lives are more prescient than ever, a show like this seems so dated? The answer is complex, but there are at least two reasons I can think of. Firstly, at an hour a night, every night, it’s looking pretty analogue in a digital world. Secondly, the once-innovative ‘triangle of control’ was so badly bent in the producers’ favour and the casting so materialism-driven it completely undercut the idea of Big Brother being about real people experiencing real situations, instead placing a much greater emphasis on sparking artificial divisions. And the resulting TV was so uninspiring to watch, I simply didn’t bother to watch the 2016 and 2017 series. These people said nothing to me. This year’s effort, with the weight lifted from producers’ necks a little, was more encouraging. As well as an authentically entertaining contestant set, there’s much to be thankful for from Emma Willis and Rylan Clark-Neal. (The latter, incidentally, met his husband after the 2013 series.) But it’s clear this programme has served its purpose in its current form, and needs a major re-think to become relevant again.

Now my whole world changes forever.

— Cameron Cole, Big Brother contestant, on coming out as homosexual

Even with that shadow hanging over it, in a blunt popularity contest that is a Naked Attraction personality equivalent, The Circle felt fresh. Trapping people individually in apartments and making them only communicate via a social network, shouting at a screen, is a concept that should not work on paper. But in practice, it was fun. The resulting television was compelling to watch, because it opened up questions to the viewer about how we in society treat each other differently when certain facts become known (or not known, as we saw). Deception, surprise, embarrassment and understanding can make for great television when done right. And, like with Golden Balls in the past, it’s an entertaining prisoners’ dilemma. It may seem strange to have a game with a strong incentive to be selfish and selective, but real life is just like this now, in some ways, particularly with social media filters. We want our own bubbles, and woe betide you should you attempt to burst them.

One commentator put it like this:

This throws up some horrible lessons for viewers: you’ll never succeed by being yourself, it pays to obfuscate your true self, lying always pays – and, while it may not be shared by the rest of The Circle’s viewership, the impression I took from the finale was that we had been played just as much as Dan. It was a weird, uneasy ending to the series, and I think that’s entirely to The Circle’s credit.

— Stuart Heritage, The Guardian

How fitting that Dan effectively sussed out his key accomplice, who would go on to win, and yet chose to suspend his disbelief as it suited his own ends. Or, as contestant Freddie over-enthusiastically told him:

You weren’t just wanking over a 57-year-old; you was also wanking over a geezer!

— Freddie Bentley, The Circle contestant

Perhaps a filter is a good thing sometimes.

FINAL THOUGHTS

On 9th August, the day before SitC began, I wrote a Twitter thread which included these words:

“The feeling of ‘can’t be bothered’ is normal for me now. I’ve been on YouTube hiatus for ages. I haven’t posted anything on my RatherRyan blog. Why? Because I am accustomed to being prodded into things, and because ‘I’ll do it when I feel like it’ is a dangerous mentality to have.

“I am caught on two trains of thought with work paths. One is ‘the dream’, the journalism-related career university was supposed to prep me for. The other is the more simple retail-based path, with immediate successes and easy money. The latter option is currently winning. In July I got my first job, as a pizza delivery driver. I’m enjoying it so far, and it’s useful in keeping me occupied and learning. However, this cannot be the end. Capitalism discourages that. It suggests I must have ‘ambitions’, leading towards ever greater money supplies.

“But money isn’t the real issue for me. Purpose is. Why am I doing what I’m doing now and what do I want to do in the future? I have been uncertain and uneasy about this for a long time, so have pushed it to one side. No wonder the retail option looks so appealing.

“Living life day-to-day, as I do, means putting long-term interests aside and concentrating on living life in the here and now. For some reason, YouTube hasn’t really factored into this for me. I just struggle with the enthusiasm thing. Purpose doesn’t seem to be there.”

That remains true as of this blog post. My blind optimism of April had fizzled away by graduation in June. It was a dark time for me because I knew my state of play looked murky at best, and hopeless at worst. When asked by one of my TV Production lecturers what sort of career I hoped to achieve in December, I suppressed my thoughts and struggled to fight back tears, as I did not believe they were achievable.

This is not a new problem — in fact, it is more prescient than ever. 2019 will be the year of the lone wolf, and I will have to take serious consideration about my place in the future. Meanwhile, the UK will have to seriously consider its place in the world as Brexit takes effect. The US President used the phrase “the calm before the storm” to describe an upcoming summit with North Korea. I think it’s an apt phrase for the state of our society here, as 2019 approaches. But then, if the two Koreas can make reparations, who knows what might be possible?

If I could feel that happy at any given moment, then I could feel that happy for the rest of my life.
— Harry McArthur, editor at Brig Newspaper

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