Common People : Experiences with a Different Class

 

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‘Music is the soundtrack to our lives’ is a trite, meaningless and overused statement found on sad dating profiles, which grates on me almost as much as when people say ‘that works on SO MANY LEVELS’.
However.
Some tunes have the power to become themes, for a little while, reoccurring at odd points; making themselves known to you. Songs can give resonance and meaning to unconnected life events and relationships. Hearing them, years later goes beyond mere reminiscence, and makes you draw experiences together.
Or it does if you are overly sentimental like me.  Common People, by Pulp;  occupies that position in my life.
I don’t remember where I first heard it, probably on Live and Kicking, or the chart show, or some other mid 90s relic. I would have seen the video first, probably when I was slightly too young fancy Jarvis Cocker (or realise that repeatedly watching these videos would permanently shape my preference for lanky effeminate men).
I bought Different Class with my Christmas money in 1997 for £15. Common People was never my favourite song on the album, but it was always my first choice for those nightly bedroom lone lip synching parties.
As an 11 year old in Castleford I probably didn’t ‘get’ that album fully, but it didn’t stop me listening to it every night, and then coming back to it throughout my teens. These were the New Labour years, where we were politicised briefly around the Iraq war and then demoralised entirely, where having a class analysis was old fashioned and played little obvious part in my life.
That was until I went to the University of Edinburgh in 2005 (after ironically, rejecting Durham after an open day because ‘everyone I met was too posh’) Having spent my late teens going to parties hosted by dropouts and Leeds College of Music students, I expected University to be a place of hedonistic excess taking place in a scene from the young ones, with a scuzzy Britpop soundtrack. When I arrived in Marchmont, in a flat with four beautiful well spoken young women I was initially, disappointed.
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University : much less like this than I expected.

