On Grayson Perry: All Man

After a wonderfully stimulating and very rewarding time in Vancouver, both in the city and at the university, the past few months since my return to Wales at the end of January have been rather frustrating. I’ve spent my time applying for different university posts, attending interviews, and getting lots of rejections from said interviews, whilst trying to write up the study from Canada and finish other bits of writing and planning future research activities. All very difficult when your scholarship and work keeping being attacked from all sides and the rules of the academic ‘game’ [for it is a game], are constantly changing and the goalposts seem to be moved around at whim. I don’t want to come over as bitter and twisted, but I can’t pretend that it is an easy time either, so I’ve decided to break my blog posting hiatus and write about something which I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since I watched it last night, All Man with Perry.

Perry

Having been researching and writing (or trying to write!) about men and masculinities for getting on close to a decade, it was with great interest that I sat down to watch the new documentary TV series All Man, by the prize-winning artist and TV presenter Grayson Perry. As a frock-wearing self-proclaimed ‘sissy’, with a really engaging interview style, I wondered how he would fare in the three-part series investigating contemporary masculinity in the UK.

Episode 1, was called ‘hard man’ and saw Perry [minus his frock] interviewing different men living in the former industrial area of the North East of England. Perry talked with a number of young men involved in mixed martial arts and cage fighting, some other men who were coming to terms with their friend’s suicide [the leading cause of death for young men] and older men who were once involved in the coal industry in Durham. At the end of the programme, Perry unveiled two pieces of art. The first was a giant banner that mimicked those of the former miner’s lodges and trade unions, the second was a decorated vase, both depicting images of men [and women] from the show in order to show case some of what it means to be a man in the North East of England in the post-millennium era.

I was impressed with how well put together the programme was and how easy Perry [who until now has not been seen as an expert on men and masculinities] was able to explain the issues to the TV audience. This was also done well last autumn by Reggie Yates in his BBC series on British Masculinity. I wish I could be so clear at times in my own writing. His comments such as ‘toxic masculinity’ and the idea of men ‘performing’ a role [no mention to my old mate Goffman, but we can’t have it all!] might be slightly clichéd, or easy to understand for those of us working in this field, but for many people watching at home who do ‘real’ jobs and do not spend their lives studying and writing about these issues, I found it vital to begin to explain what was going on. The important part industry and place played in masculinity making were also made clear and it was good to hear the term ‘working-class’ used as well.

But, other issues also need to be acknowledged which there perhaps wasn’t time for in an hour episode. These are only extreme examples of masculinity [and the other programmes in the series look at crime and finance], what about the boring, mundane aspects of men’s’ lives or even men from these communities who display alternative masculinities or appear different? What about the role of globalisation and neo-liberal economic policy on masculinity making? I also thought that there was a need to explore the idea of performing multiple masculinities further to bring up the fact that men switch, or what I have termed, chameleonise between different displays, consciously and unconsciously. Even Perry was doing this when he was interviewing different people on the programme and he laughed and joked in a different way with one cage fighter who liked to put on clown make-up and the other cage fighter who talked about Achilles and Greek mythology. Although men are often said to be unable to talk about their feelings, are withdrawn and have a hard time expressing themselves, in my experience of researching men, very much like the ones featured in this programme, they are able to reflect and begin to talk about problems and feelings and about what being a man means, when given the time, space and a safe, non-judgemental environment to do so. Male suicide rates  are three times that of their female counterparts and make up about 80% of the prison population. Although men are still the biggest perpetrators of domestic violence, when men are being abused they are also less likely to report it and talk about it. Finding ways to enable men to open up is vital in beginning to transform and deal with some of these issues and the impact this has on girls and women.

I watched ‘All Man’ with my mother and step-father and it was interesting to see my mother’s reaction to the former coal miners who were interviewed. Both my grandfathers had worked underground in the South Wales coalfield and whist the older men interviewed seemed to reflect back to a time where they felt respected and valued, and this work provided them with a clear breadwinner role, my mother, as the daughter of a coalminer saw things slightly differently. She commented that whilst industrial communities were tragically ripped apart in the 1980s for political reasons, life certainly wasn’t always great for the women in these communities. Poverty was a constant factor when she was growing up in the 1950s and 60s as wages were often uncertain and the masculine drinking culture which accompanied these tough jobs and where a lot of the wages were spent [and if you worked in an industry where your life was often on the line, it is hard to argue against men enjoying a drink!] did not always help when trying to organise a home and feed a family. Also the options for women in these communities were very limited in terms of occupations and with such strong gendered traditions, anyone who might have other aspirations (including men), life was even tougher.

I was left with a real feeling of sadness as the show ended and a deep feeling of helplessness. I cried a little at the way the mother of the young men who committed suicide, spoke about the artworks depiction of her lost son and the uncertain futures ahead for all the young men on the programme.  It took me back to the research I did on young men in a post-industrial community and how often things way beyond our control impact on our daily lives in ways both known and unknown.

I look forward to the next two episodes with interest and have ordered some books I have been meaning to read for a while on men and masculinity in former industrial eras. Perhaps I’ll review them in subsequent weeks and publish them here.

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‘Tramps like us’ : On the road with Bruce, Part 2.

‘Tramps like us’- Part 2 Chicago

I’m writing this in the airport whilst I wait for my flight back to the UK. It’s going to be a bit rougher than I would like, but I want to write this experience up before I leave, as I am likely to have lots of catching up to do when I get home and this might get pushed down the ‘to do’ list. As I explained in the last entry, field notes should also be written up as soon as possible after the event, so I feel it’s doubly important to get this down before the finer points are forgotten. Warning may contain typos and spoilers!

‘Iceman’

I have had a few more days in Chicago than Pittsburgh, but due to the insane temperatures, I did not leave my hostel much until the day of the concert. I’m not used to temperatures being much below zero and certainly not minus 15-18 as it has been here, so the first thing that struck me about this city was the cold. With bright blue skies overhead, the city’s skyline looked beautiful, but all I could think about was how hard it was to breathe and how without gloves on, the wind and cold felt like it was burning my skin. Even with jeans and boots on, the lower half of my body felt numb. So I spent the first day here writing up my field notes from Saturday night and checking the Ticketmaster website to see if any tickets for the concert had become available, because due to a slight ticketing mishap on my part, I had arrived without a ticket for the show. Through the Bruce fansites/forums I had found out that venues often release tickets or ‘drop’ tickets the day before the show, but the only tickets that were available were behind the stage, which wasn’t ideal, as I did not want to watch the band perform from behind for 3 and a bit hours. Yet there was one seat which was slightly to the left of the stage, and in a section close to the front. As time was running out, I took it. It gave me a totally different concert experience than ever before and as my favourite sociologist Goffman would put it, it literally let me see into the ‘backstage’ of a Bruce and the E-Street band performance.

I remember being taught about the layout of Chicago during geography lessons in high school and the layout of the city seemed familiar. With the Central Business District [CBD] spreading out from the city in a semi-circle/zone and with other semi circles/zones leading off from this, it seemed easy to get around. Forcing myself out of my hostel in the afternoon before the show, I went to explore Lake Michigan and the downtown area. The city surrounds the lake shore and it must be a wonderful place to come in the summer, but today the beach was covered in snow and ice and in part the lake had seemed to have frozen where it had washed up on the shoreline. After some advice from a local, instead of paying a lot of money to go up to an observatory deck in a high-rise building, I took the free elevator/life to the 95th floor where there was a bar. Here I could have a pre-Bruce beer overlooking the skyline of Chicago. While drinking my overpriced $10/£7 beer, I got chatting to a couple who were going to the concert that night, when they told me that they had to pay ‘silly money’ to get tickets as the concert was sold out, I kept just kept quiet and nodded. As time was ticking on, and the venue, the United Centre was a half hour train ride away, I paid the bill and left.

