Student Rents Beyond Students’ Reach

Originally published on 26 January in The QH

Students are struggling to keep up with the rising costs of basic accommodation, according to new data uncovered by the Liberal Democrats. Last year saw a 16% rise in the number of students falling behind on rent payments, with over 17,000 halls residents facing rental arrears. Furthermore, 97 students were evicted from halls in the same period, more than double the 40 who’d had tenancies cancelled the year before.

The figures come following a Freedom of Information Act reveal, and are based on responses from 90 universities. They show that average rental fees have risen from £4,583 a year in 2012-13 to £5,208 in 2016-17, up 13.6%.

The report also shows that The Universities of Brunel, York, Leicester, Leeds and Warwick have the most students in rent arrears nationally.

NUS Vice President Izzy Lenga called the figures unsurprising “given our broken system of student financial support – which doesn’t even begin to cover the ever-increasing cost of basic accommodation… Rather than falling into the easy temptation to label these as cases of rent avoidance, we instead need to urge the government and the higher education sector to wake up to the reality that students are being priced out of housing and their education.”

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Layla Moran called the news “deeply worrying”, and blamed the rise in financial difficulties at least partly on the government’s decision to scrap several student grants. She called on the Prime Minister to “rethink this punitive policy and reinstate grants for the students from lower income backgrounds”, and added that the Department of Education should “work with universities to address the reasons behind the rapidly climbing costs of rent in their halls”.

The Department of Education replied “Students from the lowest-income households who started their courses this year have access to the largest ever amounts of cash-in-hand support for living costs. This government increased means-tested maintenance support for full-time students on the lowest incomes by 10.3% in 2016-17 compared with the previous grants and loans package, with further increases in both 2017-18 and 2018-19.”

Nevertheless, the news comes against the background of an NUS Report from 2017 which said student finances nationwide were in “desperate” shape, with 71% of the 2000 respondents admitting that they were “stressed and anxious” about finances.

Another 2017 Survey, conducted by Save the Student, found that the number of students participating in drug trials, gambling and adult work to support their finances was on the rise. One respondent called student life “a [constant] battle between surviving and eating and getting an education”, while another testified that “All my money goes on rent, I have no money to socialise or even sometimes eat.”


Huffington Post Ends Unpaid Contributors

Huffington Post Newsroom
The Huffington Post Newsroom – Source:

Originally published 26 January 2018 in The QH

“Citizen journalists” will no longer be featured by The Huffington Post, with the publication announcing the dissolution of its contributor network – an online body of over 100,000 unpaid writers.

The move comes as part of a combined effort to declutter the website and refocus on professional, verified journalism – all the more essential, The Post claims, in a world of “fake news”. The site’s restructuring also includes the addition of new “personal” and “opinion” sections.

In an official announcement, editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen said the changes were intended to address today’s “cacophonous world”, and help strengthen democracy against “the tsunami of false information we all face daily”.

The Huffington Post’s notion of a “contributor network” – giving a media platform to anyone who offers a voice – might seem quaint in the age of Twitter, but it was revolutionary when first launched in 2005. The content was a mix of reportage and personal essays. There were examples provided by many public figures – including Oprah; Jennifer Aniston; and then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2007.

But most notable was when the purely amateur pieces made national news – such as when Mayhill Fowler, an aspirational campaign journalist, quoted Obama as deriding working class voters for “[clinging] to guns or religion.”

The move to scrap this 13 year old bastion of democratised journalism might be taken by some as a move towards elitism, particularly from a publication which made citizen journalism a sticking-point of its original manifesto. But Lydia Polgreen has a point – the internet is a very different place from 2004, with a wide array of social media platforms for anyone to use, and swamped by an increasing glut of fake news.

Even the Huffington Post was not immune from the creep of suspicious, unverified content – with a contributor (bylined as Waqas KH) submitting a positive piece about Felix Sater, a Russian-born former Trump Organization executive. It was soon revealed that the mysterious contributor – a Pakistani national – had been paid to provide the content, which was later deleted.