Two of my housemates were blonde, beautiful and clearly, a Different Class.  I didn’t really expect to get on with them, I couldn’t imagine that we could possibly have anything in common as people.
But, if distance has the power to make the heart grow fonder, proximity can create unexpected bonds.
Despite – housemate A (lets call her Emma) being related to Swedish aristocracy (I remember a conversation about money, where Emma spoke of her worries about not getting a job after University. I said, ‘oh but you are Swedish, they have a good social security system in Sweden no?’ she replied disdainfully ‘I would never go on the dole!’)
And housemate B (Let’s call her Anya) being the daughter of a Russian oligarch
(my favourite memories of Anya include, her telling her family about how hard I work in a shop to support myself at university, which apparently had her mum ‘nearly in tears’)
Somehow, we became friends, intimate close friends.  The sort of friendship that women often form in their late teens and early twenties, where you share your most difficult and troubling experiences, talk about sex and feminism a lot, drink wine, eat chocolate and in our case, occasionally, listen to Common People by Pulp.
Emma and I would get drunk and sing along, not really thinking of how laden with meaning the line ‘Why am I living with common people like you’ was.  The lip synch parties in my Castleford bedroom had moved to Marchmont university halls, and acquired new participants.
Despite being very different,  or perhaps even because we were so different, we got on as women living in the same place, doing the same thing.  So much so, that we decided to continue to live together in our second year of University.
By this time, I had started to understand the class system a bit more. In my teens my perception of class was that there are poor people, rich people and everyone else; normal people: most everyone I knew fit the category of ‘normal’. There were some kids at school who were poor, but they were exceptions.
University was massively politicising as I came to understand more about the class system and how it operates, largely as a result of the different people I spent time with.  My days involved  studying English Literature with rich young women from the south of England, and my evenings working in youth centres in Pilton, Muirhouse and Granton. By travelling 45 minutes on a bus I was taking a tour through the class system, I became increasingly unsure of my own place within it, but nonetheless convinced of its existence and power.
By the end of the decade I no longer lived with Anya and Emma, they had gone abroad in their 3rd year and I had stayed behind, unable to afford a year in the States, despite a strong desire to test my theory that American boys would find my accent irresistible.
We stayed friends through their time in Edinburgh, I got a job as a youth worker after university and Anya got married to the son of another oligarch.  The three of us went out for dinner once; no sooner had I sat down when Anya announced to her fiancé ‘Liz is a Marxist’, leaving me stumped as to how I was supposed to justify or elaborate on that. In retrospect it’s likely that I was as much a curiosity to them as they were to me.
I attended the wedding in 2010, in the months after the Conservatives had come to power with the help of the Lib Dems. Emma was there, of course. Their bond was stronger as they had a shared culture of wealth and privilege, of which I was always the outsider.  Anya once took Emma out for a fancy dinner at Prestonfield in Edinburgh because ‘she likes that sort of thing’, the implicit assumption there being that I wasn’t into ‘that sort of thing’, and that going along with them to a fancy dinner would make me uncomfortable.  That may have been true, but nonetheless: I wouldn’t have turned down a swanky dinner.
The wedding deserves it’s own post, it’s still something that I can’t quite believe I was a witness to. ‘That time I went to an oligarch’s wedding’ is a story I reel out at parties during conversational lulls or at times when I want some attention.
As you might imagine, my sister and I were the most working class people there by some margin and I don’t deal too well in such situations. I am bad in any environment  where I am required to be something other than ‘myself’. Fitting in is not a skill I have, and I failed spectacularly at this event, even though truly, I tried. All my small talk fell flat as I accidentally said the things that I actually thought.  The rich are not uncouth enough to argue, or disagree when you say something they are uncomfortable with – they just move silently, gracefully away from you.
Luckily though, there was booze. The finest booze I will ever drink – booze so expensive, I made sure that I sampled enough to experience it twice.
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By the end of the last evening, after two days of saying the wrong things to the ‘right’ people I found myself drunk in a minibus with the various elites of Edinburgh university. Much to the horror of my younger, more reserved sister I thought it would be a good idea to try to start a round of ‘Common People’.
Emma didn’t join in this time, we weren’t in our first year flat any more, and the meaning that the song was laden with had become inescapable. The only person who joined in was a right wing pundit who also happens to like Britpop. He wasn’t embarrassed by singing along with this drunken interloper, it was after all his patch, not mine.
That’s the last time I saw Anya, Emma met me for a coffee for 10 minutes in London in 2011; otherwise we’ve not really been in touch.  Emma leads a fairly luxurious life involving a yacht broker, if Instagram is anything to go by, and Anya has had a family, and high profile business responsibilities, or at least that’s what google tells me.
All relationships are fleeting, and I write this in part to fix it in words so I don’t forget. I don’t know what Anya and Emma think about me, or our friendship – what they think about University and what themes they reflect upon.
I feel like this story, should have a better ending.  I have a strong desire to impose meaning on these reflections, and draw some sort of conclusion.
But I am not sure there are any firm conclusions here to be drawn. Our relationship happened as a result of being thrown together by chance and we shared in a common humanity because we were women in the same place, at the same time. In reality, I got a glimpse into their world far more than they ever saw into mine, I stayed in a high end hotel in St Petersburg – they will I am sure, never visit Castleford.
They are there, and I am here. I wouldn’t swap places, but I remain committed to dismantling the structures which violently keep us all apart.  They are distant from the realities of poverty, which is directly connected to their wealth. I am closer to that reality, though cushioned from it.
And I rent a flat
(in a basement, not above a shop – slugs, rather than roaches)
Have cut my hair
And got a job…..
(a nice, allbeit insecure one, in the charity sector.)
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David Bowie : Death of the Author

Content Note : Mentions rape/child exploitation.

Anyone who has an English Lit degree will be familiar with Barthes 1967 essay, the Death of the Author. It’s a foundational text arguing for the removal of the intentions and biographical detail of the author from any work of art.

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The death of Bowie – twitter outpourings of grief, my own reaction, and some uncomfortable truths about his life reminded me of this essay.  It reminded me of this struggle . When it comes to our pop heroes we do tend to connect biographical details, but generally only when they are convenient to the particular narrative we wish construct.

Because Bowie, well he committed child rape.  I have to admit, this wasn’t a fact I knew till today, but now I do.  The fact that he made brilliant music doesn’t change this uncomfortable truth.

It’s quite easy to point facts like this out when you have no emotional connection to the art of the perpetrator.