 

 

‘I’m on Fire’

This was the first back-to-back Bruce show I have ever done, so my excitement wasn’t at the levels it was a few days ago in Pittsburgh until I got off at the train station opposite the venue. I was not entirely sure where it was, but I spotted a couple who looked like typical Bruce fans [white, middle aged] and ask them if they were going to the show, and it turned out that my ‘BruceDar’ was correct, they were. Both, like the people in Pittsburgh, seemed impressed with how far I had travelled to see the show. As we walked to the venue through the cold streets, busy with traffic, we chatted about all things Bruce and how tickets were so hard to come by. Again, I kept quiet. When we approached the arena, there were already long lines of people waiting to go in. The couple I had been talking to had a different entrance gate to the one on my ticket, so we said out goodbyes. My line was already beginning to move when I joined it, and a couple came in behind me with two small boys, both aged under ten. With a huge picture of Bruce being projected onto the stadium above me, I turned and mentioned that bringing children was a clear example of great parenting skills and we all laughed. Both had been fans for many years and had been to around 30 shows, but it was the first time they that they have brought their sons. They asked me if I was touring the states watching Bruce, and I explained my story again. As we neared the entrance doors, I remarked on a picture of a handgun with the words, ‘no guns’ stuck on the door. Telling the family all about the used-car salesman from Pittsburgh, both parents groaned and told me that they hoped that I had met many other ‘genuine Americans’ on my trip and as we parted, they stressed that even though Bruce does attract all sorts of ‘crazies’, I should not think that all Americans thought like the used-car salesman. For the first time ever at any concert, my ticket was on my mobile phone, so when the assistant scanned my phone and it gave a reassuring beep, I breathed a small sigh of relief. The assistant printed out a small receipt, with my section and seat number on it, and I was in.

I bought another expensive beer and went to find my seat. The seat was behind the stage as expected, but I was much closer to it I thought I was would be. It was just behind the left hand side of the stage, with a great side view. Again I got chatting to other people who had arrived early, this time to Joe who worked in I.T and was born in Bruce’s home state of New Jersey and had moved to Chicago in 1999. Joe told me that he had seen his first Bruce show back in 1976, on the Born to Run tour, in a smallish venue in New York. And while he hadn’t seen as many shows as Pam from Pittsburgh, he had been to a show on every tour since then, quite some feat, following an artist for 40 years! As the start of the show crept closer, a couple [man and woman] came into the row behind me. Both seemed to be quite excited and the woman kept asking if Bruce would see her in these seats and if she would still get to dance with him. I turned in surprise and expressed admiration as from the way she was talking, it sounded as if they had met him before the show. The woman replied she was indeed going to dance with Bruce and it had been arranged. When I replied that I hoped he would be able to find her from back here, the man replied rather haughtily, “his people know where we are”.

When the lights dimmed a few minutes later and the band walked underneath the section and up onto the stage, the crowd burst into applause and everyone around me stood up and started cheering. I could see Patti and Steve a few feet below me and I had no need for the big screen above my head.

‘Taking It Easy’

The show opener with the same number, ‘Meet me in the City’ as the opening night of the tour in Pittsburgh and followed up with The River, in it’s entirely as expected. For the first hour of the show, I found it very hard to concentrate on the music. Being this close to the stage, I could see all the work that goes on whilst the band are on stage, most of which is normally hidden from the view of the audience in the backstage area. The guitarists [Pattie, Steve, Nils and Susie who stand to the left and right of Bruce] all have a separate guitar technician and change guitars after every song. Lines of guitars fill up the area and their technicians are constantly re-tuning, or opening or shutting cases and getting things ready for the next song. Up until now I had only ever thought it was Bruce who did this, with Kevin Burrell, who often has to catch a guitar that Bruce throws back to him, but this gave me a whole new perspective to how many people must work on a E-Street band show. Whoever was responsible for Patti’s guitars, was not having a very good night as he kept dropping things, fell over at one point and seemed to be getting a bit of a telling off from Mrs Bruce [Patti is Bruce’s partner]. The drummer, Max Weinberg, also seemed to change drum sticks and had a collection of different types [I’m no drummer] and different styles for each song. What also became apparent, was that while Bruce was the focal point of the show from the crowds’ perspective, he was also the focal point for everyone on the stage, as they all seemed to be watching him for changes and instructions. I could really see how ‘the boss’ really is ‘the boss’ from this close. [Spoiler ahead!] What was also slightly disappointing was that the stories Bruce told about his songs so eloquently in Pittsburgh, were all displayed on the teleprompter in front of his mic stand. I had always assumed these were off the cuff, but seeing this now, it all looked much more pre-planned. Reflecting on this, the afternoon after the show, it makes more sense to me now. If you want to make sure these stories are heard by your fans at each venue, there needs to be some structure and order to them, so everyone can experience them the same way.

I didn’t tear up till Bruce was introducing ‘Independence Day’, which I must have paid more attention to tonight. He told us that the song was a conversation between a father and son and that the lyrics tell the story about the compromises parents make and the dreams that die as people get older, dreams that people’s children are mostly unaware of. Next up was my bathroom break, ‘Hungry Heart’ and another guy in the row opposite me, must have also had the same idea as we rose in unison. On our way to the toilets, I asked him if he disliked this song as much as I did, to which he smiled and told me that he hated it almost as much as ‘Waiting on a Sunny Day’, which tramps seem to hate. For the next 5 minutes we talked about how many other songs could replace it and after getting a beer from the bar, we parted and returned to our seats.

After The River album had been played fully, Bruce and the band proceeded through a number of hits, some of which had been changed from Saturday. It was good to hear more songs, but as ever, there are always song that I want to hear and aren’t, I’m never happy! I was really surprised that Bruce messed up twice on ‘No Surrender’, stopping the band and exclaiming in shock, “I can’t remember how it goes”, before laughing and humming the opener under his breath and starting it properly on the third attempt.

The encore began with a cover of The Eagles song, ‘Taking it Easy’, as a tribute to The Eagles Guitarist Glen Frey, who died on Monday. Bruce did this song alone, standing in the spotlight with an acoustic guitar. Unlike with ‘Rebel, Rebel’ the tribute to David Bowie on Saturday, he did not introduce the song, or pay tribute to the musician, he just started the song in a soft, quite voice. The crowd quickly joined in and 100s of mobile phones were held aloft and the arena was filled with small white lights, it felt truly special. After he’d finished the house lights went on and the band burst into Born to Run and everyone joined in. That euphoric feeling overtook me once more, and again I thought, this is why I come to multiple shows. This was followed by one of my favourites ‘Dancing in the Dark’. It is during this song when Bruce usually gets somebody [usually female] up from the crowd to dance with him. I looked behind to see that the couple who had informed me about dancing with Bruce (and that Bruce’s ‘people’ knew where they were sitting) had not moved. In fact, Bruce went further than I’ve ever seen him go to pull up someone from the audience to dance with him, he jumped off the stage and ran around the side of the crowd to the middle section of the arena and pulled up a woman, who looked to be in her late 60s up onto the nearby platform, I smiled to myself, being ‘in the know’ obviously doesn’t work everytime! The said couple left soon afterwards. The show ended with Rosealita and Shout, and I sat on my own again for a few moments as I had done in Pittsburgh, before braving the crowds and the cold Chicago night and walked back to my hostel.

