Sticking Up for Students Was a Lot Easier Before a Drunken Gang of them Formed Outside my Window Ten Minutes Ago

Being a student means a lot of things to a lot of people.

To my mother, for example, being a student is about being in the prime of your life, about freedom and enthusiasm and new experiences. It is about being fresh and young and staring down a corridor of open doors. It is about turning up receptive and sponge-like and leaving with a cranium brimming with knowledge and intellectual fervour. To my mother, when you’re a student you are in the salad days of youth. I don’t know about salad days. I think cup noodles and beans on toast would probably be more accurate.

Well, what a surprise, hearing another student moan about something. Next thing you know you’ll be dodging fire extinguishers and helping me convert ‘Tory Cuts’ into a cheeky slogan for my picket sign.

Before you start unwraveling your fire hoses, I’m not here to complain about being a student. For the most part, Mama Burns is right: student life is exciting, stimulating and, in certain moments, romantically bohemian. It is not, however, easy.

Like many cities in the UK, there is an attitude of reluctant tolerance between students and locals. This is understandable. When I wrote for the university paper we had weekly stories of students being asked outside clubs what school they went to, before getting thumped by groups of locals if it was the wrong one. On the other hand, I’ve seen my fair share of drunken students weeing on parked cars/statues/traffic wardens. You can kind of see where the resentment originates.

(To my American readers: have you ever seen a public urinal? Apparently it’s so difficult to keep yellow puddles off English streets these days that they have to actually build these four-person towers for drunken men to pee into. It’s like multiplayer urination. These were one of the first things I saw on my first night out after eight years of living in a country where it is illegal to chew gum and spit on pavements. Of course I used it–to make a stark political statement–two minutes later.)

Sometimes all the blame that gets shifted onto students is a little unfair. Sure we all seem noisy, obnoxious and perpetually inebriated, but that’s only because you can only ever see the noisy, obnoxious and perpetually inebriated ones. The quiet ones are in the library working on their degrees, or in lecture halls actually doing the thing they came to university to do.

The truth is, sometimes people forget that life as a student can be tough. I remember a few weeks before I started uni in the UK I was working as an intern at my brother’s company, and he turned to me during a lunch break and gave me this really creepy far-off look. “You don’t realise,” he said. “That you are about to enter the easiest part of your life.”

In a sense he was right. On the surface, students have it made. They are young and innocent with oodles of free time and a whole city of pubs and clubs to explore. The problem is, there’s only so much exploring you can do with an empty wallet.

Most students get a sizeable grant, either from the government or their parents. Very few students I know are properly poor, even those who are self-funded. Even so, spending is always tight. The phrase I’m a student has now become instant waiter code for No drinks, thanks, we’ll just have a couple of tap waters.

Alright, you may be thinking, O pity the poor students who have to forgo the Evian when dining at Daddy’s restaurant chain! You don’t realise, however, how soon the life of la bohème wears off, kind of like how on the first night of camping, eating straight out of a frying pan is really fun, but by the final night you are gagging for silverware.

It’s the little things. Walking everywhere, instead of forking over £2 for bus fare. Relying on Sainsburys Basics Everything. Volunteering for experiments in the pyschology department to pay for Christmas presents.

Now, this blog post has suddenly become a lot more ranty than I intended. The truth is that despite the slow weariness of scrimping, student life really can be incredible. Not only have I learned some fantastic things about the subject I came here to study, but I’ve trained myself to be self-dependent, to take responsibility for my actions and to be much more aware of everything I do and buy. Most importantly, I’ve really, really, really learned to appreciate my mother’s cooking and ironing skills.

It’s good I’m starting to get used to this life, because at the very least I can expect another six more years of it, and for the ten years after that, while I’ll no longer be a medical student, I’ll have roughly a quarter of a million dollars of debt to economise myself around.

However, like I’ve said before, the fact that none of this fazes me in the slightest is testament to how stubborn I am about getting through medical school. There is no doubt in my mind that I’d rather love life as a student than hate it as a millionaire.

I’ll just end up really, really good at making beans on toast.


It makes sense to continue my defense of students by promoting something that they can often be pretty good at: making music. There are a few folky bands floating around Bristol, but one that has been humming through my cheap, student headphones lately is Joyshop, a five-piece collection of sound that certainly makes me want to forgo the £2 bus fare, just so I can listen to their album Casual Sincerity a little bit longer on the walk home. They’re what I like to call ‘Clever People Music’, the kind of music that you know is based on actual key signatures and can be described with words like syncopation and tonality. The fact that their logo is an ambigram kind of makes you want to drop out of university and start a Sarah Palin fan club.

In essence, Joyshop is deep, and the more you listen, the more you’ll uncover, plunging further everytime until you realise you’ve been enveloped in their sound and you don’t know how to get back out again. Suddenly, though, that trail of breadcrumbs doesn’t seem so enticing and you’re happy just to melt in the afterglow of someone else’s genius. Let’s just say, the cup noodles taste a lot better when you’ve got a bit of Joyshop in the background.

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Spoiler Alert: I’m Not Writing This Via a Ouija Board

So how were everyone’s Christmases? I imagine they were pretty good, right? You don’t often get bad Christmases, I find, it’s kind of inherent in the season.

Thank you for all your finger-crossing. You’ll be happy to know that the Twin and I did indeed make it back in time for the holiday season, passing through a storm cloud as we descended first into Vegas and then into the arms of Papa Burns and my older brother, who had driven the 300 miles from San Diego to come pick us up. Aside from the two extra passengers they collected at the half-way point, they had basically pretty much driven for five hours, sat in an airport arrivals lounge for ten minutes and driven for another five hours in the opposite direction. I think this is what they call the Christmas spirit.

