Thursday, 21 February 2013

Thoughts on Trains, or, Why we Hate Trains...


On Monday 18th February, the Metro headline ‘Red Signal from Train Passengers’ (article by John Higginson) was hardly a surprising one. Let’s face it, trains are pretty rubbish. I know it’s wonderful that they’re available, they travel so quickly, the seats are usually comfortable and it’s possible to get a good deal. But just under two years ago I became ‘A COMMUTER’, and my view on trains changed for the worse.

Metro, 18.02.2013, article by John Higginson

I travel between Darlington (where my flat is) and York (where I go to university) between two and five days a week. It’s a 24 minute journey. I travel at a mixture of peak and off-peak times. And I have a 16-25 railcard. I book my trains the night before I travel, and I’m a standard class train passenger.

One issue is, of course, price. Some train tickets have faced price increases of around 4.2%, despite the fact that we travellers have seen very little visible change in the service we receive. Journeys of comparable distance vary radically in price. My daily journey can cost (for a return) anything between £3 and £20!! By booking online and being flexible with when I travel, I manage on about a £5-£6 return price, but if I forgot to book it would be a very different story. The fact that this one journey, with the same train company, can change so dramatically in price is, quite frankly, a farce.

I don’t want to sound like a goody-two-shoes, but I always buy a train ticket. There are so many people who don’t. It makes me so angry that most of us pay ridiculous prices, because the cost of being caught without a ticket is higher, yet I see and hear people on a regular basis making hour-long or more journeys without a ticket. I wonder why our prices are increasing…? Therefore, I feel slightly smug when my ticket is checked. The trouble is, it often isn’t checked. For the last few months, the ticket barriers at Darlington have not been used, and there are none at York. In one week, I travelled to York and back 4 times, and didn’t have a ticket checked once. There are plenty of better things I could have spent that money on…

Trains are also hugely over-crowded at rush hours. I know it’s not as simple as just adding a carriage, but something needs to be done. My friend came to stay with me a few months ago, whilst she was eight months pregnant. Travelling into York, we were forced to stand, until she nearly fainted and managed to persuade someone to give up a seat. On such a well-travelled route, that includes Manchester, Leeds, York and Newcastle, you’d think someone would be bothering trying to find a solution to slightly increase passenger comfort.

I have one final point: if you’re going to put quiet coaches on the train, let’s make sure they stay quiet! These rules are rarely enforced. I’ve sat in quiet coaches with screaming babies, loud phone calls, and a group of teenagers playing their music without even the pretence of headphones. The train conductor walks through and completely turns a blind eye. If I were a businessperson, travelling home after a stressful day and had specifically requested a quiet coach because I couldn’t afford first class, I’d be fuming.

So here’s a crazy thought: if I’m going to be paying more and more for my train tickets, I want to see evidence of where that money has gone. Is that really so much to ask?

Why I've Done an English Literature Degree


At university, I am student manager for the English department, which involves organisation of the visit days for prospective students who have received offers to come here. Again and again, even more so now as I’m coming towards the end of my degree, parents ask me what I feel I have gained from studying English Literature at university. So here goes, I’m going to try and write a blog post about it!

Me at the beginning of second year, ready to work at an open day

Organisation – Many may say my obsessive organisational skills didn’t really need working on, but studying English can test even the most diligent to-do-list-writers. As the contact hours are few, the spare time can seem daunting, even though, realistically, we need all of that time to actually do the work in. Without a timetable telling you that you must be present in a certain room from 9am until 5pm, it can be hard at first knowing how to schedule your time.

Speed-reading – We read. A LOT. I have always been a fast reader, thank goodness, but the degree really tests your ability to read to a deadline. Being able to read a large quantity of material in a relatively short time period, and then pulling from that the relevant points, is a skill that can be transferred to many workplaces.

Communication – A two hour seminar is a long time to have the type of intense discussion expected from a group of English students. So you need to be prepared. You will come across people from different backgrounds, with different views, and different opinions on everything you discuss, and amongst that you need to be able to get your own opinions heard.

Wider knowledge – I like to think that reading so widely, across such diverse time periods and on such different topics, has broadened my general knowledge. I have learnt to empathise with views I never understood, and developed awareness of countries and cultures I was fairly ignorant of. Modules have explored geographical spaces, marketing devices, political theory, philosophy and history, amongst many other things. My eyes have been opened to books I would never have picked up from a library shelf, and (sometimes) I have loved them.

Critical thinking – The ability to think about topics and issues before developing a careful response is a valuable life skill on so many levels. This is, surely, one of the main skills developed in an English degree.

Essay-writing – It’s hard. At university, you have to un-learn every essay technique you learnt at school, and start from scratch. Hopefully, by the end of our degree, we have managed to develop our own voices.