As Bruce put it during the concert, “we only have a finite time to do something good”, and after this wonderful time over the past few months, which has given me so many new experiences, I hope to take these words with me into whatever challenges the future holds.

I don’t know when I will post again, but the sociologist on tour will be back!

 

Set list

Meet Me in the City

The Ties That Bind

Sherry Darling

Jackson Cage

Two Hearts

Independence Day

Hungry Heart

Out in the Street

Crush on You

You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)

I Wanna Marry You

The River

Point Blank

Cadillac Ranch

I’m a Rocker

Fade Away

Stolen Car

Ramrod

The Price You Pay

Drive All Night

Wreck on the Highway

Night

No Surrender

Cover Me

She’s the One

Human Touch

The Rising

Thunder Road

Encore:

Take It Easy (Eagles cover) (Solo acoustic)

Born to Run

Dancing in the Dark

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

Shout (The Isley Brothers cover)

‘Tramps Like Us’: On the road with Bruce, Part 1

‘Screen Door Slams’

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So whilst the Vancouver part of this trip is over, the journey home is not going to be a quiet one, with not one, but two Bruce Springsteen shows on the way back to the UK. The dust has settled since the first one took place on Saturday night and I feel ready to write this report. This isn’t great fieldwork practice, as any ethnographer or fieldworker knows, fieldnotes should be written up as soon as possible after the observed event. This is so that the writer can create as accurate an account as possible of the setting, people or occasion being studied. However, it always takes me a few days to process a Bruce performance and on a very cold day in Chicago [-16 degrees Celsius/4 degrees Fahrenheit], as I won’t be going very far from my Hostel, it feels an ideal time to get this out from my fieldnotes [small memos recorded on my mobile phone] and onto the page. Also as I am due to see Bruce play again here tomorrow, there is another report to come in the next few days!

‘Long Time Coming’

It’s been almost two and half years since I last saw Bruce and the E Street band play in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on July 23rd 2013. When the tour dates were announced in December and I saw he was going to be the US in January, I knew I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to see him once more, especially being much closer to the action in Vancouver than the UK. So I decided to extend my stay in Canada and get tickets [not an easy task, as the Ticketmaster site was super busy] for his opening two shows in Pittsburgh [Jan 16th] and Chicago [Jan 19th] to see him play on the way home. My preference is always to stand at concerts and get the ‘pit experience’ [the small section closest to the stage] but I could only get seated tickets for both shows, which was slightly disappointing, but still, a Bruce show, is a Bruce show and I was looking forward to it.

‘From Small Things (big things one day come)’

The flight from Vancouver to Pittsburgh landed Friday evening and by the time I got on the bus into the city, I could see by the collection of different T-Shirts around me, that other ‘trampers’ [Bruce fans] had begun to arrive. I got chatting to two fans, sitting near to me, Pam and Steve, who were both from the states and lifelong Bruce fans. Pam later told me she’d been to see around 300 shows since the late 1970s! I think my interest and how far I have traveled surprised them both. Whenever Bruce fans get together at concerts, a few things tend to happen and this occasion was no exception. Fans tend to talk about obscure song choices, how many shows they are going to on a specific tour, ticket problems, and opinions on how much longer Bruce and the E-Street band will keep going. Steve had tickets for three shows and Pam four, I was envious, but there will always be people who have the opportunity or economic means to go to more shows. I saw one person on a Bruce fan site claiming he or she had tickets to 13 shows on this tour!

On the bus journey in from the airport, me and my new Bruce buds chatted about all things Springsteen, oblivious to the other passengers who filled up the bus the closer we got to downtown. Getting off in a new place is always a bit daunting, especially in the dark. I had booked a room through the travel site Air B and B, which was much cheaper than any of the hotels in town, but it was a bit of distance away so I needed to get a cab there. As Pam had been to the city before, she was kind enough to take me under her wing and told me there would be plenty of them outside her hotel, so she would show me where it was. As we walked through downtown we talked about the UK and I found out she’d studied there for a while, and also toured Europe to see Bruce. When we got to the hotel we parted, but before I got in my cab, we swopped twitter details, and planned to try and meet up over the weekend.

On the ten-minute journey to the place I was staying on the North Shore of the city, the friendly cab driver told me all about the industrial heritage of the city and region. Coming from a country where the manufacturing and heavy industries have all but disappeared, I was surprised to hear that there were still coal mines and blast furnaces in the area and across Pennsylvania more generally. These were the ‘real jobs, for real men’ that had once shaped the area of Wales where I grew up and the disappearance of these types of jobs, and the impact this has had on those communities, has been a central core of my work on masculinities. As I was to learn over the weekend, the blue collar worker and white working classes that this industry produced, are still very much alive here, and very proud of their heritage. Given the UK governments continual erosion and selling off of these key industries, which has changed the social, economic, cultural and political landscape of Britain, I could feel a strong affinity already growing to this place.

After a takeaway pizza and an early night, I set out around noon to explore the city before the show in the evening. In the daylight the area I was in looked very similar to the South Wales Valleys, with houses built in rows across a hill all leading down to a wide river, with alleyways leading off them. The mountain side looked grey and dark, with bare trees, again similar to back home and surprising, just like the Valleys, a number of small churches or chapels scatter throughout the streets. After spending so many months in Vancouver, where more or less everything is built out of glass and wood, what struck me most about the area and the city, was the amount of stone and brick work around. As I crossed into downtown across one of the city’s approximately 400 bridges, I realised that this might be an old city, but again it was one that was strangely familiar.

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I started with a beer and brunch at a place called Meat and Potatoes, where all the staff wore T-Shirts with ‘This is a Meat and Potatoes Kinda Town’ stamped across the back. Another link I thought back to the industrial heritage of the town, as these would once have been part of main diet of manual workers. This was about where the links ended as this place was giving off a very large hipster vibe, this was confirmed when the beer I ordered was served in a Jam Jar. After eating [eggs and bacon] I went to check out the Monongahela Incline, a cable car journey up a very steep cliff.

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This gave me a great view of the city skyscrapers, bridges, stadiums and the surrounding areas. The river, which was one of three flowing through the city, would wind its way down towards the Monongahela valley, another industrial area, which I had heard about in the Bruce Springsteen song Youngstown.

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This view was another reminder that Bruce o’ clock was fast approaching. Although I was very tempted to go to the Andy Warhol museum [who was born and raised here] time was running out so I opted for another beer in a nearby bar, before catching the cable car back down the incline, and headed across the city for the Consol Energy Centre where the concert was to take place. I aimed to have another drink beforehand, but all the bars near the stadium were packed with concert goers, and with a long line already growing at the entrance to the stadium, I decided to join it and get in, I was too excited to hang around any longer.