The next week went exactly as it has for the past 21 years in the various houses I have lived in: Christmas Eve involved gesticulating sing-alongs, Christmas Day mountains of delicious food and an endurance test of present-unwrapping, and Boxing Day spent mentally preparing myself to go skydiving.

Right, so, yes, Boxing Day this year was unique, and the day after, when I jumped out of an aeroplane at 10,000 feet, even more unique. My older sister had bought my brother and me Groupons to go skydiving in two days time. It’s the kind of thing to which you used to say when you were young, When I’m older I’m going to do that!, but secretly you harboured the creeping suspicion that, no, you weren’t going to do that, grown-ups didn’t skydive, they just spent Saturday afternoons at the post office worrying over their cholesterol levels. I never honestly thought I would actually be doing it.

Apparently though, skydiving is fairly casual these days. I don’t know what I was expecting when we–my brother Tom, my sister Holly, Papa Burns and myself–arrived at the airfield two days later. A hillside dotted with man-shaped craters? A graveyard placed within convenient proximity? I had at least expected a brief training video, but when Tom and I were placed in the room with a TV and a few chairs where I thought it would take place, we were instead confronted by a recording of the company’s lawyer telling us that after we had signed the consent forms (with comforting gems like, ‘Please tick this box to confirm that if you die while skydiving your body will be removed from the premises within 5 days.’) there was no chance we could get away with a lawsuit in case something went wrong.

When the training finally did come, it lasted a good 30 seconds before we were buckled into harnesses and introduced to our jump buddies. I made my best efforts at awkward conversation about the variety of San Diego weather while my instructor made his best efforts to ensure my groin straps were particularly snug. Before long our names were called, and we left the safety of the spectator zone and walked across the grass to our waiting twin-prop aeroplane. In the bright morning sunlight, miniscule under a giant blue-eggshell sky, we stepped resolutely across the grass while my father and sister watched on. The super-tight harness made me feel like a fighter pilot with a wedgie.

Because I was the last on the plane, I was closest to the door and would be the first to jump. The cabin of the plane was tiny, and we were crammed in along its length, knees knocking as the plane stretched back and launched itself into the sky. I was nervous at first, but soon we had unbuckled our seatbelts and were gazing along the Mexican border, chuckling as the instructors exchanged casual banter. A few minutes later I heard my instructor shout something to me across the metre or so that divided us.

“What?” I shouted back.

“I said, come sit on my lap!”

There was a long pause. I looked at the twenty-something year-old man across from me, staring into my eyes with absolute sincerity. I sighed, did a 180 degree turn and lightly planted my rear end into the strangers lap.

I think I’ve set the bar for weirdest sentence I will ever type on this website.

The only redeeming quality of having to spend five minutes sitting on another man’s lap, was seeing my brother, the massive six-foot rugby player blocking out the light in the cabin and trying to avoid my gaze as he balanced delicately on the thighs of the significantly more diminuative man beneath him.

Of course the other redeeming factor occured moments later, when I suddenly realised the door to the plane was open and I was half waddling, half being pushed toward this gaping maw of sunlight and cold air. In my ear I heard my buddy shouting, Remember the training, right? I certainly did not remember the training, but before I could answer he was counting down and rocking back and forth on the threshold of the door.

Tom would tell me later on the ground that he had waited for a wave or a smile before I jumped, but that I just kind of turned away from him and disappeared. So much for fraternity.

Suddenly I was falling. I spent the first ten seconds feeling really uncomfortable, like waiting impatiently for a cold shower to warm up. I was kind of baffled by what was going on and I think my brain was a little overwhelmed by it all. Then I kind of woke up, examined the bizarreness of the situation and burst out into laughter, the same kind of mad, incomprehensible laughter you get on roller coasters and the front row of concerts. My mouth filled up with air and I could feel the wind stretch back my skin. I just screamed and screamed and screamed. Oh, wait, no, not the girlish frightened screaming you are imagining right now in your head, the manly triumphant kind. Don’t think I would have done anything to embarrass myself in front of company, especially not the kind that’s strapped to your back.

As soon as we landed I detached myself from my aerial lapdance with obvious haste and shook my buddy’s hand before we parted ways, never to speak of this incident again.

I don’t know if was the 120 mph descent or the giddiness of the whole experience, but I couldn’t undo the giant smile plastered across my face for the whole day. It was incredible, and if you ever get a chance to do it, I can only recommend you sign up as fast as you can.


I’ve been meaning to post this artist for the last two weeks but revision, dissertation research and applications have kept me too busy even for folk. Finally, though, I am able to present to you the very interesting Dan Mangan from Canada, and his song ‘Basket’. I’m kind of hoping this song catches the frustration some of you might be feeling this time of year and the enthusiastic vengeance you want to wreak on last year’s uncompleted Resolutions. It’s not easy, but Mangan really pulls off the I’m Fed-Up So Listen To Me singing voice somewere in the closing half of the song.

It’s been a great holiday, but now that I am back in the UK with a laptop full of uncompleted essays and application forms, I feel like I need to get into my rhythm again.  Every time I switch to another time zone I have to go through the inevitable acclimatization process, shifting my vowels, conquering jet lag, remembering how to cook. I feel I need another 10,000 foot drop to wake me up again.

Maybe, though, there can be a little less lap-sitting this time.

When the Weather Turned Sour

I woke up yesterday morning, opened my blinds and uttered a word that would probably make even the Scroogiest of Christmas-haters blush.

There was snow everywhere.

I had a plane to catch.

