Beaver

Taking London by storm: a conversation with Tilly Mason

Interview by Beatriz Silva

Photography by Eliana Raddaeli

Tilly is too cool for us. I was scrolling through Twitter on a Wednesday morning when I came across one of her tweets and immediately thought: “Dam (pun always intended)! I have to interview her.” If we are being honest here, interviewing Tilly for the cover of Flipside was an excuse for us to meet and have a proper conversation. We lived together in Passfield during our first year and lately she has been spending more and more time in the Media Centre as a contributor to Review. Tilly is a uncommonly multifaceted LSE student: she is the co-president of the LSESU Labour Society, actively involved in student campaigns such as Justice4Cleaners, a dedicated urban geographer, a guitar player (who had her own band), and she doesn’t miss a gig around London. I was bursting with questions, but let’s start from the top.

When it came to choosing where to go to university, London was the clear choice. LSE is one of the few universities in the UK that offers a degree in geography focused specifically on human geography, which Tilly had a fixation on since GCSE. “Looking at the way that space and the environment affects people and communities, how people are affected by things beyond their control” is, in a nutshell, what drives her interest in the subject. Beyond this, London is a particularly stimulating place to be for someone who wants to pursue urban geography and look at how cities shape our day-to-day lives: “To me, all of these structural inequalities are built into the city we live in, our environment. They both produce inequality and inequality produces them. The streets we walk down every single day are built on colonialism and capitalism.” Tilly has been looking into how gentrification and the investment of money “in the wrong areas” of London creates spatial inequality: “We have fancy apartments being built at the same time as we have homelessness increasing.”

This interest in the stark contrasts and structural inequalities within cities plays a bigger role in Tilly’s life, one that goes beyond her degree and academic interests. Joining Labour Soc when she arrived at LSE introduced her to the world of campaigning and activism. In her first year, she ran for the role of Women’s Officer on a whim, and won. This was at the end of 2019, just a couple of months before the general election. “I’d never been involved with Labour or campaigning or anything, so coming here was really formative. It’s sort of what brought me out of my shell, campaigning and actually doing things that I believe in.” This year, as co-president with Lola Fayokun, Tilly has found it difficult to navigate representing a party on campus that, in recent months, she herself has not felt represented by. “It’s difficult when Labour’s going through a bit of a rocky patch…to me, I see the Labour Society and the Labour party as two different things. There are MPs in Labour that I really like and I agree with…I don’t think we have to agree with the leader.”

But some disagreements are difficult to ignore, especially when an issue that captures the attention of national media hits the student body so personally. “When all the Labour leaders said they supported the police investigations…it was terrible.” Tilly, like hundreds of other students, was at the protests in solidarity with Palestine on the day the LSESU Debate Society hosted Tzipi Hotovely, the Israeli ambassador to the UK, for a discussion. The reaction of mainstream media to the peaceful protests was ruthless, with the original intentions of students being grossly distorted and misrepresented so as to frame the student body as anti-Semetic. “I was confused with how what happened completely snowballed out of control – I had never witnessed something like that before…but there’s been good coverage of it as well.” Tilly thought it was good to debate, but students should be able to express their opinions on campus free from intimidation and false accusations when a controversial speaker is invited to speak at their university.

As someone with experience in campaigning, she has seen first-hand how frustrating but also rewarding activism at LSE can be. Having been involved with Justice4Cleaners for over two years, a campaign organised by a group of LSE students and staff aiming at supporting the cleaners’ ongoing struggle for equality and respect, Tilly has attended town halls and taken part in protests. Although it does not seem like much has changed since she first started, the experience is worthwhile: “Before coming here I had no idea how to run a campaign or how to get people involved. I feel very comfortable doing that now.” When I asked her what she made of the fact that apart from campaign organisers and other activist voices on campus, sometimes it seems that most LSE students are disconnected to social causes, she said: “Normally when you actually talk to some finance-y people, like people do understand what is going on…Most people don’t get involved because of their time, and they are very much in that internship world…but especially issues on campus, I do think people care generally and they support the campaigns.”

Last year, Tilly and other campaigners wrote a petition to change the LSE policy towards cleaners during the pandemic, which around 700 people signed. “That was nice. When it’s an easy action like signing a petition, people will actually do it.” Tilly also noted that she believes LSE is not entirely alienated by the “lefties on campus” and students that mobilise frequently, but that it actually takes advantage of this: “That is appealing to some prospective students…which LSE knows.” Tilly and I both remembered how before joining LSE we quite enjoyed finding out that LSE students protested heavily when the LSE-Gaddafi affair rose to national prominence in 2011, or when UK universities, including LSE, raised their tuition fees to £9,250. With a smirk on her face, Tilly told me that she has the “London School of Exploitation” banner in her flat.

So what makes LSE a great place despite its flaws? “The people on campus,” Tilly replied. This was the answer I expected. “We are very much a community that supports each other.” Here, surrounded by fellow campaigners and creatives who care about social justice and thinking imaginatively, Tilly learned more about herself and her interests, both in geography and outside geography. Experiencing life in London and going to gigs with friends has also been a formative part of her time at university. In relation to what happens next for activism at LSE, Tilly simply said: “I think it’s better than we think. Maybe I’m just optimistic about things.”

And we do need Tilly’s optimism around campus. What students sometimes forget is that in order for us to be able to sign that petition, someone had to make the Google form. Someone took the time to create that WhatsApp group and sat down to write that letter addressed to Minouche Shafik and Dilly Fung. Tilly did that, and other campaigners like her. She did it while listening to Kagoule, one of her favourite alternative rock bands, working on her geography dissertation, and still managing to attend Flipside Review meetings and LSESU Album Soc events. Tilly is too cool for us.

Music recommendations from Tilly: L’rain, Spectres, Klein, Floatie, Thirdface, Palm, Ought, Mabe Fratti and BABii.

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