Filling the summer holidays – Chalke Valley History Festival

I was forewarned that university holidays were long, but I’m only just beginning to realise quite how long they are.

I’ve been home for two weeks now and already Netflix has lost its appeal. I’ve promised myself that I will get through the ever growing pile of books by my bed but my current read, ‘Iceland’s Bell’ by Halldor Laxness, just doesn’t appeal when the sun is blazing away outside.

The task, then, is to find ‘constructive things to do’ as my mother would say. This week I have managed to assuage the guilt of not finding a proper job this summer by volunteering at the Chalke Valley History Festival.

CVHF is an annual festival which takes place, surprise surprise, in the Chalke Valley area of Wiltshire. It’s the largest festival in the UK dedicated to just history and is therefore a nerd like myself’s dream day out.

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Despite having lived nearby for a long time this was my first visit to the event, and I’ll cut to the chase by saying I loved every minute of it. As a volunteer I had free entry to the site and was able to wander around early in the mornings watching the re-enactment camps slowly come to life. The Tudor royals lounged in the sun whilst hassled looking faux servants scuttled around preparing for the lunch time feast, and roman soldiers chatted to Dark Age peasants whilst a Georgian woman walked around in her nightgown.

I was also lucky to see around half a dozen amazing talks by acclaimed historians, ranging in topics from the untold stories of the non-white, non-european participants of the first world war, to debates about the importance of Magna Carta… maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Events like these are a great way of adding something to your CV, especially as we now live in a world where every job wants prior experience. There were volunteers who had just finished their GCSE’s and there were volunteers who had just become grandparents – basically, anyone with a love of history was welcome.

My only gripe with the festival was just how stereotypically Wiltshire it was (by which I mean how very Salisbury). Most of it took place during week days, which of course isn’t the organisers fault, but with events starting at half five in the evening in a location in the middle of nowhere, only a certain demographic is able to attend.

What I’m trying to get at is, that it was very white middle to upper class. A sea of multi-coloured corduroy trousers filled the valley and someone was heard using the term, ‘spiffing’.

Now the local demographic isn’t something the organisers can do much about, but what does need to be changed is the lack of diversity amongst the speakers. I saw only one talk by a historian who wasn’t white, and a panel discussing the importance of Magna Carta in the development of liberty and human rights was entirely composed of white men.

Obviously this isn’t meant to be construed as an attack on white men, although undoubtedly some will interpret it that way, but we do need to actively be making space for and promoting voices beyond the traditional white Anglo-Saxon narratives that we usually hear in history.

On a lighter note, here’s some Romans with the Tardis.

No idea why there was a Tardis there...

No idea why there was a Tardis there…

What Sir Tim Hunt should do next…

Universities, especially campus universities, are their own little worlds. They are pockets of eccentricity in which it is perfectly acceptable to dedicate years of your life to the symbolic importance of birds in Macbeth (an extreme example, but a true one nonetheless).

It is therefore easy to forget that this is not how the rest of the world functions, indeed the uniqueness of each institution means that this is probably not even how other universities function.

It came as a surprise to me then when I first learned of the great inequalities in academia. In my department at UEA, LDC (Literature, Drama, and Creative Writing), there seems to me to be a fairly even gender divide. I have been taught by roughly an equal amount of men and women. However, this is by no means the norm. In the UK just 1 in 5 professors is female, with many top institutes having figures as low as 1 in 10. Perhaps it is the modernism of UEA and its concerted efforts to avoid the fustiness of older universities which contributes to the near equal number of male and female professors – but then it might just be my department.

I have been thinking about this topic over the last week due to the comments made by Sir Tim Hunt, and the media frenzy that has since followed.

Sir Tim Hunt is a Nobel Prize winning scientist who, if you haven’t already heard, had this to say at a conference in South Korea:  “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”

Hunt has since resigned from his posts at UCL and the Royal Society – although not before telling the BBC that, “I did mean the part about having trouble with girls”, and adding it was, “a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists”.

… One might feel this implies he doesn’t regret the comments he made but rather the fact that he’s (rightly) being challenged because of them.

My feelings on the matter are best expressed by Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association; “Sadly, dealing with sexism and other forms of discrimination are a daily reality for many people, and I imagine it’s hard to find Sir Tim’s comments funny if you’ve been held back by systemic bias for years – whether those remarks were intended as a joke or not.”

STEM careers are vital to the future of this country, and if 51% of the population is being discouraged from pursuing them because some of their colleagues can’t separate their personal and professional lives, then we’ve all got a problem.

And after the great pains over the last few years to encourage women into STEM careers, I find it deeply saddening that someone who the scientific community should be looking to as a role model could come out with such sexist statements.