In the end, the move signals a significant shift for The Huffington Post’s editorial agenda – moving away from Arianna Huffington’s liberal populism to more thoroughly vetted and nationally focused reportage. Ms Polgreen has said as much, commenting “We’re thinking less about how many people are crawling around the halls of Congress asking the same questions to the same senators all day every day,” adding that she aspired to “a large cadre of [Huffington Post] journalists” across the United States.

Ebertfest: Film Critics Criticise Criticism


Originally published 20 April 2018

The 20th annual Eberfest film festival has held a conference speculating on the future of film criticism. The festival, which was founded by celebrated film critic Roger Ebert, has long paid host to some of the most influential figures in American cinema, but now it displayed an all star panel of critics, including Leonard Maltin, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Ebert’s former television co-host Richard Roeper.

The panel covered topics concerning the future of film itself, from the rise of Netflix to the Bechdel test, but focused on the changing role and status of film criticism on an online world.

When asked to share the worst aspects of their job, the critics turned again and again to a lack of security in the digital world. They described an increasing desire to see journalists write for free, or work only on a freelance basis. Further criticism was reserved for the modern movie discussion landscape – the panel attacked the trend to criticise movies before release based purely on trailers, posters, or other pre-release material.

The panel also emphasised the need to network effectively in the modern world, given the absence of job security for all but a happy few.

But when asked about the best parts of their job, the answers covered much of the same ground, just in a different tone. The changing industry opens up new possibilities for in depth criticism and analysis, they declared. It also prompts more engagement and discussion between critics and audiences, a healthy development for film lovers.

One panelist, Sheila O’Malley, was altogether more straightforward. “The best thing about being a film critic is that I am a film critic”.


The Surprise Success of A Quiet Place


A report on John Krasinski’s shockingly successful thriller, and what said success means. Originally published 20 April.

John Krasinski’s low key thriller A Quiet Place remains third at the UK Box Office this week, beating out Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One and Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. While the film still trails behind Peter Rabbit and the Dwayne Johnson’s blockbuster extravaganza Rampage, its success is significant – particularly for a film of its type and budget.

Horror films are rarely box office gold, particularly when they’re neither based on a pre-existing property or starring Hollywood A-Listers. A Quiet Place, which meets neither qualification, seems to owe its success largely to good reviews.

The film received five stars in The Times and The Guardian, and has a 92% positive rating on aggregation service Rotten Tomatoes. Its current UK posters boast 11 positive notices.

This comes at a time of great debate about the role and value of film critics, with recent blockbusters Justice League and The Last Jedi having greatly divided critics and audiences. The backlash against critics has resulted in online petitions and conspiracies about bribery, so the notion that their good word can still draw audiences to smaller films is significant.

When asked about A Quiet Place’s success, director and star John Krasinski responded with disbelief.  “I’m still processing:, he confessed. “It’s like that high school feeling that you get when you think something’s cool, but you hope other people also think it’s cool, and the fact that other people think it’s cool, it’s now cool… Both myself and Emily are completely blown away by the reaction, and we honestly couldn’t be happier.”

A Quiet Place is now playing at cinemas across the country.

Thoughts On Film Criticism


“There has never been a statue erected to honour a critic.”
– Zig Ziglar

Most people don’t like film criticism. Stephen Fry called it a “dreadful trade”, asking “What decent person would want to spend a life picking and cavilling?”  Director Alex Proyas called critics “a pack of diseased vultures pecking at the bones of a dying carcass”. The unfortunate truth, however, is that film critics do matter. Alfred Hitchcock was just an entertainer until Cahiers du Cinema defended his artistry. Bonnie and Clyde revolutionised American filmmaking, but only after being championed by Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. And many great filmmakers – Wallace Shawn; Paul Greengrass; Lynne Ramsay – owe (some of) their success to good early notices.

Still, the disdain coagulates. Films like Suicide Squad, Bright, and The Last Jedi are key here. These blockbusters were received very differently by critics and audiences – a phenomenon which climaxed with two farcical petitions. The first asked “the audiences” to ignore film criticism, while the second charged that Disney had bribed Rotten Tomatoes against non-Marvel superhero movies. These may be extreme examples, but the sentiment behind them is widespread, and the internet has inflamed and harnessed it.