‘Glory Days’

Although it was only 5:45pm, and the doors were not supposed to open till 6:00pm, a large crowd had already gathered at the entrance. Whilst waiting for them to let us in, [those lucky enough to have General Admission/ standing tickets were able to go in first] I got chatting to an older man who was a local used-car salesman’s and his wife. In the ten to fifteen minutes we chatted, he struck me as being the least likely Springsteen fan I had ever met. This was his first time seeing him and he had bought his wife tickets for Christmas. Both were completely shocked that I had come all this way to see Bruce in their city and they asked me what I thought about America and surprisingly Obama, who they were not fans of. The husband of the couple then proceeded to tell me where America was going wrong in the world, and how he hoped Donald Trump would sort the country out. He blamed Muslims, and told me how he thought Iraq should have been ‘blown back to the stone age’. He also asked me what Tony Blair was up to these days and mentioned how great (!) a guy he had been and how us Brits were the only ones who stood by America after 9/11. Trying not to ask too many questions in case I stopped his rant, I gently asked him what he thought about all the talk of tightening up gun ownership, to which he replied ‘it’s un-American’ and that he wasn’t giving up his own guns. When I asked how many he had, he told me that he had a whole range of hand guns, assault rifles and hunting rifles. The later he was going to use to hunt bears with when he went up to Ontario with his old Army buddies later in the year. His wife was very quick to tell me she wasn’t very keen on guns, but that her husband had been showing her how to shoot one lately, as he’d told her things were getting bad these days and so she might need to know how to do this someday. The husband muttered that he was annoyed that he couldn’t bring his small handgun in with him tonight, and that he had had to leave it in the car. Before we could continue this conversation any longer, the doors opened and we were let in. I could see why the used-car salesman couldn’t bring in his gun, we all had to pass through a metal detector inside the entrance.

I grabbed a beer [at $10 around £7 per can, I wasn’t going to have many!] and took my seat. It was in the lower level about half way down the stadium, not a great seat, but it was on the end of the row which meant I could get up when I wanted. With almost an hour to go before the show, the arena was filling up slowly, but I was just happy to take in the experience whilst sipping my expensive beer. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait long to meet some more Americans, this time some people who really got Bruce, sat down near me. David and his wife Noreen were from Altoona [which I had heard mentioned on a film once] and they had traveled to the city that afternoon. Both were a little older than the couple on the way in, but neither has seen Bruce before and were again surprised at how far I had come. David seemed to be the polar opposite to the used-car salesman. He was a high school history teacher, who hated guns, loved Obama and was truly embarrassed by Donald Trump and what he was saying about his country. Strangely, he also seemed to be a big fan of Tony Blair, which as I didn’t want to ruin the moment, I let it pass. As the show crept closer, we continued to chat and the crowd filled up, I looked around and something dawned on me, everyone was white. After months of being in a diverse city like Vancouver, I was a little taken aback that it had taken me so long to realise it, as the night wore on, apart from a few member of arena staff, the audience was 99.9% white and with an average age of about 50.

‘Dancing in the Dark’

Finally, after what seemed an age, the lights went out, the crowd went wild and on came the E Street Band. One by one members of the band took the stage and I ticked them off mentally in my head [Max, Gary, Roy, Susie, Nils, Stevie, Patti, Charlie, Jake] and last, but by no means least Bruce. It was like seeing old familiar faces, but part of it still felt unreal and I caught myself saying, there they are! My attention was now fully turned to the stage and for most of the next 3 hours and 20 minutes, I was entirely focused  on the music and the people enjoying it around me.

Bruce had already announced that this tour would consist of playing the 1980 album The River, in its entirely start to finish along with some B-sides and other songs thrown in after it. Yet the opener which was the re-released B-side ‘Meet me in the City’ was a little surprising and slightly disappointing as most of the crowd were unaware of it. It was only when the band burst into ‘The Ties That Bind’, that open the album, that the crowd became really alive and I felt a lump in my throat and tears come into my eyes, the show was really underway. I thought, this is the reason why I come to see Bruce again and again, this mixture of shared happiness and euphoria, but something which was also twined with a little sadness. My emotions were truly all over the place.

The next hour and half were a solid journey through what Bruce described as a “first attempt to write about the commitments of home and marriage…and also about crushes, sex, partying and all the fun stuff before marriage even becomes a question, before need reveals vulnerability, before desire requires promises that might not be kept”. It’s dark in places such as Independence Day, and the title track The River [which features in my book acknowledgments] but fun and lively in other places [I’m a Rocker, Cadillac Ranch], it also, for me anyway, has Springsteen’s worse song on it [even worse than Girl in their Summer Clothes, or Queen of the Supermarket] Hungry Heart.

When this came up, this was my cue for a toilet break, and even though it was a stupid price, another beer! Hearing the title track ‘The River’ live was special, when it was played at Glastonbury in 2009, I remember crying all the way through it, but not on this occasion, not even a tear, which again was a surprise. It did have an effect on David though, after the s0ng had finished he grabbed me and shouted in my ear, ‘I’ve been waiting 30 years for that’!

When Bruce had finished the closing track ‘Death on the Highway’, he announced, ‘Don’t worry, we got a few more for ya’ and burst into ‘Badlands’ and the crowd again went wild. At that moment, I thought, right that’s business over with, now for the fun stuff. My highlight of the night came a few minutes later, with ‘Backstreets’, off the 1975 Born to Run album. I’d been to 6 previous concerts, but never heard it, tonight I did and while The River didn’t set off the tears, Backstreets did, and they streamed down my face. It’s a song about an intense summer romance or friendship between two people, one of whom is called Terry. The song has caused debate within fan circles for years, as Terry is never explicitly referred to with any specific gender in the 1978 lyrics. Is the song about love between two men rather than a heterosexual relationship? I would  like to think that the line ‘Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see, trying to learn to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be’, sums up the end of youth and the pressure to act in a certain masculine way and therefore indicates that the characters are both male.

The encore began with a quick speech from Bruce about David Bowie, who had died earlier that week, before belting out his song Rebel Rebel as a tribute. The shows ending included all the classics, like Dancing in the Dark [with the usual woman pulled up onto stage to dance at the end of the song], Rosalita and Born to Run. This is the moment during concerts when all the lights in the house go on and EVERYONE seems to sing in unison and be together as one. The Bruce power drive [sorry I couldn’t resist adding it in at least once!] usually reaches it’s crescendo during this song and the crowd always seem to scream the lyrics “ain’t that young anymore” especially loud. Tonight was no exception and I took a moment to look at the people standing around me,dancing, singing and smiling. Again, I thought, this is why I come again and again. It’s not just the music, which often feels like a soundtrack to my life, but this feeling of community, this ‘in it’ together spirit.It is something that I have never found it in another artist.

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After the concert finished I sat there in a bit of a post-Bruce haze. I had stood for the best part of three and a half hours and I was shattered. I waited for the crowed to file out and took in the now emptying arena. I am often glad to be on my own when I feel like this, as I couldn’t speak and just wanted to process things and sit quietly. David tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a big bear hug which I hadn’t been expecting, he said how nice it was to have met me and that if he was ever in Wales he would look me up. He kept shaking his head and saying things like, wow, that was just wow as we briefly chatted. A few minutes later I made my way outside, and the cold air felt really good. Although my ears were ringing and feet were aching, the post-Bruce buzz  was still there and would be for the remainder of my 45 minute walk home through downtown, across the Andy Warhol Bridge and up the North Shore. I thought how lucky I was that in a few days’ time, I was going to get a chance to repeat this experience all over again. During the concert Bruce told us “time catches up with us all, we have a limited amount of it to do what we can”. He and the E Street band will not be around forever, so my advice to you is to get out there and see him, before it is too late!

