Cambridge Girl Talk are looking for a group of enthusiastic self-identifying women to form our 2017-18 committee. Positions include Events Director (x2) Sponsorship Organiser, Social Media Co-ordinator, Blog Editor and Head of Visual. Please send a brief email to email@example.com introducing yourself, stating which role you are interested in and why before 25th June.
Image: Rose Finn Kelcey, The Restless Image (1975)
This week on ‘Grad Talk’ we’re chatting to Leaf, who graduated from Magdalene in 2014 with a degree in French and Italian. Now a feature writer for the Sunday Times, here she discusses her life as a journalist, the perks of internships and why it’s ok if you don’t land your dream job as soon as you graduate.
So, what do you do now?
I’m a feature writer for the Sunday Times. I write interviews mostly but also general features, book reviews and occasional news pieces. I do new poetry collection reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and have written a novel, which has just won the Pageturner Prize and will (touch wood) be published next year. I’m about to start a book review show on Talk Radio and I do news shows for them quite regularly, running through the day’s top trending stories.
… and how did you get there?
I spent lots of my summers since I started at Cambridge interning in different newspapers and magazines to work out what sort of work environments I vibed with most. That was helpful in that it narrowed my options down – I realized I liked newspapers most of all, and wouldn’t thrive in monthly women’s magazines which have more languorous deadlines.
In terms of practical journalistic experience I did quite a bit at Cambridge – The Tab, the Cambridge Globalist, my own College’s magazine which I co-edited. I spent my year abroad at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and wrote art exhibition reviews for a paper there.
I guess I tried to study hard enough to maintain decent grades while at Cambridge, which was instrumental in helping me to win the Henry Fellowship in my final year. It’s a scholarship that supports students who want to do a year at Harvard or Yale. At Yale I did some teaching, a broad range of classes and worked on its newspapers – focusing more on economics and making podcasts. After Yale I interned at the Financial Times then got a job at the Sunday Times, where I’ve been since August 2015.
Describe a typical day.
Roughly speaking I have three types of days – an ordinary office day, a writing day and a press day.
On a normal office day I arrive at the News Building in London Bridge at 9am then read the papers (The Times, the DM and sometimes the FT, plus bits and pieces of other papers). I spend the day thinking up feature ideas, trying to get exclusive interviews with people who are relevant to that week’s news, researching individuals whose interviews I have already secured, reading books that are soon to be published to see if the new releases contain fun or moving stories. I’ll have meetings with the features team once or twice a day to exchange ideas and go through what articles we have sorted for the coming Sunday.
If I’m doing an interview they tend not to be in London, so I make my way to wherever my interviewee is. Then I’ll spend an hour or so talking to them, having read their book or seen their film. I’ll type up the transcript (the recording of the conversation) on my way back to London, if it’s a long way away. Then usually that evening, I’ll write the piece (or do it the next morning).
On press days I get in earlier than normal. Press day is the day that we basically press “send” on the features section. All our articles come in and I’ll edit some of them – they often need to be cut to fit the shapes on the page. I work with the Design and Picture teams who make sure our content is beautifully displayed on the page.
What do you like about it?
Interviewing means you get to meet a great range of people you would never otherwise get the chance to encounter. I’ve met a few celebrities (Prince Charles, Lily Cole, Tinie Tempah) but the fun interviews are with people who aren’t high-profile but have become well known for something impressive, that’s not connected with the arts – ordinary people, basically. Like I did an interview a year or so ago with a brickie who left school at 16 then, years later, set up an incredible observatory near Scotland.
The other best part of the job is the writing. Taming a conversation into a feature-length article is challenging, in the best way. Editing others’ work is satisfying too – sometimes you can start with something bad and end up with something brilliant; it’s rewarding to contribute to that transformation.
What do you dislike about it?
Trying to get interviews with people can be hard, because sometimes they are difficult to track down. Or they don’t want to talk to the press, so persuading them you’re not going to do them over is wearing. I often find myself emphasizing that I don’t write for a tabloid. But it can feel a bit grubby.