We now have two key digital alternatives to traditional film criticism. The first is to bypass “reviewers” altogether. In 2012, Radio Times Film Editor Andrew Collins noticed a curious phenomenon. Posters for Project X (a justly-forgotten frat comedy) were splattered with praise not from respectable film critics, but from everyday Twitter users. Investigating further, Collins found the quotes came from two accounts – one with no biographical information and one belonging to an Islamic rock band. Without impugning Project X’s marketing, one has to ask – if there’s no accountability for the opinion, if it’s essentially anonymous – why should we trust it?

The second alternative comes in the form of “critics” who are not, strictly speaking, critics. Jeremy Jahns, one of youtube’s most popular film reviewers, goes to great lengths to define himself against film criticism. “In this recent boom” he says, “the internet has given power to normal people… they like movies that are fun… they’re not really after the ‘artsy’ type”. Jahns worked at a film theatre before making videos. His background is not academic, and he skews towards popular films and “erd culture. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s unlikely that Jahns or his competitors would ever kickstart the careers of obscure new filmmakers – they would just go unnoticed. This complaint might seem odd, but Roger Ebert did exactly that with Hoop Dreams and My Dinner With Andre. These films’ success was directly thanks to the critics who championed them.To quote Ratatouille, “There are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new”. In an age when cinema relies on blockbuster tentpole sequels and reboots, a defence of the new is desperately needed. But online film criticism, it seems, is usually more interested in the pre-established – dissecting trailers, posters, and costumes for upcoming franchise entries.

Of course, beyond how online critics operate, it is useful to discuss the consequences of their very existence. In an all too familiar fashion, printed film criticism is in crisis. In 2009 Variety dismissed Todd McCarthy – its longstanding film critic, one of America’s most respected. An internal memo proclaimed “It doesn’t make economic sense to have full-time reviewers… Today’s changes won’t be noticed by the readers.” Shortly thereafter, New York Times’ critic A.O. Scott (who had just argued that film criticism was not dying at an Atlanta conference) had his 36 year old TV show At the Movies axed. Disney lawyers called the programme “a dinosaur” in the online age, while Scott pondered the implications. “Everyone’s a critic!” he wrote, “Or maybe no-one is.”

But the greatest loss for film criticism was yet to come. Roger Ebert died on April 4th 2013, after battling throat cancer for seven years. There was an outpouring of grief and admiration from all corners – even President Obama paid tribute: “For a generation of Americans”, he said “Roger was the movies.” But there was a sense that more than just one man had been lost. The International Business Times ran an article entitled “Movie Critic’s Death Symbolizes the End of a Profession”, declaring Ebert the last critic “whose opinion actually mattered”.

But there is a curious addendum to Ebert’s passing. If fears about the internet bled into his public mourning (and they did) it must be acknowledged that these were not fears that Roger Ebert shared. In 2006, cancer stole Ebert’s voice and, thus, his TV Show. But he wasn’t deterred. Roger went global, filing all his reviews (new and old) on his website, and using an army of twitter followers to extend his reach further than ever before. Mark Kermode, the UK’s leading film critic, has succeeded on similar grounds – with his blog and podcast becoming worldwide successes. The Mark Kermode Appreciation Society on Facebook boasts 5400 members, while his reviews (also broadcast on BBC 5Live) regularly rake in tens of thousands of youtube hits. Moreover, the internet has fostered a new kind of filmic discussion – based on interaction, and allowed the time to cater to niche topics. Both Kermode and Ebert used blogs to focus in on films, filmmakers, or cinematic ideas, while the likes of Cinefix and Lindsay Ellis have built careers on this format – something that would not have been possible without the internet. There remains a market for serious filmic discussion, and the internet can facilitate it.

This does not erase the challenges film critics face. But it does present a path forward. The online world can accommodate good criticism, both from internet natives and digital migrants. And for all the worries around the quality of digital film reviews, I’d like to point out a 1990 article about Roger Ebert’s television show, written by Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss: “This is, shall we say, no film university of the air. The program does not dwell on shot analysis, or any other kind of analysis. It is a sitcom… starring two guys who live in a movie theater and argue all the time.”