Oh, Internet, I am ashamed at how, only days before, I had laughed at the anxious proclamations of the BBC weathermen. I shudder to think of my arrogance at forecasts of airport-clogging blizzards, of snow-choked rail networks. It won’t snow in Bristol, I guffawed. It’s sunny, I am wearing a t-shirt for crying out loud!

Even after I had seen the snow blanketing the streets outside my window, I still had full confidence that the train carrying me to Surrey, carrying me to our family friend Tina who would later carry me to the airport, would tunnel its way through the drifts with ease. I was convinced that the confident managers of Heathrow must be walking around in short-sleeves, pointing at the unblemished skies above them and laughing at those other wimps at Gatwick who had chosen to shut down for the day.

I probably felt my first pangs of worry at the same time that I felt the icy bonnet of my friend’s car under my fingertips as I helped push it out of a snow drift and up a slippery hill a couple hours later. He probably felt pangs of his own, of regret that he had offered to give me a lift to the station that wintry morning and of fear that he might not ever make it back again.

Arriving at Bristol’s main station gave me hope, however, especially when I arrived with plenty of time to spare and hopped onto my Surrey train with confidence. I secured my present-laden suitcase onto the luggage rack, slipped into my pre-booked seat and waited for the train to take off.

I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited and waited and waited. When we finally left the station nearly an hour later (now accompanied by the delayed train manager we had been waiting all that time for) I was starting to reconsider my earlier confidence. Standing around at Reading for another hour with two hundred other disgruntled passengers while children had snow ball fights around us further chipped away at that confidence, and by the time I got to the tiny station of North Camp and had to be picked up in an all-terrain Land Rover, I was despondent, shivering and miserable.

The 2 hour journey had become a 7 hour one, the casual trip across the width of the country had become one fraught with negotiation and anxiety. When I did finally arrive at Tina’s door, I collapsed into bed, triumphant in the knowledge that in twenty-four short and easy hours I would be hundreds of miles away from my nearest snowflake.

By the time I had woken up, though, everything was shutting down.

Our flight had been cancelled, the arrogant men in shirtsleeves at Heathrow had decided to close their airport, the phone lines where sagging from the inundation of phone calls from anxious travellers. I spent the morning chasing down leads and reaching dead ends, frantically negotiating with my parents who were up at 2 am on the other side of the world doing the exact same. The Twin and I put £10 onto a Skype account and spent the next two hours sitting by my laptop on hold, until, just as I reached the point where I thought one more crackly rendition of whatever overplayed piece of generic classical music I had already listened to thirty-four times would send my fist through the screen, a friendly, but very tired sounding, airline representative picked up. She politely informed the Twin and me that the next flight to LAX would not be available until THE TWENTY-FIFTH OF DECEMBER. Were there any flights to San Diego available? Could we get to maybe Atlanta and reconnect there? Wasn’t there anything else we could sneak onto? No, no and certainly not. It was either fly home on Christmas day or duck tape your suitcase to your back and start paddling.

Suddenly, the Twin’s spluttered out the word that saved Christmas:


The airline operator was doubtful at first but decided, Yes, Mr. Burns, it does in fact seem that we have some seats available on a flight to Las Vegas for Wednesday the 22nd, and, yes, we will transfer you to this flight free of charge, and, please Mr. Burns, if you and your sister would like to stop screaming for a second and perhaps return to the microphone so we can discuss contact details…

Okay so sure, it was a small victory. We are still stranded in England, we are still going to be a little late this year, and Papa Burns still has to drive five hours to come pick us up, but after a weekend full of minor tragedies we had to rejoice over this minor triumph.

Indeed, every cloud has a silver lining, even the ones swollen with impending flight-delaying doom, and I couldn’t help but consider the tiny happy moments and joyous coincidences that passed me by over the last couple of days.

There was the overcrowded train from Reading to North Camp where some fellow passengers and I banded together and stormed the empty First Class carriage, sharing the crisps and cookies and bits of fruit amongst each other we had been hoarding all day and reluctantly saying goodbye as, one-by-one we–nameless, anonymous and unlikely to ever meet again–parted company. The train driver waved to me from an open window with unwavering enthusiasm as they crept out the station.

Then there was the driver of the Land Rover, Tina’s ex-husband, a man linked to me by the most tenuous of connections but still willing to take an hour out of his day to negotiate slippery country roads to get to the station where I was stranded. We talked about manly things, as men forced into polite conversation often do, and I pretended I knew what ABS and a high-ratio gearbox was.

Finally, there was this evening, where a friend of Tina’s who also knew my mother invited us over for a cup of tea, which quickly turned into several bottles of wine and a gut-busting roast. There I met her son, who casually mentioned that his girlfriend lived in Singapore and that she was coming over later, and I casually remarked that I used to live in Singapore, and he casually enquired if I had met her before and I proceeded to casually flip out at the incredible coincidences this crazy world is often so capable of producing. I did indeed know his girlfriend, and, in fact, at age 12 I had asked her to be my girlfriend. The affair lasted three weeks before she dumped me by the swings. Suffice to say, she was pretty shocked when the Twin and I jumped out of a closet to surprise her an hour later.

It’s so important to extract the little islands of interest and coincidence of your day that would otherwise get swept up amongst its tidal waves of monotony and tedium. Getting trapped by a bad weather is a bummer, missing quality time with my family is a drag, but whining about it won’t melt the snow. If this whole mess has taught me anything, it’s to relax, stay calm and deal with problems as they arise.

Also, to next time pack a coat.


