Notes on the week: the past that shapes us

A severed hand longing for its body and a female staffer working in a space that doesn’t favour women. And, teenage me, exposed to stories that brushed over the topic of mental health. This week is about the pasts that shape us.

The week in abstract form. Notes on the week is a regular blog by journalist Eleanor Langford that curates the best stories, culture, thoughts and interesting bits she’s picked up in the last seven days.

My thoughts this week have been rather all-over-the-place. But there has been a thread that has tied everything together. I’ve been wondering how our experiences shape us. It’s a philosophical topic, to say the least. Maybe you’re a severed hand longing for your body, or a female staffer working in a space that doesn’t favour women. You could just be teenage me, exposed to stories that brushed over the topic of mental health. That the past shapes us seems obvious, but sometimes the effects are more subtle than you think.

J’ai perdu mon corps

“Hear me out – it’s about a severed hand trying to find its body.” That’s been my opening line every time I’ve tried to explain the plot of the acclaimed French animation J’ai perdu mon corps (Translation: I lost my body). It’s brilliant – so brilliant, in fact, that it won The Nespresso Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

It opens with Naoufel lying on a Parisian workshop floor, a fly buzzing around pools the blood from his recently severed hand. That fly ties together a mysterious story about identity, destiny, loss and hope. In the next scene, the hand comes to life. Creepy as it sounds, it’s amazing how the filmmakers manage to create a sense of sympathy for a lonely, scuttling little body part.

The scripting is practically poetic, and the characterful animation remains realistic without losing its cinematic quality. But what truly makes the film is its sound, from the visceral screams of subway rats to the transcendent synth soundtrack.

“It’s amazing how the filmmakers manage to create a sense of sympathy for a lonely, scuttling body part.”

I saw this film as part of London’s BFI Film Festival. At my showing, the audience broke into spontaneous applause as the credits rolled and the team behind the magic came out. Want to see it too? You’re in luck. The work is coming to Netflix soon with an English dub that includes Dev Patel, but I’d recommend watching it in the original French (with subtitles, of course, my languages are not that good).

My personal takeaway from this film was a reflection on how our past inescapably shapes who we are. And, that the randomness of our future should be embraced. It also reminded me how much I like French films, incidentally.  (IMAGE: IMDB)

Westminster’s built-in women problem

Amidst the furore of Brexit many have forgotten that the #MeToo movement ever touched the halls of parliament, but the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) haven’t. Billboards and job adverts depicting the job of an MP as the perfect role for harassers have been popping up everywhere this week.

But it goes deeper than that. Labour MP Paula Sherriff received five death threats within a week of confronting Boris Johnson in the Commons for his inflammatory language. Her message? That the Prime Minister’s talk of surrender and betrayal threatened the safety of female MPs.

In the same week, the prime minister was accused of inappropriate affairs and squeezing a journalist’s thigh. He’s also been noted for some rather misogynistic language in the past (see: “girly swot” and “big girl’s blouse”). If such language is acceptable on the Commons floor, it’s no wonder one in five Westminster workers have experienced harassment.

“If Boris, or any of his colleagues, have a problem with women then the space they serve in does nothing to dampen this.”

All this leads to the same question: does parliament have a women problem? I’d agree with the WEP. While it may not promote such activities, those who do abuse are much safer in Westminster than they should be.

You must wonder, though, where this all started. Yes, Boris and his colleagues may have a woman problem, but so does the House he stands in. In 1943, MPs debated whether to rebuild the bombed Commons chamber in its original adversarial style or opt for a more cooperative circular design. With Churchill’s approval, it was reconstructed as it was. He famously added: “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”.

At that time, there were only 14 female MPs in Parliament. The style that Churchill favoured by design promoted traditionally masculine qualities of confrontation and aggression. The mirrored rows became symbolic of division– illustrated recently when Tory MP Phillip Lee crossed the floor as he defected to the Liberal Democrats. The limited number of seats (not enough for every elected member) intensifies the space. And, the lack of modern amplification favours raised, carrying, and perhaps aggressive voices.

So, if Boris, or any of his colleagues, have a problem with women or rhetoric then the space they serve in does nothing to dampen this. The House of Commons was built macho hostility in mind, it should be of no surprise that it hosts it now. (IMAGE: WEP/Twitter)

It’s not okay to feel blue and other lies

When I was younger, my mother bought me a book called Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, a young adult spin-off of the popular self-help series. I’m vegetarian, by the way, but that’s not why I didn’t carry this book into later life. The treacly, pseudo-inspirational stories from ordinary folk were lovely, but they didn’t pack the punch for me that was intended.

“What I needed back then was to be told that, sometimes, it is okay to feel blue.”

Now, I wish I’d had a book like It’s not okay to feel blue and other lies, Scarlett Curtis’ mental health follow-up to her phenomenal Feminists don’t wear pink and other lies. Like its predecessor, the book takes stories from celebrities, activists and notable people. The topic? Mental health and what it means to them.

Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul meant well, but the stories I remember didn’t mention anything about medication side effects, mental breakdowns, therapy, panic attacks, insecurities or similar. The ordinary people in the book faced difficulty but got through it using sheer determination, religion, or seemingly just by waiting out the storm. That wasn’t the message I needed as an anxious, overly-emotional teenager.

Really, what I needed back then (and still sometimes need today) was to be told that, sometimes, it is okay to feel blue.

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