Corliss’ column raged against television’s limitations. He worried it was killing American film criticism. He neglected to mention the many episodes which analysed specific films, tropes, or filmmakers, and his complaints ring particularly hollow when weighed against Ebert’s legacy today. The same principle holds true for the online film criticism. It’s new, and it is scary. But it is not the end.

Chasing Your Delusions: The Unkle Adams Story


“Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”
– Orson Welles, in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood

The world is full of success stories. Or at least, it seems to be. With 7 billion people fighting for every chance to be heard, it’s no wonder that the only ones we hear about are those who make it. They dominate the language of artistic struggle so thoroughly that their type of story – “rags to riches” – has, in itself, become a cliche.

But these are just the ones we hear. There are billions more – of riches to rags, or rags to rags, or rags to riches to rags again, which don’t fit the mould of popular success, and thus don’t get told. And that’s a pity, because often failure can be more fascinating and revealing than success.

Enter Curtis Adams. Born and raised in Regina, Canada, Adams’ official bio states that he fell in love with hip hop at a young age. Consumed by a desire to do good and inspire others, he became “NOT just a rapper”, but “also a motivational speaker, role model and counter-bully”.

His songs “Original” and “At Least a Million” became viral hits in mid 2017, enjoyed for the unintentional hilarity in lyrics like “I mold young minds similar to pottery” and “Write out a complaint and place in your rectum, or better yet type it in the comment section!”

And then, as is the case with most internet fads, Curtis Adams had his day and was forgotten, lost in whatever aether of middle-school-centric pseudo-inspiration he was destined to waft into. Until, six months later, he returned.

Adams’ song “At Least A Million” became the title of a vlog series, wherein he spoke about his continuing struggle to “blow up” amid the adversity of online bullying, an unfriendly record industry, and – oh yeah – his ever-growing debt of (what was then) $160,000. By the time the vlog series reached its tenth episode, Adams’ debt had grown to more than $200,000. This was thanks to Adams’ unique way of getting cash in hand – maxing out credit cards to buy televisions and construction equipment, and then selling them at a loss.

Yet he refuses to quit. He has a piece of paper stuck above his bedroom mirror which reads “You are looking at THE ONE”. He keeps pictures of Martin Luther King and Ghandi (among others) above his bed, reminding him that “life tests you, and it’s about keeping the faith”. In his eighth vlog, Adams sits proudly among boxes upon boxes of unsold televisions, and tells how the business partner of “the guy [he] was going on tour with” has decided to withdraw because “he found out that this other business partner… was involved in some fraudulent activity.” Adams was sent a cease and desist letter and the tour was cancelled. His response? “So that was discouraging…  but at the same time I’m prepared for things like that, I know that life does that to you – it does that to everybody, it tests you – and it’s like ‘are you gonna quit or are you gonna keep going?’ And, of course, with me you already know the answer – I’m gonna keep going.”

Johnny Paley was the sound engineer who recorded some of Adams’ earlier songs. He is now moderator of a facebook group dedicated to the bizarre case that is Curtis Adams, and has spoken publicly more than once about the man’s creative process. In essence, he says, what you see is what you get. “he’s the Unk you see in the videos, very forward and confident… delusional.” He described how Adams began as a motivational speaker, before being banned for graphicly showing teenagers what drinking bleach does to the human body. At the same time he was trying to make a name for himself as a battle rapper. This attitude comes directly from Adams’ high school persona, says Paley (who’s known him for years) – “He was always the loudest in the room, and very aggressive.”

Adams’ early work has been retroactively termed “Dark Unk” by this online community – by far Adams’ most prominent fanbase. In fact, there are enough of them that Adams averages 18,000 monthly spotify listens – a staggering achievement for an artist so well and truly outside mainstream music. Surely here, then, lies a route to at least some sort of success?

Alas, no. Not if you’re Curtis Adams, and you only want success on your own terms. Paley detailed this uncompromising attitude in an AMA, saying “I tried [to improve the songs], I really did, but everything Unk releases is ALL UNK IDEAS”. The same thought process translated into his interactions with fans. Adams routinely bans anyone who comments anything but banal positivity on his posts. He recently started a feud with famous online music critic Anthony Fantano, also known as The Needle Drop (Adams calls him “the needle dick” – take a moment now to remind yourself of his claim to anti bullying credentials). And, finally, his girlfriend lurked in the facebook group under a fake account for three months, before making a bizarre post demanding the entire group cease to be, and warning that lawsuits against several individuals are pending. That was three weeks ago. There have been no new developments on the matter.