Some Anglo-Saxon books... because I'm doing an English degree...


A few misconceptions about English students:

We stay in bed all day – some do, but they certainly don’t get the work done
We have hours of spare time – if you saw our reading lists, you’d realise why we need those hours
We’ve all read everything – I’ve been in seminars where I have never felt so intimidated. There are people on our course who are so intelligent it scares me. And before this degree, I had definitely not read Ulysses, Lord of the Rings, Vanity Fair, or Oliver Twist (I assumed the musical would be enough)
We all want to be novelists and teachers– Plenty do, but there are wannabe lawyers, marketing professionals, directors, journalists… As we’ve been told many times, an English degree isn’t a vocational one, but there are a lot of doors that it leaves wide open



So, there you go. I think I’ve convinced myself that it’s been three years well spent! I know an arts degree wouldn’t be everyone’s choice – I’ve had many a debate with an ex-flatmate who studied computer science. But it has definitely been right for me. The weeks are now ticking by, and my dissertation is due in a matter of months. I know the date and time of my graduation ceremony. But I will hopefully be entering the big wide world ready to use the knowledge and skills gained from my degree.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

How to Behave at the Theatre


Jen Symes (left) as Nickie, Vicky Geary (centre) as Charity and me (right) as Helene in Sweet Charity
Some of the cast of BYT's Footloose in 2009

I love going to the theatre. Big budget musicals, tiny touring productions and amateur shows are, for me, a treat to watch. Even if I don’t enjoy the show, I still always take something away from it, and quickly book my next theatre trip. Since I was 13, I’ve performed in youth musicals. I did a summer course with Youth Music Theatre, where we wrote a musical and performed it at the end of the week. I’ve been to Stagecoach. I’ve done terms and summer schools with Upstage. Playing Mary Poppins at an Upstage summer school was my first time singing on stage, and definitely one of the best experiences! I then did a few shows at Brookdale Youth Theatre, in Bramhall, where I got to understudy and play Cosette in Les Miserables, play Mrs Molloy in Hello Dolly, Ariel in Footloose and Helene in Sweet Charity. This doesn’t even include school productions, showcases, and choir concerts and tours. The point I’m trying to make is that I know what goes into putting together a performance, and the time and effort put in by the performers and the huge team backstage, even for a small amateur production. Translating those experiences and my love of watching theatre, I now write my own arts and events reviews – have a look at them here: http://artofanevent.blogspot.co.uk/

I met my boyfriend as we played Cosette and Marius in 2008... he's not run away yet!

Jess, me and Tess as members of the crew in a Return to the Forbidden Planet Upstage summer school

A trip to the theatre last week reminded me of one of the problems with this setting: the other people in the audience. I’m a bit of a people-watcher, and the way some people act at the theatre I find baffling. Theatre has changed in that it is now more accessible, and not reserved for the expensively-dressed elite, which is fantastic, as it means theatre can be shared. But it has meant that some people have begun to treat the theatre like the local cinema, or their own front rooms.



Here are my top gripes with theatre audiences:


  1. Noisy sweet eating – shhhhh, the rustling of sweet papers can be one of the most annoying noises in the world, especially during a quiet scene. Wait for a loud bang, shout, musical number or scene change.
  2. Talking during scenes – this should not need to be pointed out! However, at a recent show, the couple behind me discussed every scene. Every scene. Whilst it was unfolding on stage. Thanks, you’ve just ruined my experience of that show.
  3. Going in and out for toilet breaks – realistically, the average act is a maximum of an hour and a half. If you really need such regular loo breaks, do us all a favour and get an aisle seat. Also, you’re missing the action: are you mad?
  4. Arriving late – it’s not as if the start time isn’t on your ticket. Set off in enough time. Otherwise, the stewards have to show you to your seat with those annoying little torches, and you might have to make other people stand whilst you hustle and bustle into your seats.
  5. Leaving early – I watched The Phantom of the Opera in Manchester last year, and 5 couples sitting in front of me left the theatre DURING the final song. Many more left during the bows. Show some respect for the performers, and the other audience members who are trying to enjoy the final scenes. We’ve all paid good money for these seats, and can’t all afford to throw it away and miss the climax of the show. And when a show has been as fantastic as that production was, let’s give the actors the applause they deserve! If you’re that desperate to run to your car and avoid the traffic, just stay at home.


Most of my points amount to one thing: show some respect for theatre. You’re not watching something pre-recorded, the actors are performing right in front of you. And they, more often than not, are doing it well. So sit back, relax, enjoy the performance, and soak up the atmosphere. And, most of all, let’s give them the applause they have earned. Don’t sneak out before the bows, and choose your snack choices carefully!