Set List

Meet Me In The City

The Ties That Bind

Sherry Darling

Jackson Cage

Two Hearts

Independence Day

Hungry Heart

Out in the Street

Crush on You

You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)

I Wanna Marry You

The River

Point Blank

Cadillac Ranch

I’m a Rocker

Fade Away

Stolen Car

Ramrod

The Price You Pay

Drive All Night

Wreck on the Highway

Badlands

Wrecking Ball

Backstreets

Because the Night

Brilliant Disguise

The Rising

Thunder Road

Rebel Rebel

Bobby Jean

Dancing in the Dark

Born to Run

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

Shout

Final Thoughts!

My first post of 2016 is a sad one, it’s my last day in Vancouver. The sociologist on tour is going home, back to Wales. But it’s not over just yet! I am taking a detour on my way home to check out one of my idols, Bruce Springsteen play in two concert in the United States. The first in Pittsburgh on Saturday 16th and the second in Chicago on Tuesday 19th.  I aim to write two field reports from these events, as Bruce concerts are always full sociological interest. Bruce has played an important part in my life and I closed the acknowledgements section of my book with some lyrics from one of his most powerful songs, The River.

The River for me captured many of the things I tried to say in my book about how men are often brought up to do certain jobs in certain communities, but when these jobs change due to circumstance beyond an individual’s control [“lately there ain’t been much work, on account of the economy”] ordinal lives can unravel and futures become uncertain. The song is a dark reminder of love and loss, not just the loss of one’s own expectations of life yet to be lived, but one’s youth. The song was written about Bruce’s own sister in the early 1980s and ironically, given the material covered in the song, the couple featured in the lyrics, are actually still together. The haunting line in the final part of the song “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true. Or is it something worse?” always sends shivers down my spine. But before I get to see Bruce, I have to get through leaving this wonderful city and beautiful country.

It’s been 5 months exactly since I landed here in August and that time has gone by in a blur. I’ve gotten used to the different English phrases used here and the somewhat slower pace of life and how waiting to be seated, order, and pay in almost any bar, cafe or restaurant is the norm. The politeness of most people in the city is almost infectious, although most of the Vancouverites I’ve spoke to about this tend to disagree with me, but I suspect most of them have never spent any length of time in London. I have also noticed that due to a different drinking culture, I drank less this Christmas and New Year than I have for about 17 years. But of course, as I have written about in this blog previously, alongside the glorious mountains, lakes and beaches with surround this city, there is also more worrying aspects to life here. For me the huge problem with homelessness, or those extremely vulnerable in the Downtown Eastside always reminds me that not everybody is experiencing this city the same. Every time I pick up the free paper on the bus or sky-train, there are also many articles about how little affordable housing is in the city and the pressures this impacts on people trying to get onto the housing market which impacts disproportionately on those aged under 30. The atrocities still committed towards First Nations [Aboriginal] people and the large levels of poverty in their communities, still also shocks me.

Apart from the city life, I will also be sad to leave my friends in the city and colleagues that I have made at Simon Fraser University [SFU]. The Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department has been a great place to work and conduct research. I’ve been made to think many times about gender identity and issues surrounding sexuality and equality from those working around me. One of the strengths of the department is that there are so many different disciplines represented by those who work here, social science, performance studies, trans studies, critical queer poetry, history, political science, food studies, and communication studies to name just a few. I’ve felt welcomed and valued, something which in the past I have struggled with.  Furthermore, I’ve felt inspired by great feminist colleagues and that I have found a home for my work, and did not have to justify why I was undertaking research into men and masculinities. Which brings me to the research I conducted here and which filled up most of my time.

I conduced face to face interviews with 13 young men at SFU who were the first in their family to attend university. We discussed their experience of higher education and what this meant in terms of masculinity in their home communities. Six of these participants then joined me for a focus group which discussed issues of masculinity further. I found most were very articulate about gender [the sample was drawn from across different courses at the university] and ideas around masculinity, more so than in my interviews with young men of the same age [19-32] in the UK. Whilst the data analysis is still ongoing, I do want to share some of my initial findings as I think they are important.

1) I have been surprised by how aware these young men were about the saturated graduate labour market and were under no illusion that a degree alone would be enough to find meaningful employment. Many young people I interview in the UK about these issues seemed to be unaware about it.

2) Another important emerging finding seems to be that for working-class men, studying at an institution of higher education means performing their masculinity in a different way to their home communities and often having to justify their decisions to undertake the course they study to their fathers and other male members of their family. Place [like in my book] impacted on who they could be and who they could become in their home communities, and university offered an alternative.

3)  In the UK literature, on many university campuses, a culture of hyper masculinity seems to operate, at SFU this did not seem to be the case and across the whole sample, the young men struggled with this concept. It is often termed ‘ladism’, but I don’t wish to use this term, as I find it unhelpful for tackling these issues, and in particular pathologises certain practices and behaviours which link back to working-class men, without acknowledging the irony of it being conducted by white middle-class young men.

The analysis is still ongoing, and I will continue to work on it and turn it into publications on my return to the UK, so things might change, but for now, the study has been really interesting and I thank all those who took part.

That’s about it from me in Canada, but the sociologist on tour will return with two reports on Bruce Springsteen in the next few days, but after this who knows! I will try and give an update on this blog each month, as I really enjoyed writing it, and there always feels so much more to say about life, but until next time, I’ll see you further on up the road!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas in Vancouver

So this week, as it’s Christmas, here is a festive related post and my last of 2015, as I am taking a few weeks off. I came across this song on the radio today about a Vancouver Christmas, which I found quite funny and the inspiration for this post.

I’m not the greatest fan of Christmas, I’m not religious and the commercial capitalism of it all drives me crazy. In my younger years, I worked in retail over the period and it was frantic, stressful and truly miserable. I remember one year I started work on the 23rd December [probably one of the busiest shopping days of the year] at 5am in a supermarket and struggled to find a parking space, as customers were already in the store and shopping like it was the onset of the apocalypse.  Another year where I worked in an office in Lincoln, I moaned and groaned about it all and I was nicknames the Grinch and when I came back from Lunch one day, found that my desk had been decorated to get me into the spirit of it! Don’t get me wrong, I like food, drink and presents as much as the next person, and watching It’s a Wonderful Life is always a pleasure. I also like to receive and give gifts, but on the whole, I find that the whole thing a little bit exhausting.

As a child, I really enjoyed the whole Santa/ Father Christmas charade. There is an old home video somewhere of me jumping around screaming ‘it’s a tele’ when at the age of nine or ten I had opened a big cardboard box with a small television in it, it felt like magic! But a year later I felt devastated when I found out he wasn’t real. I came across a board game [Subbuteo] that was on my Christmas list at the bottom of my mother’s wardrobe, and when I later took it out from under the tree on Christmas Day and unwrapped the same game, I put two and two together and that was it. As a teenage I enjoyed going to the pub with friends on Christmas Eve, and then staggering out of bed at midday and sitting down to a big turkey dinner and getting back on the beer and drinking through till the New Year. However, as the years went by I grew more and more uncomfortable seeing my mother come close to a meltdown each year, as she felt she HAD TO do everything perfect, decorations, tree, shopping, presents, chocolates, drink, turkey etc. I also got to feeling guilty that I could more or less sit there, whilst I and other family members, guests etc. would come and be fed and watered. Going out for the all-important Christmas dinner, is one way to avoid all this, but this just puts the stress and strain onto someone else, mostly underpaid service sector workers. The hassle of getting the right presents, especially when funds have been tight, or fighting through warm, over crowded shopping malls has also made me come close to giving up on humanity!

