Let’s dooo It! *Lord Flasheart voice*

This year I set myself a nice little challenge of reading 50 books for pleasure. That’s a little under one book a week. I wanted to do this because I think it’s important to continue to read for enjoyment during my PhD. When I say read for enjoyment, I mean not having to overanalyse every single word, just let the prose wash over me like waves on a beach…. Not that I don’t enjoy overanalysing, of course, I mean I’m a Virgo after all!

Anyway, my first pleasure read was Stephen King’s It (1986). I’ve never read any Stephen King up till this point, but I tweeted for recommendations (even somewhat ambitiously tagged the Maine man himself, in case he wanted to instruct a complete novice directly). It was the one that I felt that I wanted to read most, because it was my generation’s video nasty. I knew of so many people who’d watched the (showing my age now) video cassette of the mini series starring the legendary Tim Curry when they were children and developed a fear of clowns as a consequence. So, I started the year with that. At least 2018 couldn’t get any scarier than that! Although I survived the great cull of 2016, so I’m doing pretty well.

Before this book, the longest book I’d ever read was Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, which comes in at a (now measly) 940 pages. I keep saying to my supervisors that this is the book I’m loth to cut from my thesis, simply because I had to take the time to read the damn thing. That said, it wasn’t an unpleasant experience – Dickens is a fantastic social commentator. Not to the same extent as Jane Austen, perhaps, but his characters are truly one of a kind. Anyway, add an extra 200 or so pages, and you’ve got It.

King is a born narrator. His style is pure comfort. It’s like you’re a child sitting at the feet of a grandpa who’s losing the plot a little bit, because why else would he be recounting tales as twisted as these to one so young? “And then what?” whispers a rapt inner-child-reader. “And then what?”

The words just flow. The man has the words. Even down to the syntax, and the way an incomplete sentence in one chapter…

… flows into the next.

It’s truly difficult to write as an adult writing as a child, I think. Roald Dahl had the knack of it. And so did Mark Haddon in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2010)King does so but not in a way that makes the work seem contrived or patronising to the reader. But the insight into a child’s consciousness is pivotal to understanding what makes ‘It’ so powerful. The whole premise of the novel is that there is a monster that lives beneath the city of Derry, Maine and It feeds on the pure fears of children. If you can’t remember what it was like to have fears as a child, particularly fears that are unique to childhood, it isn’t possible to truly appreciate this work. When I was a child I used to have a recurring dream about a skull that could talk (“Alas, poor Yorick!”) and it lived on top of my wardrobe. But what made it powerful was the fact that it was so scary and a child’s fear cannot be rationalised away! But everyone’s childhood fear is different, and a great deal of them for my generation were born of Pennywise, which is pretty funny, now that I consider it. It’s Art reflecting Life reflecting Art back at itself.

In having a monster that takes a unique form according to those who see it, we have a shapeshifter that is nothing yet everything at the same time, almost like the unspeakable. I find the unspeakable fascinating, because it is a classic Death of the Author moment. This is the stuff of the Wilde trials! The reader projects whatever meaning they wish on to the words on the page, and everyone’s unspeakable will be different, much like everyone’s It. The unspeakable features prominently in Victorian Gothic/proto-horror fiction, and my copy of Machen’s The Great God Pan features a snippet of a review by Stephen King to try and attract a new and modern readership, funnily enough.

In short: 5 Stars – this will be the first of many King novels that I look forward to reading in the future.

We need to talk about (this), Kevin.

My friend Kev shared this article today on social media. I saw it as I stuck my head up from writing in my personal journal about my own mental health, funnily enough. Well, I’m not going to share my every sordid thought on the blogosphere, am I?

This ‘Anonymous academic’ has taken a very brave step in writing such an article, I commend them very strongly. I also don’t want to sound trite as I write this post in response, as we live in a world of lip service. However, it must always be stated almost as a kind of disclaimer: Academia is not an easy world to work in. Particularly in the field of Arts and Humanities. Constantly having to justify why research is being carried out – how can it engage with the public (this in itself is no bad thing – how else would we fill universities now that tuition fees are £9,250 per year?) and what is its impact? Sometimes a subject won’t have a huge amount of ‘impact’ (what is impact anyway?) but that’s no reason not to wander down the avenue of exploration!