It becomes much more difficult when a persons art and music has played a role within your own life story. A brief glance through twitter today shows how much Bowie’s music, style and even his presentation of gender and sexuality have meant to people. There is a real personal level to the grief people seem to be feeling at the death of this particular author.

I get that.  Velvet Goldmine remains one of my favourite films, and this version of Life on Mars made me cry this morning. Skinny queer men who play with gender norms and have high cheekbones, well they tend to be my favourite kind of men.

But.

David Bowie committed rape.

This is a reminder that violence against women can still be committed by people we like, people we admire, people who make great art. As a society we really struggle with this, as individuals we struggle with this.  It is one of the hardest aspects of violence (particularly gender based violence) that we wrestle with.

Part of  Barthes Death of the Author is the argument that art is experienced subjectively. The value of a work lies in what we bring to it. There is a great value to what we bring to Bowie ourselves. I am enjoying hearing what people brought to Bowie today through twitter and radio 6. Particularly what his work has meant to outsiders. Hearing what Bowie meant for queer young people in particular is wonderful.

But in the 1970s he used his power, his position and social tolerance of violence against women to do something unacceptable.

I am perhaps contradicting Barthes by bringing this up – but this biographical detail is important for my own subjective appreciation of his art.   I think it’s important to remember that great men can do shit things, people we love can do things that we hate.  Life is complicated.

Confronting this is vital, and I think it’s possible to do this whilst still listening to Spiders from Mars. Or at least I hope so.

I am reminded of Heavenly Nobodies a great song by  90s indie shoe-gazers Lush.  The lyrics might be somewhat simplistic, but nonetheless apt.

Take no Heroes it’s no good
They don’t stand up to you
Just take the bits you think that you can use..

 

RIP Bowie, but more so – let’s bury a culture which permits child exploitation in the name of rock’n roll.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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16 for 2016 : Number 1 ‘Get in the Sea’

 

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I have kind of always wanted to do the loony dook (a hogmanay tradition, invented as joke/hangover cure in 1986 ).  Being compos mentis enough to get my body to the water on the 1st of January is usually not something I am able to do. Scots have two bank holidays at new year for a reason…

This year however, at eleven am my enthusiastic American accomplice Clare texted a reminder of my former commitment to getting into the sea : ‘Liz, if you just turn up you will be a rock-star’.

The idea that merely walking two miles to Portobello, and running into icy cold water would make me a rock-star, was more than enough to rouse me from my slumber.

I pulled on a base layer Jedi outfit (seemed like a good idea at the time) and walked to the water, somewhat worse for wear from the previous night’s celebrations.  There were an alarming number of people up and out jogging, a reminder that not everyone stays out still the early hours partying on new year’s eve..

On the beach at Portobello there were a good couple of hundred people ready to take a refreshing dip.

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Exactly the right blend of invigorating, and ridiculous the loony dook was a great way to start the year.

Perhaps it was the emotional state one finds oneself in when hungover, the promise of the a new year or just the sharp shock of the freezing temperature : but running into the sea made me feel completely alive and ready for whatever 2016 wants to throw at me.

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Sea you beside the seaside in seventeen?

Photos by Anna Moffatt photography.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why ‘The Glasgow Effect’ deserves £15,000

‘The Glasgow Effect’ is the latest bit of middle class posturing to provoke mass online hostility.  The title refers to a’ year long ‘action research’ project / durational performance, for which artist Ellie Harrison will not travel outside Greater Glasgow for a whole year (except in the event of the ill-heath / death of close relative or friend).. ‘

Now, I don’t think this sounds like a great project, or even a good project – or indeed much of a ‘project’, from what has been outlined so far. To me it sounds patronising, boring and self indulgent (but I am open to being proven wrong about this, as the work progresses).

Much of the critique surrounding ‘The Glasgow Effect’ has been not so much about it’s artistic merit, but the fact that it is a waste of £15,000.

There is a justifiable anger about the economics at play, given that many people work hard in menial jobs for far less money than the grant Harrison is reported to have received.

Finding out, on the last day before the end of the New Year bank holiday, that an artist is getting paid more than you are to ‘not leave Glasgow’, is more than enough to get the blood boiling, and the fingers angrily tapping away.