This time of year Australia turns its big Uluru-shaped middle-finger towards the rest of the world and hits the beaches. To prove that really I’m a good sport, today’s offering will be direct from Down Under (I’ve never understood this expression. Down Under…down under what? Indonesia, perhaps? Papua New Guinea? A hole in the ozone layer?). Australian folk still has something raw about it, something Country & Western as if it was too cool to jump on the poppy folk-rolk bandwagon, something that makes it feel like it would still be welcome by a midnight campfire on some rattlesnake-infested plain. Glenn Richards (of Augie March fame who I have quietly mentioned before) joins music legend Paul Kelly and local star Missy Higgins for a song infused with curly fierce accents and plenty of ranching references I can’t understand.

Thanks to Kev, my Australian Folk Ambassador.

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Droving Woman – Glenn Richards, Paul Kelly, Missy Higgins


Dec 2010

When I Finally Grow Up (Part 2)

This post carries on from Part 1, found here.

I live with a very successful bunch of boys. Two o them have already secured graduate jobs with salaries that make me wonder if that whole ‘recession’ thing we went through was just a bad dream. One is midway through interviews with various oil and gas companies that will probably land him in an air-conditioned office in Sydney or Singapore next year, while another is up in London every other week living his own anglicised Don Draper fantasies in the big bad world of advertising. The final one is currently on a year abroad in Russia, living a comfortable life in a beautiful Moscow flat, furnished and paid for by a very famous legal firm.

Me? Oh, I just sweep up vomit on the weekends.

The weird thing is, I kind of like doing it. Preparing for medical school applications has been one of the best boots I’ve ever had the privilege of getting kicked up my backside. It’s forced me to stray away from the usual haunts of the student (lecture hall, kitchen, club, bed) and go to places and take part in activities I would otherwise have had no idea about.

The aforementioned vomit usually materialises at a night shelter I traipse to weekly in a dodgy part of Bristol where things occur my mother probably wouldn’t like to hear about. Some nights I break up fights, other times I take abuse from those too inebriated or high to know what they’re saying, but by the far the majority of my time is spent chatting and sharing stories with some incredibly interesting people. I’ve met ex-professors and asylum seekers. I’ve met mothers and murderers. I once chatted with a lady who told me she was going to court the next day for ‘detagging’. My face must have looked puzzled as I contemplated what I thought might be Facebook’s latest attempt to enforce privacy settings, because she lifted up her trouser leg to reveal the electronic GPS tag attached to her ankle, which she had tried to pry off with a knife a weeks earlier.

Suffice to say I felt a little bit silly.

Everything I’ve seen so far has been eye opening, and not just things in the shelter. I spend Wednesday afternoons in a charity shop carrying boxes of donations up and down stairs and gossiping over cups of tea with a couple of sixty-ish ladies who spoil me like favourite nephew. You wouldn’t believe it, but theft in these places is pretty common and when I’m at the till I keep one eye firmly pinned on the CDs stacked in the corner, many of which get brought to the counter days later by genuine shoppers who then realise they aren’t holding anything but an empty case. Hey, if we decent human beings are not going to steal from Oxfam then I guess somebody has to, right?

There probably aren’t many things more boring than having someone tell you about how wonderful volunteering is, but really if you don’t already do something for a couple hours a week, you really should try it. If not to get that warm fuzzy feeling inside from helping others (and trust me, it’s become like crack to me) then at least to scoop you out of your comfort zone and put you in situations that scare you a few times a month. I don’t mean you should go out and join your local chapter of the Latin Kings or try your hand at some casual pimping, but that you should do your best to seek out the freedom that comes from walking on the side of life you rarely usually tread.

It’s taken me a committment to a six-year education and a hundred thousand bucks in debt to realise that helping people is really where it’s at. I’m proud of my housemates with the eye-watering salaries but it’ll take more than a six-figure income to make me give up my barfy Saturday nights.


I’ve been a little bit enthusiastic with my folkfinding lately. Right now I’m sitting back in my chair, fingers greasy with acoustica and swaying side to side like the corpulent, overindulged folkseeker that I am. The number of tunes flowing in has meant that it’s been difficult to pick music this week, and it came down to a choice between two fantastic artists, each singing from different sides of the Atlantic. In the end, though, in honor honour of my approaching departure from the British Isles and also as a vigorously enthusiastic nod to the great Folk Radio UK where I first heard of her, I decided that  Elena Tonra would be the obvious choice.

Daughter, as Tonra now likes to be known, is that gorgeous girl you always pass on the street who you know is way too trendy for you to ever consider talking to. She’s the kind of girl who rolls cigarettes in the closing minutes of tutorials and dates guys who grow ironic moustaches.

Luckily for those with less developed hirsute capabilities, Tonra’s beautifully aching voice has been recorded for the world to hear. ‘Peter’ is one of those songs that manages to drop the F-bomb like an A-bomb, making you sit up in your seat, smile and think, “Silly Peter, I bet his moustache looks terrible.”

Tonra has released a 4 song EP, which you can download from her Myspace page here. You know how much I love free music and I know how much you love folk. It’s a match made in heaven and Daughter is holding those Pearly Gates wide open. Get downloading.


Dec 2010

Let’s Get Serious

It’s been exactly seven months since Shut The Folk Up was born, seven months of awkward first steps and teething issues, seven months of slowly realising that my computer knowledge basically extends no further than point-and-click, seven months of joyfully watching my visitor stats slowly creep upwards day by day. During those seven months many things have happened and a lot of folk has been discovered, approved and downloaded. At some point during this great maelstrom of good music I managed to find the time to turn 21. This was particulary poignant considering that in my family there is an unwritten rule that the presents we give each other for birthdays and Christmases must never, ever suck (Christmas is like a thousand times more fun when it’s a competition).