The world of funded PhDs is no different. With literally hundreds of applications for single-digit numbers of scholarships, it’s definitely about the survival of the fittest. I will say this about my own particular funding body though, it made the overall experience of application for PhD funding a comparative dream. NECAH made the experience about the PhD proposal, which for someone who’s, shall we say, a little bit older than most of the applicants who are fresh out of an MA fresh out of a BA, feel a lot more comfortable. The interview process was a conversation directed at getting the best out of each applicant rather than subtly raised eyebrows and a nice ambiguous “Well that’s an interesting take on the subject”. The universities put the money into the pot, they interview based on the proposal and they take who is the best fit for them. They see that in order to grow research communities, they must be invested in, unlike the governments (naming no names, but if the cap fits….) who have placed Higher Education under a shameless attack either by naming and shaming remainer professors, or cutting the funding from institutions whose output doesn’t fit with rigid league tables and frameworks that perhaps they could improve on if only they had some more, oh wait, money invested in them….

Like ‘Anonymous academic’, more and more students are discovering that self-confidence is a class-based system, rather than a classroom-based one. It is only the privileged schools (ie not the ones where they’re having to ask parents to send money for pens and pencils) where the students are infused with a sense of pride in who they are just because they exist. University is no exception either, with only the best and brightest being told to apply for any sort of (now dwindling) funding. However, what funding bodies should focus on next, perhaps, is not how to acquire the funding, but how to handle yourself once you achieve it. A bad research day does not mean that you’re a fraud who conned the interview panel into paying you for pursuing your passion.

Imposter syndrome is nothing new in academia and it affects scholars no matter the stage of their career. When everyone is being judged in Research Excellence Frameworks and now that #REF2021 is going to turn universities into football teams in transfer season now that the research travels with the academic, it is something that needs desperate attention. Academics are more than your output, you’re not only as good as your last conference paper or funding bid. We should be reminded that more articles get rejected for journal publication following peer review than accepted for them. One in five research grant applications get accepted – that means 4 in 5 don’t. When the odds are stacked against you that high, is it really so hard to believe that scholars believe that they are failing when really it is the system that is failing them? It’s little wonder that university counselling services are stretched, just like ‘Anonymous’ writes. And there’s no easy answer about how to fix this problem either.

But back to ‘Anonymous Academic’ – I really hope you can stay the distance and save your PhD, if only for the doors it can open for you even outside academia. However, it is more than understandable if you can’t. Can you stop the clock at least temporarily by suspending your studies until you get yourself back on track and rework your thesis while you take the time to recharge your batteries? These stories are sadly becoming more and more common, for students and professors alike. Let’s keep spreading the word about mental health in academia and providing the training for scholars who are equipped to deal with setbacks just as much as success.

Settling into the #PhDlife

It’s here, it’s finally happened. I am doing a fully-funded PhD. This is the stuff that dreams are made of. Did I think I’d ever get to this point? In all honesty, I don’t know. I’m a great believer that what’s meant for you doesn’t pass by you, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to work for it, and work I did. Anyway, here is a compendium of how the first two weeks of my course have gone.

I said goodbye to my workmates on 28th September. I aimed for dignity and grace, but in reality I burst into tears like the big girl that I am. I do not equate weeping with weakness, by the way. It was just overspill of the huge amounts of love I have for my wonderful workmates who have supported me right up to this point and beyond, but from now on, in the capacity of friends rather than colleagues. They deserve a shout-out here, because their belief in me is sometimes what carried me through this journey when my self-confidence was perhaps not what it could have been.

Full-time cosmetic retail was wonderful, but it was just too much for me to balance a PhD with a 37.5 hour week at work. Mental health matters, and something had to give. The opportunity for funding with NECAH came up, and I leapt at the chance. It’s been a lifelong dream to do a PhD ever since I knew what one was. Adjusting to self-motivated time management is a challenge and a half, but I know I won’t achieve a PhD without it. The passion and drive is half the battle won though, the rest is down to sheer determination. It’s still a bit bizarre getting up and dressed to ‘go to work’ in the study rather than boarding a bus for a commute to the city centre though.