In newspapers you’re at the mercy of, well, the news. Occasionally pieces are killed last-minute – an ad will gobble up the space that your article was in, a more timely piece will bump yours off the page- and that can be disappointing, particularly if you worked hard on the article.
Once I interviewed a lovely couple who had moved to Australia with their teenage daughter. Within 6 months of them moving there, the girl was brutally murdered steps away from their doorstep. Getting that interview (with the girl’s parents) was very difficult because they were so traumatized. The conversation went well though, and they were excited that their daughter’s story would be in such a big newspaper. But the piece didn’t run in the end because it wasn’t deemed news-y or urgent enough. I felt incredibly guilty for wasting the parents’ time and letting them down.
What do you miss about Cambridge?
I miss having so many friends in such a short vicinity. And I miss going to lectures and supervisions actually, it was a massive privilege to have such intelligent people imparting their knowledge to me all the time.
…and what do you not miss?
It felt quite cliquey, those sort of fall apart after Cambridge.
Did you know what you were going to do before you graduated?
No but I suspected it would either be academia or journalism.
What are your personal aims for 2017?
Secure a publisher for my novel.
What’s your pipe dream? Be bold.
Erm, I’d like to be interviewed on Desert Island Discs? Never going to happen but still.
Name three women you look up to.
Eleanor Mills, J.K Rowling, my mum.
Any words of wisdom for current undergrads apprehensive about job prospects?
Do take advantage of summer, Easter and Christmas holidays to intern. It’s rough not being paid but cut costs by sleeping on friends’ floors if you don’t have a house in London. It’s a useful way of trying on jobs for size without ever having to commit – you’ll know after a week’s work experience in advertising if it’s for you, and the same I imagine would apply to other sectors e.g. banking and consultancy
I think not being too stressed about the jobs thing is wise too – none of my friends are unemployed now, having left Cambridge in 2014. Having the University on your CV will help a lot. Equally it may not guarantee your dream job immediately after leaving so be relaxed about that too.
One thing I found useful was to decide what I wanted my life to revolve around after university: money (e.g. banking), interesting work, or worthy work (e.g. charity sector stuff). I realized I most wanted it to revolve around the middle option, so I went into journalism.
The spotlight of this week’s instalment of Grad Talk is on Rhian Williams, who graduated from Jesus College in 2016 with a degree in French and Spanish. Uniting her love of food and writing, Rhian started a blog in her final year of Cambridge which she now continues to work on post-Uni. Here she tells us about life without a 9-5, her entrepreneurial aspirations and what she’s learned about getting internships.
So, what do you do now?
I graduated less than a year ago, but I’ve already done lots of different things since then. I’ve worked at a local café, a healthy baby food start-up (which included a couple of days working in their factory in Wales), and I’ve also done some freelance writing. I left a job a few weeks ago, and am currently looking for something else, working on my food blog (www.rhiansrecipes.com) in the meantime.
Describe a typical day.
I’ll usually cook something during the day as I tend to test out at least a few recipes per week. I’ve recently started to work more on my food styling and photography, and taking decent photos takes quite a lot of time! In the evenings, I usually write blog posts, do blog-related admin like scheduling social media, as well as working on articles for the freelance writing I do.
What do you like about it?
I love writing and being creative, so am finding it really fulfilling in this sense. My favourite thing, though, is when I hear from readers and see that they’ve made my recipes, which feels so rewarding.
‘[Although Architecture] may be seen to be rooted in pragmatism, it is a powerful and extraordinarily revealing expression of human psychology [reflecting the] ambitions, insecurities and motivations of those who build.’