That’s why I find being away from Christmas this year so nice and a bit of an escape as it’s something different to the norm and I can escape lots of the usual things. The one big difference I’ve discovered being in Canada is the lack of alcohol related Christmas festivities. The departmental Christmas ‘doo’, was more of a buffet lunch at the campus restaurant for an hour, and then everyone went back to work. No booze was consumed. I repeat, no booze! When explaining to those at my table that in the UK a Christmas ‘doo’ usually consisted of a bit of food, hours of drinking and maybe a bit of dancing over the course of an afternoon, I was met with laughter, shock and surprise. I told my partner about this and she also laughed, saying that her works ‘doo’ was also a ‘dry’ event. Pubs also close early on Christmas eve and like it is in Australia [the site of my other non-UK Christmas in 2005] it is an evening to be spent with family. So, maybe missing a UK Christmas is more than a nice change, it’s actually good for my health!

I plan on spending the rest of today writing and editing chapters for my forthcoming book on the role of gender in research relationships. If I had my way, I’d probably do this tomorrow as well, and spend the rest of the day watching Bruce Springsteen concerts on YouTube and escape the whole thing. But even here I can’t escape it entirely and tomorrow I’ll spent it with my partner’s family and also through the technological wonder that is SKYPE, speak to my own family. So whilst I won’t as Tim Minchin excellently puts it, be drinking white wine in the sun this Christmas, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCNvZqpa-7Q , I will do my best to relax and put a brave face on it, it is Christmas after all

See you in 2016!

Shared language, but oh so different

Since I arrived in Canada back in August, I have been keeping a list of words that differ from the UK. I don’t this is an exhaustive list, but here are the one’s I have noted down.

 Clothes

Tuque – Bobble hat

Runner- Trainers

Track pants – Jogging/tracksuit bottoms

Food and drink related

Orange Pekoe – Normal Bog Standard, cheap as chips tea

Poutine – Gravy and chips with cheese

Homo Milk – Milk that is somewhere between whole and skimmed/skim [see below]

Skim milk –Skimmed milk

Donair kebob – Doner Kebab

Cilantro-Coriander

Server- Waitress/waiter

Growler- Take out beer

Stove top-hob

Grill- broiler

Mickey – Small bottle of alcohol

Others

Line up -Queue

Fire Hall –Fire station

Closing out sale – Closing down sale

Negative [temperatures]- Minus

Hydro bill- Electricity, because it come from a hydroelectric source [not water bill!]

Flight of beer- Sample of beer

Meet the teacher night/curriculum night- Parents evening

Portable container- Skip

Acetaminophen- Paracetamol

Relator- Estate agent

Flipping- Buying a house to let/sell quickly

Will call – Collect or pick up a concert ticket at the venue

Pylon- Traffic cone

Dish soap- Washing up liquid

Clue [board game]- Cluedo

T.J max – T.K max

Multistory car-park – Parkade

Washrooms – Toilet/Bathroom

Other random terms

Looney – One Dollar coin [due to the bird pictured on the coin]

Tooney – Two Dollar coin

“I got there at about 4pm [or other time] with change” – Arrived a little after/time to spare

Gong show – It went a little crazy

Book Launch 22nd October 2015

So this is a little late, but better than never!

On the evening of Thursday 22nd October 2015 the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University were kind enough to help me celebrate and launch my book From Labouring to Learning.

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I have been based here since September and I knew that my book was going to come out whilst I was away from the UK. I had half hoped to have a launch event when I got back, and while I still haven’t given up on this idea, it looks less likely as time goes on and the longer the book has been out. However, on hearing this in October, the head of department, Professor Lara Campbell told me that this could not pass without a celebration and hastily arranged a public event in the downtown campus. Lara thought it would an ideal opportunity for me to meet other scholars across the university. It also coincided with my father’s visit, which was handy.

I am used to talking about my work to academic audiences at conferences, but knowing that my father and a large group of friends who had not heard me speak before in this sort of context and would be present, left me feeling a little nervous. I was also aware that many people who would be present wouldn’t have much knowledge of Wales or the South Wales Valleys, so I opted to keep the sociological jargon to a minimum and my presentation was full of maps, photos and quotes from the young men who the book is about. The evening was very well attended and it was a pleasure to be able to talk in front of so many people about the work that I did.

The event got off to a bit of a tricky start at it seemed my UK laptop was not compatible with the Canada projector, or the mass of cables that were coiled up on the floor. So, acting like the great department chair she is, Lara pulled out her IPhone and a bag of connectors. I emailed her my slides and she quickly had my talk up on the screen. Good to go, marvelous!

I began by reading some extract from the book and spoke about how important the industrial heritage of place is in constructing the lives of people who still live in de-industrial communities.  I then outlined the contents of the book and chose to focus on one group of young men I followed during the research, who I term The Geeks for the remainder of the talk. The Geeks were a group of young men who seemed to be the academic achievers in their year group and who performed a studious display of masculinity by working hard in school and achieving top grades in order to go to university. But the pressure to comply to stereotypical macho or boyish behaviour (e.g. drinking large amounts of alcohol, sexism) was strong and on occasion they came unstuck and could not always achieve what they wanted.

 

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Me at the launch.

The event ended with some thoughtful questions by members of the audience and a general discussion about the differences and similarities between de-industrial communities in Wales and Canada. The province of British Columbia is littered with old mining towns and has suffered many of the same problems that have occurred in Wales. However, the towns in Canada seem to more fluid and turn into ‘ghost towns’ and the population move out. In Wales, or the South Wales valleys in particular, this doesn’t seem to have been the case. I wonder if this is partly to do with the continual growth and youthfulness of Canada, well youthful in the sense of white western expansion, (the first nations people have been here for 1000s of years) and its continual immigration and influx of outsiders. To draw the evening to a conclusion, we celebrated with a good old British tradition tea and biscuits, before heading to the pub!

The interest in the book has surprised me. Over the past few months I have conducted interviews with BBC Radio Wales in the UK and here on local radio in Vancouver. This second one you can listen to here. The book has also appeared in the Times Higher Education in November, and was given a glowing review. My publishers have also submitted the book for two book prizes, which I will find out about next spring. I was also told my friends recently that it is ‘currently out of stock’ on the UK Amazon site. It all feels kind of unreal, but it is truly humbling that people have taken an interest in it and it can only help raise awareness of the many issues that young people are dealing with in marginalized communities.

 

 

 

 

The English Barber and ‘Blokey’ Banter

Last week I mentioned that I was going to give a report on my book launch which occurred at the end of October, however as per usual on this blog, I’ve decided to bump this over to next time as I had such an interesting experience at the barber shop today. In the meantime checkout this really good book review for From Labouring to Learning that came out in the Times Higher Education last Friday!