This year my favourite older sister and brother-in-law unfailingly followed the Burns Family Principle of Awesome Gift-Giving and bought and designed what you probably by now have realised is a whole new website, beautiful, accessible and free from the constraints of Blogspot.

Today is the dawn of a new era for STFU, and it’s lovely to be able to share it with all of you.


You know what’s awesome? Joe Purdy is awesome. If you’d like some awesome evidence, I’m happy to provide:

This is the kind of folk you don’t have to be a snobby folkaholic like me to appreciate. It’s the kind of folk you’d quietly sneak into the playlist you made for your friend, secretly indoctrinating him with your acoustic lullabies so that by the time he realised he was a folky convert there would be nothing he could do. Joe Purdy is the California roll of the folk world:  fun, simple, but most importantly, likeable by almost everybody.

This was the logic I was pursuing up until about 24 hours ago, when undercover folk agent Paddy reminded me not only how awesome Joe Purdy is, but that he has just posted his new album This American for FREE online. This has resulted in two consequences.

Firstly, Joe Purdy has now, in my books at least, become cooler and more folk and just generally a better person.

Secondly, he has been upgraded from California roll status, to Complicated-Octupus-And-Worrying-Orange-Stuff-Wrapped-In-Seaweed status. Even though there’s nothing more here than a fella and an unplugged steel-string, his lyrics have become so deep they’re probably scribbled all over the Mariana Trench. It’s incredible how easy it is to break hearts with good lyrics and a touch of reverb, but this guy knows just how to do it.

Now Purdy ain’t no fool, and his album is only available throughout this December. Come 2011 and you’ll have to stay satisfied with your Californian rolls, so you’d better get downloading if you want to partake in this awesomeness.

Me? I’m going to go get some dinner. These extended metaphors are making me starving.

Download Joe Purdy’s Free Digital Album ‘This American’ Here!


Dec 2010

Maybe I’m Wrong And I’ve Always Been That Way

The last couple days for me have been a lot like an episode of Scrubs, except with less Zach Braff and more exposed shin bone.

I spent Thursday and Friday shadowing a surgical team at a hospital in London, where my sister’s lovely generous doctor friend had so kindly volunteered to let me get in her way while she tried to save people’s lives. Getting work experience is of course an essential part of the process of trying to get into medical school, but for me it was particularly important. I needed to make sure I was doing the right thing.

You see, I’ve been so intent on becoming a physician I was worried that maybe I’d been swept up in the romance of it all, with the idea that every day starts with a fresh set of scrubs and ends with a patient making a miraculous recovery after thirty seconds of CPR and a young handsome doctor saying, Dammit, I am not losing this one!

I was worried that despite the mile long queue of weary medical residents and SHOs who have warned me to get out while I still can, despite the $120k+ education fees I can expect to spend a good chunk of my life paying off, despite not being able to even think about making a salary for the next six years, despite having to leave all my friends in the UK and start all over again in a country I haven’t properly lived in since I was 11, despite all this, I am still as enthusiastic about becoming a physician as I was on that sunny July day back in 2009 when I realised there was nothing else in the world I could imagine myself doing.

In reality, I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was little (though the career path did have healthy competition with ‘astronaut’ between around 1997 to 1999) but poor science grades gradually chipped away at that dream until it seemed like nothing more than a silly idea. When my GCSE results came back sometime before my 17th birthday and I realised I was not the mediocre student I had always suspected I’d been, that little doctor seed that had been frosted over by a blizzard of Bs and Cs for so many years suddenly broke through. Despite this, I was so keen to get to university and so reluctant to spend another year getting the science prerequisites required to get me to medical school, I ended up settling for a Politics and Sociology degree in the UK.

The past three years have been fantastic, but only because the last two have them have been spent knowing the pure unstoppable fact that when I graduate I will be pursuing an MD in the United States. Okay, sure, so I have to do a post-baccalaureate premedical degree first, and that will take up to two years and around 30k to finish, but the important thing is, I’m getting there.

So when I got to the hospital on Thursday morning (I was so nervous I arrived an hour early and had to sit in the staff room awkwardly watching SkyNews with a bunch of exhausted doctors who did not want to have to make small chat with a clueless pre-med student after a 12-hour night shift) I knew that everything was on the line. My little medical dream seed had matured into a sturdy sapling, but I was waiting for the gale forces of reality to come and blow me off my feet again.

So I waited.

I waited through my first round on the ITU ward, dealing with patients who everyone knew were most likely headed for the morgue.

I waited through my first surgery, a knee replacement that involved a lot more chiseling, grinding and power tools than I had ever expected in a hospital.

I waited through my first cardiac arrest, when the resuscitation team fought and won against an elderly heart that stubbornly refused to keep beating.

I waited and I waited, peeking through my fingers and holding my breath for the moment when I would say, Oh, right, yeah, that’s why I would make a terrible doctor, that’s why everyone says it’s not nearly as a good career as it used to be, that’s why I should just give up right now.

It was only when I dumped my blood-stained scrubs on Friday evening and left through the revolving doors of the hospital that I suddenly realised nothing at all in the past 48 hours had made me any less determined to be a doctor. Finally I could relax my shoulders, untense my worried mind and think, Right then, let’s get on with it. I came away unburdened by my fears of failure and instead weighted down with a hundred-and-one more reasons why I have to succeed.