– An extract from The Edifice Complex: An Architecture of Power
To me, The Edifice Complex by architectural critic Deyan Sudjic, beautifully explains the ways in which buildings throughout history – usually of a patriarchal, political or religious nature – have been carefully and often ruthlessly orchestrated to intimidate their guests. Rather than elaborate external symbols of power, subtle manipulations of architecture have been used to leave guests feeling ‘suitably intimidated.’ Although not reflecting the same ambitions, insecurities and motivations; I was interested in the themes explored in Sudjic’s writings and how they might be applicable to the analysis of many other building types and programmes. Characteristically, I chose to write my dissertation on Prada: an Architecture of Manipulation, and the ways in which luxury brands use architecture to manipulate consumers.
Needless to say, I was not surprised at being turned down by over half a dozen supervisors who, despite being intrigued, felt that they had little to contribute to this unconventional dissertation topic. Whilst the title is intentionally provocative and suggests that my dissertation presents a critical view of Prada, this is somewhat deceptive. Although ‘manipulation’ is normally used as a term of disapproval, for the purpose of my dissertation it simply refers to the handling and controlling of architecture and its skilful marketing.
My dissertation begins by presenting the argument that, despite its outward supreme brand confidence, Prada is in fact driven by chronic insecurity – most crucially the perception of fashion as an incurably superficial and frivolous industry. It is for this reason that Prada likes to associate itself with top architects, who essentially lend a sense of intellectual esteem and an illusion of long lasting relevance to the brand, motivated by the financial backing that the billion-dollar fashion industry is able to facilitate. In 2001, Prada made the intelligent decision to place architecture at the centre of its marketing campaign and began its continuing partnership with OMA and its renowned lead architect Rem Koolhaas, which provided the main focus for my dissertation. It was around this time that Koolhaas had just completed a Harvard-based research project on architecture and retail, a perfect example of the intellectual prowess yearned for by Prada. However, it is important to emphasise that it is not the academic validity or originality of the research – which could easily be questioned – that was of interest. Simply put, for Prada it was attractively marketable.
My dissertation examined the interweaving of politics, religion, gender and music in relation to Iranian women singers. My focus was on the changes incurred by the revolution in 1979, which saw a dramatic shift from the modernising, Westernising stance held during the Pahlavi era (1925-1979) to the Islamic theocratic rule secured by Supreme Leader Khomeini.
As dominant attitudes towards religion and gender changed, legislation surrounding music, which Khomeini believed was ‘like a drug’, also transformed to correspond with Shari’a law. Under immense religio-political pressure, music largely retreated into the private sphere, with the notable exceptions of the revolutionary hymns and anthems played by the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, and the establishment of the annual Hymns and Revolutionary Music Festival in 1986. More specifically, the solo voice was thought to symbolise Western individualism and consumerism, antithetical to the revolutionary vision; and, furthermore, women’s voices were considered to make men think of things other than God. As a result, Iranian women singers were hit hard by the revolution, which appeared to present them with an ultimatum: either stop singing or leave their country.
However, the perceived contrast between the freedoms of the Pahlavi era and the restrictions imposed by the revolutionary regime is problematic, and threaded throughout my dissertation was an attempt to unpick assumptions that women singers lost all agency under the Islamic revolutionary regime. The Pahlavi era certainly presented its own issues for Iranian women, including the forced unveiling in 1936, which created difficulties for the religious population. For musicians, the Pahlavi era’s emphasis on modernisation infiltrated cultural production, and women singers, such as Parissa, could only get licenses to perform pop songs despite being trained in traditional Iranian music. Thus, the view that the revolution and Khomeini’s subsequent Islamic rule was responsible for removing the agency of Iranian women singers required complexifying.
Although quite typical of contemporary ethnomusicology, this topic raised a number of academic issues for me, as a white British woman assessing my own positionality and my right to comment on other women’s experiences. In the end, I felt compelled to address the subject from an angle which critiqued Western representations of Iranian women, rather than constructing my own representation, which I was clearly ill-equipped to do. I argued that contemporary Western views have been bolstered by Islamophobic sentiment, particularly those which applaud Westernisation in the Middle East and see the reinforcement of the veil in 1979 as dramatically more oppressive than its forced removal four decades earlier. The binaries created between the West and Islam, freedom and oppression, needed to be interrogated and the voices of those at the intersections sought out and listened to. In my dissertation, Iranian women singers provided those voices.