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Just an Orange Juice, Please


I’m 20 years old and I don’t drink alcohol. Not a drop. Ever. And I never have. I find it so interesting to see how people react to that. Usually, they laugh as if I’m joking, or look at me as though I’m an alien. Being a non-drinker just doesn’t seem to be socially acceptable, especially when you’re a student. I feel like admitting I don’t drink causes people to instantly jump to conclusions, like I never go out, I’m unsociable and I can’t have fun. At times, I’ve found myself avoiding a drink altogether in certain bars or clubs, so as to avoid the awkward questions. In the last three years, since leaving home and going to university, I’ve had to think a lot more about the fact I don’t drink. Whatever people say, there is a drinking culture based around universities today. I saw a friend at Christmas who admitted he had never tried out for university sports teams because he didn’t like the thought of being forced to drink so much at socials. Those who do go out and do drink will insist the nights out are about having fun, and of course people will enjoy themselves even if they don’t want to drink. But they haven’t been the non-drinker.


Guess which is mine?

What surprises me is certain people’s utter disbelief at my admission I’d rather drink orange juice than vodka. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked ‘how do you have fun?’ Well, I do exactly what everyone else does, there’s just a different liquid in my glass! At my leavers’ ball, at the end of sixth form, I remember being on the dance floor when a friend said ‘are you sure you haven’t had a drink?!’ Because I was dancing and having fun, I clearly couldn’t possibly have only been drinking soft drinks. The truth was, I was enjoying being with my friends, and excited about the fact I was flying to Tenerife first thing the next morning. Crazy, I know, that my having fun wasn’t alcohol-induced!


A picture from leavers' ball.

I’ve got to say, there are a few benefits of being the non-drinker. I remember nights out, for a start. And, secondly, I’ve saved a lot of money! This week I’ve spoken to 40 students about drinking, from different universities across the country. The amount they spend on alcohol on a single night out ranged from £10 to £40, and some go on these nights out twice or more a week. If I spent £20, on two nights out a week, for 3 ten-week terms, I’d be spending £1200. Of course this isn’t the most scientific study, but the point remains the same: this is how I manage to eat at nice restaurants and treat myself to new things every now and then!
However, there are problems too. As well as being treated like a bit of an alien species, there has often been an assumption that I’ll be the one to clear up the mess left after drinking. When people are sick, I’m the one that is expected to look after them, or take them home. I love my friends and would always help them if they needed me. But when in my first year of university I had spent a certain number of nights in a row holding people’s hair back as they were sick, or trying to lead them back to their flat whilst they couldn’t see straight, I was done. Just because I don’t drink, it doesn’t make me everybody’s carer. I want to enjoy my night, too. I’m not going to take responsibility for the actions of e very person I’ve exchanged words with in one lecture.


A night out in freshers' week, no alcohol for me!


I don’t want to preach to people. I have no problem with everybody around me drinking. Whether it’s at a club or at a group meal, I’m used to everyone else drinking and I have no issues with that. But I don’t want anyone to have issues with my decision not to drink. Who else does it affect but me? My original decision not to drink was possibly only going to be short-term, and was inspired by the affects alcohol had had on an uncle of mine. But now those early ideas of alcohol aren’t even important to me. In my years of not drinking whilst everyone around me is, I haven’t been tempted at all to join in. I don’t feel like there’s something missing, and I’ve had an amazing time during my uni years, which are now all-too-rapidly coming towards their close. I just don’t need it. So why should I change my views because it might be slightly easier than explaining why I don’t drink? I’m not interested in what other people think any more. I have made a decision not to drink, I don’t feel like I’m missing something, and the people that I want to spend my time with are fine with that. So next time I’m dancing with orange juice in my glass, guess what? I’m just enjoying myself. And I don’t want any alcohol, thanks. 


Some of my bestest buddies from home... spot the orange juice ;)

Saturday, 2 February 2013

What Sophie Said

I'm Sophie, I'm 20, and I'm in my final year of an English Literature degree. For the last year, I've been writing a blog of arts and events reviews, and discovered a bit of a love for using writing to get my opinions out. So. Time for a new blog. This will be my space for discussing current events, trending twitter topics, and the annoying people on the bus you love to hate. My family might say I get a bit too wound up about certain things. I like to think I'm 'passionate about what I believe in'. I don't pretend to be an expert on all I write about, but I definitely have ideas to share. Because I'm just an ordinary girl in her twenties. I love time with friends, I'm reluctant to write essays. I'll judge what people wear when they walk past in the street (don't pretend you don't too), and I have to force myself to go to the gym. I read heavy university books of literary theory, and I love a glossy magazine. What's most important to me is being clued up, knowing what's happening, and thinking about how I'm going to respond to that. Whether the issue is newsworthy or trivial. So here goes, new year (a month late, in February), new blog. Time to get started!
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