I have been putting it off a while, as I always find getting my haircut a bit of a chore. It’s just one of those things that since childhood I just find annoying. My mother says I used to scream the place down and I would complain so much about the hair itching my neck after it had been cut, that she used to have to take along a clean T-Shirt for me to put on in the shop in order to stop my crying. Anyway, over the years I have improved and while I still dislike the itching part, and still put these trips off, when I am there I do enjoy the process of chatting with the person cutting my hair.

Barber shop

Goffman once wrote about how hairdressers are an integral part of impression management, in that they help people project a certain image of themselves out to the world. For example at a salon we can get our hair dyed, and it can be cut in certain ways as to try to hid blemishes or big ears, or even (to some degree) balding scalps. Other sociologist such as Robinson, Hall and Hockley have looked at some of the distinctions between barbering and hairdressing and how the former is seen as a more masculine or manly occupation, where hairdressing or hairstyling is predominantly a more feminine arena. These distinctions are often made due to the client base of these occupations and their research focused on what it means for men who enter these different gender professions. I bring this up as today, as when I was sitting in the chair, my mind was working overtime on the masculinity being performed or displayed by the barber.

When I was in Vancouver on holiday last summer (2014) I had visited this barbershop downtown to get my haircut and beard trimmed. So being back in the city and in desperate need of a trim, I went along to see him again. The shop is a small, one man place, owned by an white English guy, who I think must be into his 60s. For reasons of privacy and purpose of this post, let’s call him John. He didn’t remember me from my previous trip, but I did my best to jog his memory. He previously told me he owned a place in Las Vegas (barbering must pay more than academia!) so I asked him about this, and as I sat down in the chair, I tried to tell him what I wanted done. However, John seems to have a mind of his own and had already picked up a pair of scissors and began to cut my hair. I noticed he was wearing a black shirt with a red tie, with old fashioned silver elbow clips holding his sleeves up. I can only describe John as coming across as a bit of a ‘ London geezer’ and reminded me of the character ‘Del-Boy’ from the classic BBC TV series, Only Fools and Horses.

Delboy

As I looked around, I could see that the shop was decorated with an assortment of football [soccer] memorabilia, with a large collections of different team scarfs, shirts and posters. Accompanying them were various half-naked female ‘pin-up’ calendars. Over the next 30 minutes he told me all about himself and where the world was going wrong and I just tried to keep up.

He’d been in Vancouver for about 25 years and was originally from the east end of London and still spoke with a strong accent. He told me all about how his ex-wives (all 3) were screwing him for money, how he never saw his 5 kids who were spread all over the world, where to find the best women for paid sex in Las Vegas, and how ‘foreigners’ were stealing all the jobs and housing in Vancouver and London (of course being a white foreigner did not seem to count). When he asked me what I liked and what I didn’t like about the city, I explained I found the homelessness a bit upsetting. To this he replied that most homeless people could work if they wanted to and that many make more money than he does by begging (again maybe I should change jobs!). As he was still holding the scissors and cutting my hair whilst talking, I just sort of hummed and let him carry on, all the while thinking that this was the ultimate performance or display of some of the most negative aspects of masculinity. The ‘banter’ which was structured through his casual racism, sexism and misogyny, coupled with many of his other right wing attitudes (and no doubt homophobia if we’d gotten that far) reminded me that these traditional ‘macho’ attitudes are still very much alive in society. Sometimes working in an inclusive environment such as a university, can trick you into believing that things are far more liberal in the 21st century than we think.

We continued to chat, well John chatted, I listened, and as he finished off cutting my hair and trimming my beard, John asked me how long I was here for and informed me that we should have a drink at his local pub together sometime. The pub, alongside blokey ‘banter’, can also be seen as another key area of traditional (white working-class) masculinity making, but I could also sense something else going on here in this conversation and his performance of masculinity. John told me that he didn’t like drinking alone and that he did this most days to save going home to an empty house. Even though earlier he had told me that he was glad to be rid of his ex-wives. I asked him if he ever went out with his mates, but he brushed this aside saying:

“Ah they don’t like the boozer”

“What about your children?”, to this he replied

“Well as they live all over mate, I never see um”

“Have you got any other family here?”

“Na mate, I only got one sister who lives in England and who came over to see me about 20 years ago, seriously come on, come down and have a drink with me sometime”

It occurred to me here that for all his ‘banter’ and blokey macho talk, just like good old Del-boy, this veneer of masculinity was actually quite thin. I imagine he might never admit this and would probably laugh his head off if he read this blog post, but he seemed quite lonely and desperate for attention. The ‘front’ stage performance of masculinity, the one to be displayed in front of the all-male customers, can be seen as a traditional form of ‘bonding’ in a typical masculine way. Through telling jokes, and stories (which often used non-white groups and women as the punchlines) and giving his vocal opinions on how the world has gone wrong, he was able to create a dominant persona within the barbershop. But behind the ‘front’ of this performance was a much more vulnerable side, one which for men of his generation and social class background, was something to be kept locked away and hidden. To admit being lonely might damage the authenticity of the jovial barber performance, and this weakness would also be an attack on his masculinity.

After I had paid, John shook my hand and told me how nice it had been talking to me and not to be a stranger and to come in and see him soon for another cut, again mentioning that drink. As I turned to leave, he passed me a business card, saying this is a friend of mine, if you need any help with immigration visas and to move over here permanently, give this number a ring and mention me, this guy likes to help my mates.

Despite his right wing views, and his racist and sexist jokes, I couldn’t help but like the guy and actually felt quite sorry for him. Whilst I probably won’t ever go for that drink with him, I will definitely go back there for my next haircut!

Next week’s blog will be a report on my book launch, but as always, something else interesting might come up and could well take its place!

On Homelessness in Vancouver

This blogging business is harder than I thought! It’s been a month since my last post and more since I wrote anything new. I’ve had a lot on over the last few weeks, so writing has taken a bit of a backseat, but this week it is time to write again and on something I promised ages ago, my observations on the homeless problem in Vancouver. But before I get to that, here’s a brief update on what else I have been up to.

Brief Update

Since I last wrote I have been busy conducting research interviews and have now completed 12 interviews with young men at the university, given the small nature of this study, this means I now need to only run a small focus group to finish data collection. Next it’s transcription, coding, analysis, writing up, and finally publications. Alongside this I’ve been busy editing book chapters for my forthcoming book on research relationships, giving guest lectures on different modules at SFU and attending a screening and discussion of the film The Mask You Live In which looks at contemporary masculinities. This was organised by students from the Gender, Sexualities and Women’s student department and was very well run and it was really pleasing to see so many students engaging with this topic. I have written about the film elsewhere on the Beyond Male Role Models blog if you want to know more, check it out. There was also my North American launch of From Labouring to Learning [more on that next week] and two visits from people in the UK, which included Ice Hockey and Football matches, concerts, museum trips, mountain walks on Vancouver’s Grouse Mountain, and cycling around Stanley Park.

Observations on the homeless situation

I love this city and it has to be one of the most picturesque places I have ever had the pleasure to spend any length of time in. For me it seems to have it all, the beautiful mountains, lakes and beaches that shape the city on all sides, shops, bars, restaurants, lots of sporting and cultural events,  it’s easy to get around on public transport and for the most part, a friendly diverse population. With a population of around 2.4 million in the greater Vancouver area the crime rate is also quite low for a city this size. However, in a country that prides itself on its liberal attitudes and healthy lifestyles, looking out for one another and being friendly, polite and caring, the seen homelessness (hidden homelessness is another issues which I don’t have time to go into) in the Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver is a big issue and something which I really struggle to deal with on a personal level.