I first heard about Molly Goddard whilst I was working on a shoot styled by her sister Alice. Alice runs a biannual magazine called Hot and Cool alongside the extremely talented photographer Theo Sion. Working for Hot and Cool marked a change in my perception of what I had encountered of the modelling industry and the fashion world thus far (not so positive). The idea behind the shoot was to recreate a Smith’s album cover and Alice had prepared the most wonderfully original and varied wardrobe with clothes from Vivienne Westwood and the National Theatre costume store (as an aspiring actress I felt right at home).
I was also, for once, not greeted by the usual spread of coconut water and grapes but by the invitation to share some pizza with the team. I was most surprised by the way I was treated as an individual, rather than a mere ‘model’ in the very crudest of terms. Everyone seemed interested in what I thought of the clothes, asked how I wanted to approach certain shots and how comfortable I felt with certain stylistic choices, such as partial nudity. I felt respected and in turn I felt huge respect for both Alice and Theo. Their magazine, which is only available from their website and obscure London fashion markets, goes by the motto, “Don’t go to them, let them come to you.” They don’t believe in creating art for any other sake than to create art and that is why their work is imbued with integrity and originality. I left this shoot with a sad regret that the rest of the fashion industry could not live up to this.
A few weeks later I told my agency, MiLK, that I was going to take a break from modelling and they were amazingly understanding. Throughout my time as a model they were phenomenally kind and I owe the team so much for their never ending support – they were one of the many reasons I enjoyed the experience. Their approach to their models is refreshing in contrast to other agencies because they do not believe that any two models are alike and tailor their approach to suit each individual.
My hiatus was not because I hadn’t enjoyed my experiences so far, although it was one of the toughest things I had ever done, but because I was disillusioned with the rectitude of the industry. It seemed to jar with all the positive activism that I was seeing around me, I wanted to see the industry display the same strength, solidarity and diversity as I was seeing in the marches and protests for human rights. I have a deep respect for anyone who can endure the demands of the modelling industry, because I sure as hell wasn’t tough enough. I think that there are plenty of things that need to change and that there is a new generation of stylists and designers, of which Alice and Molly are two, who are already helping to achieve this change.
In February 2016 I took part in London Fashion Week, which I was hugely excited about. I couldn’t believe I got to be backstage – let alone on the runways – of an event I had always read about in magazines. And I did enjoy my experience; it was novel and totally eye-opening, but I wasn’t prepared for my induction into the grisly bowels of the fashion week experience. There were five days with approximately six castings a day, conveniently placed in random locations all over London – my pedometer tells me that in those five days I walked a grand total of 147,941 steps! I’d arrive at the various locations and present my show card to either an assistant or a designer, depending on the label, they would either glance at it and put it in the large pile of rejections whilst I showed myself out, or ask me to walk for them. For the most part, the castings were endless line of rejections and I’d arrive at each one amongst a crowd of girls who looked just like me and leave feeling a little less like me. I think the shortest casting I ever had must have lasted about three seconds, and on my way out a fellow model put her hand on my shoulder and told me I’d get used to it. Continue reading Model talk: Emma Corrin on why walking for Molly Goddard helped restore her faith in the fashion industry
We are excited to announce our brand spanking new Spotify playlists!
Our resident DJs, Emmanuel College lawyer Gee Kim and engineer Martha Dillon, are continuing to curate a series of playlists that celebrate the female voice in all its shapes and forms. From Japanese jazz to Brazilian bossa nova, from downtime to the dancefloor, the @cambridgegirltalk Spotify has got it all.
Spotify has got it all.
(Main image: Still from ‘Pretty Girl Rock’, Keri Hilson, 2012)