Okay, sure, I’ve only seen the clean, daytime tip of an otherwise frightening, exhausting and mind-numbing iceberg, sure I’ve only seen one hospital, and not even one in the country in which I intend to practise. But I’ve seen enough to know that the roots of my dream to one day (still a long, long way away) become a doctor have gripped me so tightly that if I don’t drop everything I am doing right now and pursue this time-consuming, money-draining, life-changing goal, I will have let down the six-year old self that envisaged it in the first place.

When I got back to Bristol at 10 o’clock at night, I walked through the frosty streets to an empty house and sat in our basement living room, drinking beer and eating pasta. One of my housemates texted me and asked if I wanted to come round to a little party a few doors down the street. It was 2 degrees outside and I’d just picked up on three clinical inaccuracies in an episode of Scrubs I was watching.

I told him I’d see him in the morning.

In other news, I’ve been zeroing in on a lot of amazing folk lately, and can’t even quite remember where I found this week’s track. I wish I could tell you more about Nathaniel Raitliff, but I’m thinking all you really need to know is that he must have been reading the part of my secret diary where I wrote how much I love vocal harmonies. He must also have read the footnotes on including wonderful lyrics and the margin where I’d scribbled how much I like powerful chest-baring choruses. Either that or he’s just one of the amazing new artists that contemporary folk has been churning out lately.

I’m going to start locking up my secret diary.

Progressive Folkism

Not all music genres were created equal.

When I walk into university everyday it’s impossible for me to ignore the flyers taped to post boxes and telephone poles advertising all sorts of artists I’ve never even heard of before. I can hardly open my email inbox without being inundated by an avalanche of Facebook invitations to events hosted by MC Shamtastic or the Croydon Dub Masters. Many an evening have I walked away from the DJ booth in shame after being told that no, sorry, they don’t take requests for Paul Simon at Lizard Lounge.

We live in a prejudiced world.

Long gone is that golden era when ‘folk’ and ‘club’ were two words that frequently appeared in the same sentence. How I wish I could experience those salad days, when I wouldn’t have to panic when asked, so what kind of music do you like?

But there is hope. The few hundred visitors I get on this site every week all stand testament to the stalwart remains of folk fandom. The emails I get from readers suggesting new tunes and bands I haven’t heard about fill me with unparalleled joy for the future of our encroached genre. We’re still here, I whisper to my tear-stained reflection, And, dammit, we’re going to stay.

And so to my humble comrades of the Good Music Resistance, to my fellow folk freedom fighters, I implore you to carry on resisting, to spread the good word of Folk. Slowly, we can persuade the non-believers, inch by dulcet inch we will retune their chart-deafened ears to the strumming of acoustic guitars and the chorus of three-part harmonies.

To aid you in your quest of conversion, I gift you with an excerpt from The Little Folk Book: Quotations from Folkmaster Luke. Spread yourselves throughout the countryside and speaketh my Word to those who will listen, for within folk lies the answer to many of life’s deepest quandries.

The Little Folk Book: Quotations from Folkmaster Luke
Chapter 7–Coming Out the Folk Closet
There comes a time in every person’s life when he or she must come to terms with what he or she truly is inside, a time when those feelings that have been bottled up for so long must finally be faced head on and properly understood. Usually people encounter signs that make them realise once and for all that they do truly like folk. You might have experienced these signs too. Perhaps you heard Mumford & Sons on the stereo at Old Navy and it made you feel…funny. Perhaps your friend put some Johnny Flynn on while you were hanging out and you felt an incredible loneliness when the track ended.

However you discovered that you like folk, the first thing you must understand is, there’s nothing wrong with you. Many people throughout the world feel exactly the same way as you and it’s perfectly normal.

Of course, life for the folk-initiated isn’t always easy. At some point you’re going to want to tell your friends and family, and if you don’t handle it perfectly there could be dire consequences.

Luckily, the Generous and Exulted Folkmaster Luke and the National Party for the Advancement of Wonderous Acoustica have compiled a list of advice for what you should do when you finally decide to come out of the folk closet.

#1 Don’t always tell people you like folk music, it might confuse them
A difficult question for any folk fan is, so what music are you into? Tread carefully, comrades. There are several ways to answer this question. Firstly, judge the questioner. Does she seem cool to you? What is her body language telling you? Is she genuinely interested in what you are going to say or is she only making awkward small talk while you both wait desperately for your mutual friend to come back into the conversation?

Act accordingly. If you don’t think she will respond well, shrug off the question. Here are some handy phrases for you to employ:
- Oh, you know, I like everything, mostly acoustic stuff really.
- Well, I’m not really that into music, I just like simple stuff.
- Hmmm, do you know that guy Jack Johnson? Yeah, he’s pretty good, I’m into him right now

Of course, there is the chance that your questioner would be receptive to a truthful answer. Don’t be afraid to humbly offer ‘folk music…?’ as a response. If she smiles, lifts up her sleeve and reveals a tattoo of a heart with the words JOSH RITTER etched inside, it could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

#2 No one likes pretentiousfolk
Some people like to spread the good word of folk and that’s fine. The problem is, there will inevitably be those who don’t want to hear about your enlightened sense of existence. I know, I know, what’s the point in knowing about the greatest genre of music in the world if you’re closest friends can’t? Believe it or not, though, some people do not wish to hear about your slightly unorthodox taste in music. Some people are not big enough fans of music in general to be impressed that you think Devendra Banhart is too mainstream for the freak-folk outfit or London neo-folk got left behind with Alas I Cannot Swim. Some people don’t like sitting next to the guy at parties who spends forty-five minutes individually explaining the pseudo-biblical references in each of The Trapeze Swinger’s eight separate verses.

