The American Way Of Shame

Saturday 7th March 2015.

An article in the Guardian profiles Ed Miliband on the campaign trail. With his second-class train travel and his unexpected love of snooker, he finally comes across a real person, even likeable, rather than as a collection of learned PR tactics. Though that too is a PR tactic. It’s like Hollywood giving Debbie Reynolds the image of the girl next door. As the old joke goes, the secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Meanwhile the Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, has reached a higher plateau of public visibility. A professional look-a-likes company has added a Natalie B impersonator to its books. Success of a kind.

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Monday 9th March 2015.

In the evening: to Birkbeck’s Keynes Library for an event about postgraduate courses.

The difference between BAs and MAs is reflected in the racks of leaflets available in the Gordon Square lobby. The BA leaflets are A4 and bright pink, suggesting the courses are cute, childlike, even huggy. The leaflets for the MA courses, meanwhile, are A5 and battleship grey. It implies they’re all about increased concentration, seriousness, no waste, no mucking about.

What throws me for six is that tonight I find out that applications for MA bursaries, as in grants to fund a Master’s this autumn, have to be in by the end of April. Which means applying for the course itself earlier than that.

So much of my week is spent worrying about MAs, which I was hoping I wouldn’t have to do until the summer. The funding alone seems to be a complete minefield: it’s not helped by ‘part-fee waiver’ bursaries, which don’t actually tell you the sum you are applying for. As with so much of modern life now, getting paid at all is meant to be a delightful surprise.

Many bursaries seem to be outrageously narrow in their requirements: ‘Applicable only for students from Tanzania, with a first class degree, who are looking to do an MA in Postal Museum Management. In Hull. Must love dogs.’

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Tuesday 10th March 2015.

Still worrying about what to do with myself after the degree. I ask some friends. Some say it’s better to go straight into an MA, others recommend taking a year off. Some think I should get a job alongside it, to cover the inevitable shortfall in funding. Though no one has said what job.

Still, they pretty much all agree that academia is something I should pursue in the long run. It is, after all, the one thing in my recent life where I’ve actually been a success (if an unpaid one).

The question now is: which MA course, which institution, and when? This autumn, or defer to the year after that? And should I stay in London or look further afield?

My answer today is, pathetically, I don’t know. My mind is too full of the dissertation and the remaining BA essays to think about anything else. I’ve spent a few cursory hours looking courses up, but nothing yet takes my interest.

However, I have at least applied to do a Birkbeck MA that does leap out at me: Contemporary Literature and Culture. Whatever happens, it’ll be good to have that set up as an option for this autumn. I don’t have to formally commit until then.

* * *

Tonight I start to fill out the huge online MA application form. It’s one of those with Mandatory Asterisks of Doom, where the page won’t let you proceed until you enter something in a box. This one wants me to upload my GCSE certificates, as they are still my most recent formal qualifications. The BA’s not done yet, and I never took A-levels.

I never feel that a set of dusty acronyms acquired decades ago have any bearing on a much-changed person today. I’m not even the same person I was at the beginning of this sentence, frankly.  And that’s not flimsiness, that’s evolution. No, really.

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Wednesday 11th March 2015.

Reading Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.  A fascinating and copiously-researched work, which asks if social media has brought about an atavistic return to public executions, if figurative ones. Certainly, there’s been an almost daily occurrence of stories in the UK news, where someone has had to apologise for something they said on the internet. But many of the people in this book aren’t politicians or public figures, merely members of the public who were crucified online after posting ill-advised tweets.

I think it’s significant that the majority of Mr R’s subjects are American. Americans do shame so much bigger and better than the British. The way the people in the book react when speaking to Mr R is often acutely emotional and over-the-top: a touch of the Hollywoods. One talks about his shame being ‘radioactive’ – that it might be catching. He is called ‘tainted’ by other Americans.

The British, meanwhile, are far more circumspect with their shame. They secretly think it’s shameful to be British at all.

I wonder if the book’s long list of acknowledgments is Jon R’s safeguard against not falling into the trap of two of his subjects: journalists caught fabricating the truth in their work. I’m reminded of the case of Johann Hari, the crusading Independent journalist who was found to have made up quotes, and was soon shamed out of his job, albeit in a quieter, British way.

But Jon Ronson’s style is very different to Hari’s: he questions his own reactions at every stage, and keeps the tone (mostly) compassionate, rather than judgemental. If anything is being shamed in his book, it’s not people, but the internet.


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Thursday 12th March 2015.

Tea at the Wolseley with Lawrence Gullo and Fyodor Pavlov, visiting from NYC. Also present: the cabaret artiste Vicky Butterfly and my rock musician neighbour, David R-P. Fyodor is Russian, and gives David and myself a huge bag of Russian sweets. Some are chocolates, some are wafers, some are mini versions of Penguin biscuits, and some are boiled sweets.

The sweet wrappers have Cyrillic script alongside different baffling images: swans, masquerade masks, scary doll-like children in headscarves, and lobsters.

Haven’t been to the ornate Wolseley in years. Delighted to see that their straightforward Cream Tea is still affordable, at £10.75 for a plate of scones, jam and cream, and a pot of tea, with refills. Cheap classiness – very me.

The discussion turns to aging. Learned today: Crispin Gray, the guitarist of the early 90s band Daisy Chainsaw, and currently in The Dogbones, is a descendant of the Victorian poet John Gray. As in the rumoured inspiration for Wilde’s Dorian. Fittingly, Crispin doesn’t seem to have aged since 1991.

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Friday 13th March 2015.

I fear I am developing a brioche habit.

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