Curtis “Unkle” Adams is a man in the mould of Tommy Wiseau and Ed Wood. He is heedlessly confident and terrifyingly delusional. His perseverance is almost inspiring, and his ignorance deeply pitiable. He is petty, daring, unhinged, and, above all, deeply out of step with the world around him. There is a video of him clapping and whistling at a flock of ducks by a pond. Confused and awkward, he asks a passerby “Are they… are they ducks?” The old man doesn’t respond. Adams bends down and claps once more at the birds, who proceed to make haste in the opposite direction.

And that’s who Unkle Adams is.

808s and Heartbreak – a Ten Year Retrospective


On November 12 2007, Dr. Donda West died. She was a professor of English literature, published author, and the chairwoman of a national literacy foundation targeted at black youth. She was also Kanye West’s mum.

Kanye loved his mother. A lot. He rapped about her more than once, writing “Hey Mama” for her. He premiered it on Oprah, pulling his mother onstage while he rapped “Come on mommy just dance with me, let the whole world see your dancing feet”.

He was not ready for her to go.

Kanye responded by doing what he did best – making music. The album he created was 808s and Heartbreak, and it changed popular music forever.

The album was barely hip-hop. Kanye sang – his voice sometimes distorted, sometimes clear, always pained. Synths and drum machines to create an impersonal bleakness, above which he nominally wailed about a recent break up.

Opener “Say You Will” flickers into existence. Kanye pleads with an ex-lover to stay, then disappears, letting the song’s cold electronica continue unabated. But the album really begins with the second track – “Welcome to Heartbreak”. A droning, unvarying melody is sung above a lamenting cello, while an 808 drum machine pounds away relentlessly, never letting Kanye breathe. And what is he not-breathing about? “Chased the good life my whole life long. Look back on my life and my life gone – where did I go wrong?”

The album basically continues in this vein, except that from here on in, Kanye proves his true genius as a pop songwriter. The melodies on “Heartless” and “Robocop” swerve up and down like Paul McCartney writing synthpop, “Love Lockdown” and “Amazing” use rhythm and texture to evoke what Kanye called “Thom Yorke in the strip club”.

The album is a great demonstration of Kanye’s true musical gift – layering. As a child he used video game programmes to layer sounds on top of each other, thus creating music. Normally this means grandiosity, but on 808s his layering is sparse – a synth, an 808, his voice, and then maybe some strings or a brief piano. Nothing more. But it works, because every instrument plays a complete and total earworm.

But hooks and layering are not new. What 808s introduced was a downbeat, introspective type of hip-hop – it made it okay for rappers to talk about their feelings. Simultaneously, West revolutionised autotune, distorting and dehumanising his voice to blend with the cold electronica surrounding him. The emotional effect was devastating. The cultural effect, revolutionary.

808s paved the way for Drake, Lorde, and the (hugely popular) genre of trap-soul. Its somber introspection still infests present pop hits.

But influence does not equate to quality. So, does 808s and Heartbreak actually hold up? In short, yes. It’s not perfect – the opener and closer are both lacklustre, providing little sense of overture or climax. Several lyrics are deeply silly, and Kanye’s heavy autotune – revolutionary as it was – sounds somewhat dated to a 2018 ear.

But for track after track the album grips and grieves – this is dance music to cry to. It’s clearly a deeply personal work – paying tribute to the 80s pop of Kanye’s youth while providing an emotional bloodletting amidst terrible loss. But while Kanye West makes music for himself, he always makes music he would want to listen to. 808s is never a chore. It is sometimes joyous, sometimes mournful, always captivating.

Aziz Anzari tells of visiting Kanye’s house – finding him blaring 808s on his own hifi system. Stunned by the man playing his own music for himself, Aziz asked why. Kanye replied “these beats are dope”.

That about says it all.