There was a time when this guy at parties was me, but as I became less of the Guy At Parties and more of the Guy at Home By Himself On A Friday Night Wikipedia’ing The American Civil War, I realised that subtlety, modesty and calm were the best attributes to have when listening to friends talk about how Jason Mraz is the best acoustic artist of our generation. Just grit your teeth, smile and hum along with your friends to ‘I’m Yours’.

#3 Learn to play guitar
Do you know what is even cooler than writing folk music? Converting pop music into folk music. It’s like aural alchemy. Most pop songs are based on three or four chords. If you can figure out these three or four chords, learn how to do a nice little fingerpick with your right hand, and slow everything down, you can turn everything into a folk song! These are the tunes that people want to sing along to at parties. These are the tunes that will make people realise they love folk without even realising it. If you don’t believe me, ask William Fitzsimmons:

I hope I’ve been able to return to you lonely folkies out there some of the hope you bestow upon me every time you visit Shut The Folk Up. Honestly, folk is making a resurgence. These days you can hear good folk in places other than just phone adverts and Gossip Girl. Mumford & Sons are just as likely to be featured on a hip trendy website like this as they are on your mainstream radio station, and I think that is a sign of the times.

This week’s reward for your tireless persistency in folk promotion is, in the opinion of myself and Papa Burns, one of the most beautiful pieces of folk music ever written. Judee Sill was probably the most unassuming heroin addict you have ever seen, and her untimely death at 35 appears all the more catastrophic when you hear what a genius she was at her craft. In the copy of her song ‘The Kiss’ below, I’ve chosen to leave in the brief intro in which she tries to explain to a live audience the hidden meanings behind the track. She seems to get lost in her own thoughts as she speaks, though, as if the true story behind the lyrics has escaped even her, the person who conceived it. What kills me the most is when she quietly, but with undeniable authenticity, tells the audience that she hopes they’ll like her song, before launching into it. I feel this way every time I try to introduce folk to one of my friends, lining up something on iTunes that’s been haunting me for weeks, sitting them in my chair and throwing it all into a click of the mouse.

I let the folk do the rest.


Nov 2010

Three Things I Learned Yesterday

1) No matter how long you watch the Discovery Channel for, when you get back to your computer your dissertation will not have written itself

2) Sometimes the best music is the kind that’s recommended to you by your best friends*

3) If you’re too busy watching TV working and getting med school experience to write a full post, three bullet points will suffice

*For proof, listen to Augie March below (thanks, Kev).


Nov 2010

When I Finally Grow Up (Part 1)

I’ve got rather messy career aspirations. For a good part of my life I’ve been having an internal struggle over what I want to do with myself. This is pretty normal of course, most people have no idea what their futures will be until they stumble into them sometime around their twenties. Usually, people know that they want to be in business, or in media, or in fashion. For me though, I knew there were only two specific ways I could turn out: as a doctor or a writer.

I come from a family of writers. My sister is a travel writer, got a 1:1 in English from University College London and gets flown around the world to give speeches on various aspects of the written word. Mama Burns is also a writer, following Papa Burns’ job from continent to continent and editing various magazines and newsletters along the way, writing her own column in New England and now gradually breaking into the journalistic world on the West Coast. Papa Burns co-wrote a book once, Brother Tom studied English at university and the Twin is doing the same now.

You could say it’s kind of in my blood.

Of course, we’re all attracted to the romance of journalism. I remember reading Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diaries and assuming that all journalists must live debauched lifestyles on tropical islands with beautiful women and unlimited supplies of white rum. I also got lost in the idea of becoming a foreign correspondent, jetting off to Iran and Burma and Chile on the BBC payroll, whipping up a furor in the international press with my dry witticisms and then returning to a good night’s sleep at one of my many bohemian loft apartments dotted around the globe.

It was under these pretences that I pursued a degree in Politics and Sociology at university in England. As a first year undergraduate it was hard to penetrate the student journalism scene (it’s not what you know…) but I was soon embroiled in it after someone in my halls of residence drove a brand new Mini across the quadrangle and up and down the stairs. I’d signed up to be my ‘hall reporter’ in hopes of being assigned a decent story, and though they didn’t want a lowly first year to write this particular front-page article, they would be happy for me to take some photographs of the wasted car and give a statement.

How exciting! I relayed to my friends in a cafe on the day the newspaper came out, That’s me! I took that photo! I gave that quote about that stupid idiot driving the Mini! Unfortunately, a boy in the cafe overheard, came up to me and told me that I should probably not quote things that I didn’t know anything about, and it later turned out that this boy was the stupid idiot who had been driving the Mini. Oops.

I learned to be a little more discrete in my journalistic ventures but remained just as enthusiastic. I hounded friends for stories and constantly scanned the news for mentions of my university. While chasing one particularly controversial story I was assigned to, I was given a phone number for a staff member at the uni and I called him up. After some particularly cautious (boring) responses, I decided to drop the tact and rile him up to get some more interesting quotes for the paper. We ended the conversation with him more or less slamming the phone on the receiver, and as I smugly Googled the man’s name to find out his role at the uni, I realised that I had just been provoking and teasing the chancellor’s right-hand man. Second oops.

By the end of the paper’s run, I had managed to squeeze into the elite circle within the student newspaper, a place where few first-year students manage to go, and had earned the title of Senior Reporter along the way. It was only during the paper’s final edition that it dawned on me what a little shit I had become. I ran around the university, antagonising people, eagerly searching for the most gruesome stories about students getting beat up and mugged and attacked. I looked for controversy and institutional unease. I was always the first to hear the latest gossip, and there was a certain thrill in being the one who got to dispense it on the front page, but it was always a short-lived high. I decided I wouldn’t work on the paper the following year, that I would stand up for my morals, the morals that I had been decimating all those months simply for the sake of my silly title as Senior Reporter.