The Downtown Eastside is the poorest neighbourhood in Canada and others have written in far more detail about this subjects than me, and I would direct you to a few interesting websites and articles which explain the background to the problems elegantly and others which are not so great, but they do have some good films summarising the issues and other which give people’s opinions on it, to learn more. The area is a short distance from what is now the commercial hub of the city, and something which I imagine many people choose to ignore. This ghetto, or skid row fascinates me as it seems to just appear out of the tourist landscape at one end of East Hastings Street and disappear a few blocks away. In a city with the natural beauty that surrounds it, a sort of almost invisible demarcation zone exists here. A friend of mine (who visited me from the UK) arrived in the city by train late at night and took a cab through the area to his hotel. The next day when we met up, he described the area to me as something out of the Night of the Living Dead film and was quite shocked by it all. While it still has the power to really shock me, over my time here I have begun to think about the situation in a different way, and using my sociological and ethnographic skills, I have noted the following which I want to share about the situation to help me understand it better. While I don’t have answers to these complex problems, what I have noticed in my observations, and which I want to cover here, is that to talk of the homeless population as one generic group, a bunch of drug addicts, beggars and layabout lowlifes, is greatly misleading and overshadows many issues they face. This stigmatization also conveniently overlooks how some of the practices that the homeless engage in are similar to the ‘normal’ day to day practices of neo-liberal capitalism. I want to make clear again that these are not ‘research findings’ or part of any funded project I am conducting, for right or wrong, these are just my own raw observations of what I have witnessed and my own form of amateur analysis.

1 Panhandlers

Begging for money on the streets, or panhandling occurs frequently across the city. As most of the money to be made is in the commercial and tourist areas of the city, it makes sense that those who are living on the streets, or in temporary accommodation, would move to these areas to ‘work’ with the downtown eastside acting as more of a base. As I have walked around over the past three months, it is hard to escape the amount of people sitting on street corners with pieces of cardboard with messages written on them requesting money to buy food, shelter or simply ‘weed’. A lot of these signs are simple scrawls on bare cardboard, but others are really artistic and covered in images and drawings and look like they have taken a lot of time, effort and energy to have been produced. The prime spots for panhandling would seem to be where people have to stop to cross at crossings or around transport hubs and would appear to be where more than one panhandler can sit at any one time. I can’t begin to imagine how hard and boring it must be to sit on a street corner, hour after hour and to have people constantly looking the other way and being ignored. Rather than stigmatizing these people further, I have started to see this as a form of ‘graft’, especially when it is cold and wet and there is no guarantee of making any money. While some people write signs or shake cups, another way of ‘grafting’ on the street comes through the recycling schemes that operate within the city. Many types of bottles and cans often have a small ‘return it’ deposit on them which is paid out at recycling centres. I’ve seen many people walking around riffling through bins in the city, or catching buses to the more suburban areas and going through household recycling in large bags and carts to take them to recycling centres in order to receive these deposits. It strikes me that aren’t both of these forms of panhandling just other forms of competitive capitalism and examples of entrepreneurial businesses?

2 Age and gender differences

There are huge differences in ages of the people that seem to live on the streets and the areas they spend their time in. On Granville Street, which is home to the cities nightlife, there are lots of bars and club venues, and here is where numerous groups of younger people under what I estimate to be 25, tend to hang out. In the summer when I walked through the street, there seemed to be an almost festival like atmosphere at times, with strong smells of marijuana in the air and music being played. Something which has decreased since the weather has turned. I also assume that the more time someone spends on the street, the more dangerous and difficult it becomes. These young people seem like any other group of young people I have spent time with for research purposes, and maybe this is why it disturbs me to seem them in this situation more than the older street ‘pros’ that tend to hang around near transport hubs and who stay more on East Hastings street. The older homeless also seem to be very much alone, whereas the younger people group together. In terms of gender, there are also a lot more men than women on the streets and I want to share one incident in particular that made me realise just how vulnerable young women in this situation are.

I has just arrived at a busy bus stop near a traffic intersection with four lanes of traffic on each side of a large crossroads. Under the traffic lights, which were high above the road on a big yellow platform, I noticed a young white woman sitting with a cardboard sign. She looked to be aged around 18, but could have been younger, with long blonde hair, which partially covered her face and round dark glasses. She was dressed in a dark hooded jumper, a frayed T-Shirt dangling down around her waist, black jeans and black skater trainers. As the lights changed from green to red, she stood up, and walk up the line of stationary traffic, holding her sign in front of her, and puffing on a cigarette, before slowly turning, and walking back towards her starting spot, under the lights as they again changed and the traffic began to move off. I noticed her sign read, ‘Any Little Helps J’. As I was waiting for my bus on the other side of the street, I spent 15 minutes watching this young women repeat this action over and over. In the time I stood there watching, nobody opened a window to offer any money and thankfully, nobody stopped to drag her into a vehicle. What was also surprising for me was that at one point a police car was stationary at the lights, but did not intervene in this practice or ask this young woman if she needed assistance.

Through some brief reports I have read on these issues, and which fits in with some of my own work is that many of the young people who are homeless (those on the streets or those in temporary accommodation) have recently left the care system and come from family backgrounds of abuse or neglect.

  1. Serious Mental Health Issues

Aside from the panhandling and the age and gender observations I have come across while I have been here, I have also been struck with how many people on the streets appear to suffer from all sorts of mental health issues and which are usually just ignored by passers-by. On multiple occasions I have witnessed people screaming and shouting and wandering through traffic, people hitting themselves on their heads as they walk about the city, talking to themselves, and people shouting at bus drivers and passengers on buses. I am sure this happens all over the world and that I must have come across these behaviours before in London and other cities I have lived in, but it really does seem to be more noticeable here, maybe because it is a painful reminder that not everyone is experiences the joys of this city. From what I have read on the housing and mental health crisis, this is a long standing problem going back many years, and shows little sign of improving, with major links to drug and alcohol abuse. Another report, this time by the mental health commission and Simon Fraser University draws on qualitative research to illustrate in much more detail the realities off the situation and is well worth a read.

I’m not really sure if this blog post has achieved anything more than a brief description of the situation, it certainly won’t change the problem, but it is something which I feel needs to be conveyed to others, and this is my way of adding to this debate.

Next week I’ll post a report and account of the launch of From Labouring to Learning.

Recycling old work…

Last week I promised a post on the under-life of Vancouver, the issues of homelessness in the city. But I forgot to mention my father was coming over to visit me for a week and he arrived late late night, so I’m going to save my post on the homelessness till a later date and get out and do my tourist bit with him. Also do some father son bonding time! So instead of writing something new this week, I am going to be lazy and leave you a link to paper I wrote a few years back on one group of young men I followed and interviewed whilst I was doing my PhD. It is open access to anyone and everyone, no journal subscriptions needed, so enjoy reading about The Emos from Cwm Dyffryn.

http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/socsi/resources/wp150.pdf

I am having a launch for my book next Thursday evening, so I think i’ll cover that next Friday…but no promises as it might be a late one and the drink might flow!