And rightly so as one commenter outlines in the Facebook event;

‘I haven’t left Glasgow in nearly 4 years living on benefits and raising a child at the same time can do that to you. There have even been times i couldn’t even afford the bus to travel to the next town.’

As you might expect, many have suggested that she does not deserve to be paid £15,000 for this project.

I disagree.

I think Ellie Harrison does deserve £15,000 to explore her artistic process, I think I do too. As do you – as does this guy who draws queer superheroes, and his mum, and your mum, and her mum.

For me the Glasgow Effect project (and indeed the real life poverty after which it is named) make a convincing argument for a universal basic income, an ‘unconditional, nonwithdrawable income paid to every individual as a right of citizenship’ (more information here).

If we could ensure that all of us had our needs met, then all artists everywhere (not just the ones who are good at writing funding bids) would be have the chance to ‘increase [their] sense of belonging’. If we had real options regarding work, and what we did with our leisure time then we would really find out, ‘what could become possible, if we invest our ideas, time and energy in the cities where we live’.

If we all had decent homes, and could  feed ourselves, and our children as a matter of course, then the artistic process would be open to all of us.

That, in my view, would really be worth funding.

 

 

 

 

 

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End of Year Round up 2: Culture

Living in Edinburgh (and indeed Scotland more generally) gives you a ridiculous amount of access to culture. In 2015 I was lucky enough to experience at least my fair share.

Here are some highlights!

Best MUSIC

I was listening to Radio 6 music one day, and I got excited. I heard a song I’d never heard before, and it was fantastic. I thought to myself, ‘Could it be? Do I finally like some new music again? Am I still, young, and…. relevant?’

Then I found out what it was and I thought, FFS

The song was Johnny Delusional, from match made in heaven Franz Ferdinand and Sparks. It turns out that, the best music is music from my early 20s, mixed with music that came out before I was born.

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The album really is fantastic though, camp, funny, catchy. Lots of killer, very little filler.

I don’t wish to be repetitive, but FFS were probably the best live act I saw this year too.

I saw them on a Monday, slightly under the weather after work, in the staid Edinburgh festival theatre, but they still blew me away.

Best ART

2015 was the year the turner prize came to Glasgow. I went to see it, it was alright? I liked it more than I thought I would – but hands down the best art I saw this year was at the Govanhill Baths as part of the Sonica Festival. There were two installations, both of which used the nature of the space perfectly.

The New Alps by Robbie Thomson, ‘a kinetic installation of mechanical sculptures that imagines a disorienting futuristic landscape populated by robotic inhabitants’ did exactly what it said on the tin, and more. It really did feel like walking around a dystopian future.

Order and After by Indonesian artist Jompet Kuswidananto was incredibly powerful. Red flags rising and falling, in a steam filled room; simple, poignant and completely immersive.

Best THEATRE

I don’t go to the theatre all that much – but do you know what? I should. It is basically as cheap as the cinema now, and the actors are right there in front of you.

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I saw Mrs Barbour’s Daughters and Tipping the Velvet in 2015; I left both productions humming a tune, with a smile on my face.

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Best BOXSET BINGE

2015 was the year I finally got around to watching Borgen, 2016 might be the year I decide to watch it again in order to impose it’s brilliance on others.

I love so much about Borgen, but possibly my favourite aspect of the show is that women characters are so strategic, intelligent and flawed. Rarely are women allowed the space in culture to be both brilliant and broken.

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Best COMEDY 

2015 was a good year for comedy on Channel 4.  The final series of Peep Show aired, and it wasn’t terrible! In-fact, I thought it was one of their better series; if only for the ‘Jeremy is actually bisexual’ storyline. Like many people, I gave Peep Show a complete re-watch in 2015, it’s an interesting way of tracking attitudes to sexuality in culture. When the first few seasons aired back in the early 00s, there were still a few  LOL GAY type jokes, over the course of the series they completely disappear and are replaced with a much more right on understanding of the way sexuality works, which is neat!

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The other surprisingly great show from channel 4 in 2015 was Catastrophe. I think Sharon Horgan is one of the best comedic writers of her generation, and Catastrophe goes some way toward proving it.  At turns affectionate, funny, slightly ridiculous but also very real Catastrophe is well worth a watch.