Then of course I was offered the role of Deputy News Editor and my morals went back out the window.

To be fair, I did my best to change my ways. I standardised the paper’s writing: no more first person narratives (shudder), contractions (shudder) or whacky alliterations (SHUDDER). I gave more control to new reporters. In the end, I let the Editor steer the ship while I just sat in the background, scrubbing the barnacles off the hull. Unfortunately, the ship–for me at least–was sinking, and while I enjoyed polishing other people’s rough articles and seeing my own work occasionally grace the front page, I knew that this would be the last paper I would write for. Journalism wasn’t for me.

Luckily, STFU isn’t a newspaper and so there’s no reason why I can’t post you a song that I think you’ll all like. I picked this up a few days ago. If you are starting to feel the grind of Winter life, think of ‘Sounds Like Hallelujah’ from Seattle’s The Head and the Heart as a big old overcoat that’ll keep you toasty, if not for a full day then at least for the few minutes it’ll be playing on your iTunes.

Let It All Out

I’m sure there must be some way we can increase the number of hours in a day.

Let’s do the maths. Say we wanted a couple extra hours more than the 24 we have already. Simple. It’s done. This would make the average week 182 hours long, 14 hours longer than the measly 168 we’ve grown accustomed too. This it turn would mean 780 hours in a month (up from 720) and 9360 hours in the year.

Right, okay so like an eager British politician we’d have to do cut something out of the budget to make up for the deficit (you’re really only supposed to have 8640 hours in a year). Something would have to go. How about February? Any bits left over I’d just add on to June.

In doing so I would go a long way in eliminating two of the biggest issues I’ve been having problems with lately: time and climate. (I might also eliminate your birthday too, though, if you happen to be born in February, so perhaps not the best plan.)

I’m back at university now and have made it to the dreaded final year when the working world begins to flash its big ugly headlights in your rear view mirror. My housemates spend their free time answering weirdly revealing questions about themselves for graduate intern schemes (my favourite so far for a friend applying for a position at an oil and natural gas company: “Firm X prides itself on safety in the workplace. Describe a change you have made in life to ensure that you are safer.” I can’t imagine how telling an HR Manager that you look both ways when crossing the street or make sure the lights are switched off before changing a bulb will make you that much more attractive an applicant, but apparently if they take the effort to hire you they don’t want to see you perish in a nasty stapler-related incident at the office) while yours truly works long unpaid hours at night shelters, charity shops and hospital wards to try to make myself that much more attractive to medical school admissions officers.

Add in the increased work load of 3rd year, plus needing to somehow find the time to feed, clothe and bathe myself and you start to get the picture. I’ve always thought the worst thing about being super busy is not having the time to read books. There’s a pile of untouched novels I was given at Christmas beckoning me from the bookshelf, but so far this term I seem to be limited only to journal articles with ‘feminist thought’ in the title. It’s getting hard to stay enthusiastic.

Everything is made that much trickier by the fact that England IS SO INCONCEIVABLY COLD. My room in the house I share with four friends is an old front room with a big bay window. Lovely, you might say, and indeed it would be if it’s glass wasn’t two-hundred years old and two micro-millimetres thick. I wake up in the morning and instinctively reach for my bedside table for a pair of gloves (this makes putting my contact lenses in later a little tricky) before retreating under the covers to psyche myself up for the perilous journey to the shower that awaits. Then in one swift movement I explode out of bed, grab a towel as I accelerate out the door and shoot up the staircase. The worst site in the world to see at this point is a closed bathroom door indicating occupancy and a freezing retreat back to my bedroom but usually my crazed thumping up the stairs warns the others that an icicle-laden housemate is approaching.

The shower itself is another issue. You see, among the fun little idiosyncrasies of our house is that if you have the shower too hot, the internet turns off. It’s something to do with plugged up pipes messing up the electricity which affects the router, and the end result is a tepid shower. The front and back sides of my body have to take turns facing the reluctant stream of lukewarm water, which means that any given time 50% of my body has the opportunity to develop frostbite.

The next part in the process is of course the worst part, when you are dripping wet but need to complete that final journey back to your room. Ususally I black out at this point and wake up sprawled beneath my covers, my hair damp and my glasses foggy. Meanwhile, the boiler sits quietly gathering dust in the corner of one of my housemate’s bedrooms.

Oh dear, only three weeks in England and I’m already complaining like a Brit. There are, of course, a number of ways to deal with the issues of climate and time. My two favourite happen to be whisky and music. Though the former is not such a feasible solution at any time before 3 in the afternoon, music is accessible 26 hours a day, 182 hours a week.

When your pining for the warmer climates of your home town, what else can you do except listen to the music that always makes you the most homesick. I actually have a playlist called ‘Homesick Music’ on iTunes (or alternatively, Hey! My Door Was Shut For a Reason! …No, I’m Not CRYING! Music) and the undefeatable Josh Ritter always figures numerous times on this list.

So this is for all you kids living away from home, even it’s been a while since it was somebody else’s job to pay your heating bills.

‘Another New World’ comes from Josh’s latest album So Runs The World Away. If you listen closely to the lyrics you’ll hear the gorgeously crafted tale of a sea captain trying to find a passage around the ice of the poles. In classic Josh Ritter fashion, the song seems to have layers upon layers upon layers of meaning, but Annabel Lee, the name of the sea captain’s ship, actually comes from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe. What really kills me in this song is the story, which you really should sit and pick apart by listening to the lyrics as the music flows around you.


Oct 2010