In an interview with the Guardian, Tim Hunt’s wife recounts how her husband had cried following his forced resignation from UCL – although it’s unclear why they expect sympathy for their tears when Hunt himself complained about female scientists who cry when criticised.

A handful of eminent female scientists have come out in support of Hunt, saying that from their experiences of him they are assured that he isn’t sexist… I’m not convinced. However, if this was just a massive gaffe on Hunt’s part, and if he truly wished to make amends, then I believe his path forward is clear.

In his interview with the Guardian, Hunt is quoted as saying, “I am finished…I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science in this country and in Europe, but I cannot see how that can happen. I have become toxic.” Indeed.

In my humble opinion, this is what Hunt needs to do now:

  1. Issue a proper apology. A PROPER one, in which he doesn’t claim he was, “just trying to be honest”.
  2. Use the considerable amount of influence and contacts he has, as a Nobel Prize winning scientist, to support the good work of organisations such as WISE (https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/) who aim to get more women in the UK into STEM careers.

A smart person can win a Nobel Prize, but a great one can come back from this and help remedy the damage they have done.

First year students: you don’t need all the answers

Deciding what, where and if you should even be studying at university is a massive decision. From the age of around thirteen, when students begin picking their GCSEs, they are making decisions about what they want to do for the rest of their lives. However, the scariest part of all is that even once you’ve arrived at university – you still might not be convinced that you’ve made the right choices.

I arrived at UEA feeling incredibly nervous. I wasn’t sure if I’d picked the right course and as a deferred entry student it had been years since I’d seen the campus, one which I’d agreed to live on for the next three years.

Perhaps I wouldn’t be cut out for university level studies? What if I didn’t get on with anyone?

Those first few weeks are now a whirlwind that I can barely remember. I met many people and attended many socials. What quickly became clear, was that everyone was just as scared – some were just better at hiding it than others.

In many ways, university life was different from my expectations:

  • Fresher’s week wasn’t the carnage I had been led to believe
  • Professors aren’t actually that scary
  • Unlike A-levels, you don’t have to live by a rigid marking scheme

That isn’t to say that there weren’t hard times. After my first term I realised that joint honours English and drama wasn’t the right course for me, so I switched to single honours English literature – and it wasn’t a drama (pun intended).

There were times this past year when I didn’t think I was good enough. I once had to complete four essays in one week and there were many tearful calls home. But much to my surprise I managed it. In fact I not only managed it, but I excelled. University pushes you academically and socially, and you will be amazed by what you can achieve.

The biggest piece of advice I can give to someone considering university is that you’re not trapped by the choices you make at school. If the course or the university isn’t working for you you can switch. For the first time your education is solely in your hands, and the exciting bit is that you can make it into anything you want.

I’m looking forward to starting my next year of university. I know that I will be studying something I am passionate about and living with people who support and inspire me. The friends I have made this year are some of the best people I have ever had the privilege to meet; their creativity and kindness are part of what makes university life so special.

Throughout my school career I thought I needed all the answers. The question of where and what I should be studying at university seemed like something I could easily get wrong. What I have learned this year is that choosing the wrong course won’t cause you irrevocable damage, but it will help you find your way to what you really want to be doing. It needn’t be a drama.

(This article was originally posted on The Guardian online)

Pimp My Barrow

UEA is a university with few traditions. We are relatively new on the scene compared to some universities and pride ourselves on our lack of stuffiness and formality. However, we do have two great occasions – Derby Day, and Pimp My Barrow, the second of which took place this Saturday.

What on earth does this involve you ask?

Well, as the name suggests, the pimping, or dressing up, of wheelbarrows is the main feature of the day, followed by a pub crawl through Norwich.

Teams congregate in the square from midday, dressed up in costumes such as Disney Villains and the Avengers – one of the prize winning barrows this year was done up to look like the van from ‘Only Fools and Horses’. We are then set off in waves throughout the afternoon, moving from pub to pub, and trying to not obstruct traffic.

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The main purpose of the day is to raise money for Big C, a local cancer charity. However, as it falls at the end of the year it also functions as a mass letting off of steam. Hopefully the pictures in this post will convey something of the atmosphere on campus.

The standard of the costumes was very high and the dedication from some teams was astounding. As a university we also raised a lot of money, I believe the figure was somewhere near £10,000 but I can’t find the official statistics so please take that number with a pinch of salt.

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(Visit the UEA website for more photographs of the amazing costumes)

To anybody who wasn’t involved this year I would recommend trying to get tickets next year; with a good set of costumes and an even better set of friends, it’s a great laugh.

Although I’m still not sure why wheelbarrows are involved…

Team photo xxx

Team photo xxx

(Apologies for the lateness of this post – we had a few technical difficulties)