The school induction was on 3rd October at the Phoenix (how cool?) building at Teesside, where we met Ewan Ingleby, our Postgraduate tutor. He suggested engaging with Twitter for academic debate, which is always great fun. It’s also better for your blood pressure than looking at the comments section of, well, anything on the internet, really. Teesside is part of a growing research community, and the English department did really rather well in the Research Excellence Framework 2014. I have attended different universities over my time in Higher Education, starting with my undergraduate in Combined Honours in Arts (English Literature and French mainly) at Hogwart’s Durham University and my MA in English Literature and Place at Northumbria. Because I want to work in academia when I grow up graduate, I thought it would make sense to study at a number of institutions to see the different ways they work. Teesside really appealed to me because of the excitement of being part of a small (but growing) internal research network because I feel that any contributions will be valued and there will be a real sense of satisfaction in building an outward-looking community of researchers. This feeling continued following my Gradute school induction with Martin Leyland as all of us PhD students shared our projects and got excited about what we had to offer. There were people in that room who will literally change the world, or at least a small part of it.

My first supervision meeting was a really positive one where my supervisory team and I discussed my project and the possible directions it may head in. The subject of my thesis is so undeservedly under explored, and I’m so proud to be using it as the first building block of my research career. I believe it has marvellous potential for engaging with the public – who doesn’t have an opinion on beauty or cosmetics?! This is so important for the future of Higher Education, especially in the light of myopic remarks from Michael Gove that the people are tired of experts. Although I always wanted to do a PhD, I didn’t always believe that I could because of the problem of such narrow-minded stereotypes and my not fitting into any of them. The more we as academics engage with the public, the more we can make potential researchers believe in themselves and see the potential of their presence in academia. This researcher (and the vast majority of others) aren’t tweed jacket wearers stuck in an ivory tower out of touch with reality. Yes, I thrive on literature, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get excited about things like the return of Dancing on Ice in 2018 or the new Saint + Sinner eyeshadow palette from Kat von D (review of this forthcoming).

All in all, I’ve had a really exciting couple of weeks and look forward to communicating more often now that I feel like I’m settling into a better study routine. I would appreciate any feedback you have about anything I’ve discussed in this post, or perhaps you feel I’ve missed something and would like me to cover it in my next one. Any feedback is gratefully received.

Peace out for now.

What’s new in Racheyland….

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post, because there has been a pretty big something that I’ve been unable to discuss until now, and it would be next to impossible to write a blog post without mentioning it. This sounds incredibly cloak and dagger, and probably far more exciting than it actually is. No, that’s not true. It is incredibly exciting. Here’s the update…..

In December of last year, I applied for a NECAH studentship so that I would be able to work on my PhD full-time. In March, I attended my interview and now that everything is finalised with written notice being handed in at work, I can happily confirm that my application was a successful one. So, as of Monday 2nd October, I will be going back to full-time education as a fully-funded PhD student! Hooray!

My academic path so far has been long and winding with a few false starts and diversions en route for many reasons, rather than a straightforward and smooth one. In some ways, I’m very grateful, because I think it will make me more empathetic with students who have taken a more roundabout path like myself. I mentioned in my first ever blog post that I wanted to wait until I had attained the confidence and maturity necessary for such a huge undertaking as a PhD. I think the truth is, that hardly anyone really attains that, or at least if they do, certainly not right at the beginning of their PhD. I do think that achieving everything at this stage of my life is right for me. I’ve had to reach some sort of emotional equilibrium and feel comfortable in my own skin before I could embark on any kind of reflexive or critical project that requires so much physical and emotional energy. Literature has always been the constant in my life that has helped me reach that hallowed balanced state, and I am excited to take my relationship with literature to the next level by beginning to write books of my own!

Now that the beginning of term looms nearer, I am becoming more and more aware that this upcoming three year PhD period is going to be the most challenging time of my life so far – I do not undertake this lightly. However, like all of the greater challenges, they tend to result in the sweetest rewards. I’m leaving the ‘five days out of seven’ company of workmates and friends from a job I’ve had for seven years, hopefully to make new ones at university. I know I won’t be lonely (or at least I hope not), but this has its own challenges. I’ve always had a job during my Bachelors and Masters degrees, it’s always enforced structure on my ‘real’ work. It will be interesting to see how not having one affects my PhD studies. I’m already drawing up rough plans for an average study day (although taking care to leave lots of room for unexpected calamities) – I don’t want to waste a minute of this experience. Simultaneously, I don’t want to be all work and no play. I’ll burn out that way. Advice and tips on how to keep productivity high are incredibly welcome!