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney at Norman's Coach and Horses, Soho.

 

Best FILM

I didn’t get to the cinema nearly enough in 2015;  but Mark Kermode goes to the cinema all the time for a job, and this year, for the first time, I agree with him on what the best film was.

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I watched Inside Out hungover and cried all the way through. It’s not perfect, but for a mainstream family film it gets pretty close. The central message about the necessity of sadness was dealt with in ways which were at turns funny, profoundly moving and utterly relatable.

The gender politics are also mostly excellent.

Best BOOK

I don’t read nearly enough, but in 2015 two books that I read, and would recommend are:

Postcapitalism by Paul Mason.

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A fascinating look at how the internet era is making traditional capitalism increasingly difficult to sustain. Not always an easy read, but well worth persevering with.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Ann Tyler

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I was off work sick, and read this in a day, an enjoyable family epic which made me think ‘I ought to read more fiction’.

 

 

 

End of year round up 1: The Personal

Gosh, it’s been ages hasn’t it? I wrote a blog in February about how much I love a tv programme and nothing since.

Maybe that’s about to change?

In an attempt to write more, I have decided to just write more, and not worry too much about whether or not it’s interesting, and just enjoy the writing process.

So begins a round up of 2015: Gonna go with a personal one, a political one and a cultural one.  Starting with the naval gazing.

This time last year I wrote a list of things that I wanted to do in 2015. I don’t like new years resolutions, but I do like making plans and ticking fun things off lists.

This is the list…

Visit my pal John in Berlin : Yup! Did that one. Had a great time catching up and being impressed by John’s German skills.

Do a 5k : Did this in January. There are no photos but I did get a smart vest which makes me feel super sporty.

Do a 10k: Did this in May with my amazing pal Steff. Without them I would have definitely felt like giving up. Steff is the most motivational person I have ever ran with!

Cycling

Do a 15mile + Cycle : Did this first in July with my friend Adam who was a surprisingly patient cycling buddy. We cycled to Tyninghame via a castle and a few pubs. It was tiring, but! gave me the confidence to do loads of cycling up north later on in the year… so thanks Adam!

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Have an overnight outdoorsy adventure with friends :  Yes, in July – see above! I used a £10 tent and it poured it down….

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Have a dry month: I did not do this… On a couple of occasions I did about 3 weeks… which is more than a month total right?

Have a social media free month: Who am I kidding? this is actually impossible.

Birthday meat festival!: When I became pescetarian I decided that I would let myself eat meat on my birthday… it was less satisfying than I expected.

Go out dancing : Despite the SNP’s best efforts to stop Scotland dancing, I actually went out dancing loads in 2015. Highlights included Backstreet’s Back at Indietracks, and the Lightning seeds at Little League, and Wannabe at TYCI.

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Do at least 12 mindfulness sessions… I think I did about  6? I quite like mindfulness though so, I might roll this one over.

Visit London/Glasgow/North of England Friends : I did all of these things! suffice to say, they will roll over into the next year.

Learn how to look after bike, and attach mudguard: Sort of? I did a bike maintenance course and clean my bike more often, I have not got around to attaching a mudguard…

Make dinner for people :  Check!

Swim outdoors :  Failed at this, but given that my plans for 2016 include the Loony Dook, it should be rectified soon.

Have a beach party near my house: I haven’t done this either! Rolls over.

Visit home 3+ times : I think I visited Castleford 4 or 5 times in 2015.

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Grow something: Didn’t do this, on reflection – why do I want to do this? Is it because I am buying in to some nonsense notion of wholesome domesticity that in reality, I am not really interested in?

Bake a good loaf of bread: See above.

Finish watching Twin Peaks : I went to a Twin Peaks Halloween night, but I still haven’t finished the second season. It gets so boring in the middle though…

Do NANOWRIMO : Who am I kidding, I am clearly never going to do this.

Do stand up with new stuff: Failed at this, I am still not sure if this is something I actually want to do any more.

Write 3+ blog posts: I didn’t do that on here, but I have written a few for the ZT blog, so yes!

Get on friendly chat terms with my new upstairs neighbour: I achieved this, infact I went to her 30th do and we are now pals. She has moved though, so this task also rolls over.