So, from now on, there are going to be more blog posts from me now that I’m able to reveal my clandestine studentship. Expect to see book reviews, esoterica (I do love my woo-woo), feminist polemic, humour, personal development and just about anything else that comes into my head and spills out of my typing fingers. I’m smashing the champagne bottle against the good ship ‘Rachey’s PhD blog’ and leaping on to the bow railings with my arms outstretched as it leaves the harbour to sail into the unknown waters of academia and, perhaps scariest of all, life.

Ladies Pinch, Whores Wear Rouge: All About The Base

My last post was an introduction to myself, now I’d like to move on to talking about my research and enlighten you on what inspired my PhD project.

Beauty is my bag, baby. I’ve worked in the beauty industry since 2008, and have been interested in makeup for even longer. For me, makeup has never been about deceit (more for you if you thought I naturally had purple eyelids), it’s been an expression of creativity; an art form where the canvas is the face. Whether or not women ‘should’ wear makeup has appeared in feminist debate since the women’s movement began. Do cosmetics liberate women or confine them to regulated ideals of beauty? Are women conscious consumers or dupes of an industry that seeks to exploit them? These are just two of the questions that I will use to frame my research.

Female beauty, be it natural or cosmetically enhanced, has always interested me. I enjoy reading about perceptions of beauty and ugliness. How are ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’ characters presented in texts by authors and other characters? What are they similarities and differences? And what do these representations have to tell us about gender and sexuality?

Dr Katherine Aske has considered this topic in her PhD thesis about eighteenth-century literature and culture and I wish to examine representations of female beauty and cosmetics use in the nineteenth century. What inspired the work was this simple news bulletin. Blimey. It instantly made me think about my beloved Victorian era (anyone who knows me says I should have been a Victorian, and I don’t always doubt them!). Cosmetics containing lead, mercury and arsenic were a concern for Victorian woman because although in the short term they provided a quick beauty fix, as time passed, the damage they caused could eventually be fatal. Arsenic was poisonous, lead was toxic and caused unsightly lesions in the surface of the skin and could eventually drive the user to insanity. So, although I initially thought ‘Hey, the old nineteenth century problem….’ then thought ‘Hold on! If this is a case of plus ça change, what if nineteenth century ideas about cosmetics are actually more similar to ours than we think?’ Just as Foucault suggests that they weren’t as prudish as we like to think, maybe they didn’t snub cosmetics as much as we thought either….. And lo! A PhD was born!

Using a feminist reading of primary texts that include novels, poetry, magazines and advertising, I will look at the ways in which these texts create and engage with debates from the time about beauty and cosmetics. This topic is really exciting because there has been so little scholarly material published about it despite the amount of primary source material that’s out there. Bingo! I am very lucky to be able to unite my two great passions in my thesis. So, in the form of blog posts, I will be exploring different aspects of my research and the challenges I encounter along the way. I hope it’s both informative and entertaining.

Well hello, this is me!

My name is Rachey, I’m 33, and I’m embarking on my PhD in English Literature, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. You could say I’m actually living the dream. Yes, it’s taken me a little while to finally arrive, but for me it’s about the journey not the destination. I wanted to wait until I was confident and mature enough for such a huge undertaking. PhDs are serious business, that much I know.

Literature saved me. Losing my father aged 7 made emotional life difficult for me, and being able to escape into a literary world helped me alleviate the pain for precious hours at a time. I am dedicating my life to it in return. If I can pass on the passion and help someone else to love and derive solace from the written word then my time will have been well spent.

As you’ve learnt from the biographical information, I love Victorian literature. Other writers and genres that I enjoy are Simone de Beauvoir (both her fictional and non-fictional writing); eighteenth-century Gothic literature; literary and cultural theory; Jane Austen; occult and esoteric literature and self-development books. A pretty diverse spread, but it keeps me on my toes. I will be posting reviews of anything that I have read and loved (or indeed loathed). My other passions include music (anything from classical, pop to heavy metal) and cosmetics. Again, reviews will be included here. The two areas where I could improve are film and TV. Recommendations are always welcome in that field.

If there’s anything on this blog that resonates with you – please feel free to respond! I am always looking to develop as a reader and a writer. Debate is always encouraged. You can contact me personally through the Contact tab if you don’t want to write a comment on any particular blog post. Either way, I look forward to hearing from you.