Get fitted for proper running shoes: Nope! but I am giving up buying stuff from sports direct so maybe this year.

Watch all of Mark Kermode’s top 10 of 2014: Mostly yes! There were a couple of films I was unable to source.

Things I have learned from these experiences.

  • Writing a novel in a month, baking bread, giving up booze and social media are all impossible tasks
  • Don’t buy a tent from Groupon and expect to stay dry.
  • All that time you spent dancing around your bedroom to the Backstreet Boys paid off eventually (thankyou! Nostalgia DJs🙂
  • The longer you don’t eat meat, the more sensible it seems.
  • Running 10k is possible, and with the right pal, really awesome.
And above all…
  • Making lists of fun stuff to do, then doing it, is a good idea, you should do it again.

 

 

 

 

Goodbye Parks and Recreation..

After seven series, the hour long finale of Parks and Recreation will air tonight in the states. This is I’m sure, not going to be the only blog post written about it, but I can’t help myself. It’s just such a great show, even when it’s not.

I have tried, and largely failed, to convince everyone I know that they should watch it. That they should persevere through, (and perhaps even skip) the awkward first season because series three and four of Parks and Recreation is some of the best TV comedy ever made. Even if other shows are funnier, more incisive, or well observed – Parks is my favourite and struck a chord with me in a way pop culture rarely does now that I am an adult.

Now that it is coming to an end, it seems fitting to enthuse about it one last time.

So here is why Parks and Recreation is so great, and why you should watch it. Right Now – and then we can all go get pancakes and talk about how it makes us feel.

Parks and Recreation is great because of Leslie Knope. Her character is at once aspirational and realistic. I imagine a large proportion of women who watch Parks and Recreation relate to Leslie’s character, I certainly do. In a world where it feels like every bit of pop culture is entirely focused on men, and where female characters are ropey at best, it’s rare to see someone on screen and think, yup, that’s me. I do those things! I am annoying but thoughtful, and opinionated and ambitious and I interfere in my friends lives, I was an overachieving kid, I even sort of invented the Galentines day breakfast back in 2007 (though it didn’t involve any cushions with pictures of Stalin on, sadly). Leslie is both brilliant and flawed, and her path to success is strewn with failures. For Leslie types everywhere watching parks is a glorious relief; it’s someone saying to you – it’s ok, you’re ok, it’s going to be ok.

The ensemble cast is fantastic and each character rises above the realm of shallow caricature. Chris Pratt is brilliant as Andy Dwyer;his performance as the loveable buffoon is note perfect. Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson again, spot on and a welcome note of dry humour. Despite being ostensibly the ‘straight’ characters Ben and Anne are both well rounded, full people. Emo intern April Ludgate at first seems as though she might be a one trick, tiny horse – but over the course of the show she does develop and grow. The fact that the characters (including others I haven’t mentioned) are so well drawn means that you genuinely care about what happens to them.

Honestly, sometimes I forget that Pawnee isn’t a real place, and it makes me a little bit sad.

Parks and Rec is great because it’s so feminist. There are a number of blog posts about how wonderfully feminist Parks is, rather than repeat them, I will just direct you there. Without wishing to give anything away, one of the best aspects of Parks and Recreation season seven is that if anything, the feminism becomes more explicitly front and centre.

Parks and Recreation is great because it’s positive, and its feel good attitude is infectious. The world we live in can be a rubbish place. Inequality is escalating, climate change is happening, poverty and instability are real and impact upon our daily lives, and the lives of those we care about.The world of Parks and Recreation is both a better version of, and an escape from that reality. It offers a vision of small town America which is at times, brutally honest, but nonetheless optimistic. It’s a world where people are basically good, and those who work hard and are persistent get things done. Pawnee is a place where people band together to make change happen. As a campaigner, watching parks and recreation is a break from unrelenting horror of austerity, and a reminder that if we get together and work hard, we too can change the world.

10435929_10100872995402621_8293984724065196885_nSo goodbye parks and recreation, it’s been great. Even though season one was weak, and the show probably peaked four series in, you have nonethless managed to make me cry on multiple occasions.Thank-you for giving this sentimental opinionated do-gooder a super awesome place to hide from the world, and the motivation to dive back in.