Lana Del Rey and whiteness

Beginning on the 21st May 2020, my phone blew up for a few consecutive days with incredulity, anger and disbelief at Lana Del Rey’s numerous statements directed at ‘the culture’. I still don’t really know what she is trying to define by that term. After the first statement, in which she namechecks numerous black female artists who have allegedly been allowed to sing about ‘being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating etc.’ when she has not, I declared to one group chat that I would get our thoughts and analyses, which were extensive, down here. I held off writing straight away and I’m glad I did: what followed were even more spurious statements and rebuttals from Del Rey about how people criticising her had begun a ‘race war’, and that people who ‘misunderstood’ her should ‘fuck off’.  We saw her Instagram fill with images of white Hollywood movie stars, including that classic chauvinist James Bond no less, a GIF of her pole dancing in the ‘Gods and Monsters’ music video, and declarations that ‘no one gets to tell your story’. Del Rey claims that she embodies a ‘delicate’ form of femininity that is currently rejected by feminism, bizarrely claiming that it will be the forefront of a ‘new/3rd wave of feminism that is rapidly approaching’. We are, of course, already in the fourth wave and have been since the early 2010s. I aim to discuss Del Rey in relation to feminism at greater length in another essay.

With regards to race, Del Rey has, unfortunately, proven herself painfully unaware of how much privilege her whiteness affords her, and thereby has been unable to show how race and her question of feminism intersect. I can see why Del Rey believes that she is, in the words of  Ibram X. Kendi, ‘anti-racist’: she cast A$AP Rocky as her JFK in the ‘National Anthem’ video and wrote songs with him for ‘Lust For Life’; she has collaborated numerous times with The Weeknd; some of her best friends are black women who have featured prominently in her music videos and on tour from ‘Lust For Life’ through to ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’; and she is giving all of the profits from her poetry collections as reparations to the indigenous Navajo community.  She has proven, however, that she is not necessarily anti-racist, with each new comment she released digging her heels into her first problematic statement even further until a defence of her is rendered almost impossible.

Lana’s original namecheck of predominantly black and Hispanic women, Doja Cat, Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, Cardi B, Kehlani, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, was used to highlight how these women have been celebrated and rewarded by ‘the culture’ for being sexual, provocative and complex whilst she has been maligned. In doing this, she demonstrated a lack of awareness about the more significant barriers that Women of Colour (WOC) face in getting to a prominent position in the music industry in the first place, as well as equating these women, who are already exposed to latent racist exoticisation stereotypes, purely with sexuality and sexual mores. This is deeply ironic coming from someone who has both Nina Simone and Billie Holiday’s names tattooed onto her clavicle and has regularly referenced Holiday in her music, for example in the music video for ‘Summer Wine’ and on the song ‘The Blackest Day’ from the album ‘Honeymoon’.

Blackest Day Higher QUality

Simone and Holiday both famously used their art to fight racism and empower black youth throughout their careers, for example in the songs ‘Young Gifted and Black’ and ‘Strange Fruit’ and in numerous other contexts. This video of Simone talking about the artist’s duty to reflect the times, particularly with regards to fighting racism, is one that Del Rey has shared herself on her Instagram:

Nina Simone

It is bizarre, then, that Del Rey, who so idolises these black women who spent their careers and lives fighting racism, is unable to acknowledge and concede that bringing WOC into a conversation about how she has been hard done by the music industry is problematic. It does not matter how may times you tell people that you are not racist: if you are making racially coded comments and comparisons, even and especially unconsciously, then refusing to accept the fact that your white ignorance and privilege have been exposed by those very comments, you are being racist. For white people, our racism is often unconscious and unthought of: our work is to bring our assumptions and everything we take for granted as white people into consciousness, to learn, listen and ultimately become allies in the fight against racism, racial inequality and injustice. Not to dig our heels in, take offence and accuse others of starting ‘a race war’.

This need for clarity and consciousness has become even more sickeningly potent in the days after Del Rey’s flurry of racially coded and unapologetic statements. The video went viral on 25th May 2020 of Amy Cooper threatening Christian Cooper (no relation), a black man, that she would call the police and tell them that he was threatening her life when he had asked her to put her dog on a lead in Central Park’s protected nature reserve ‘The Ramble’. Amy Cooper chillingly showed how America’s law enforcement system, well known for its extensive brutality of black people, was geared in her white favour, and that she was more than willing to use it to get her own way at whatever genuinely life-threatening cost to Christian Cooper. Within days, we saw what the outcome could have been: George Floyd, an unarmed black man, suffocated to death by police officers in Minneapolis. In recent weeks, we have already seen how the American justice system values the life of Ahmed Aubrey, who was lynched by a white father and son in Georgia. It seemed serendipitous that we had this public genealogy of white supremacy and racism unfold so compactly this week:  from Lana Del Rey accusing people of starting a ‘race war’ when what she had articulated was racially coded and, yes, racist; to a white woman using her whiteness as a weapon to threaten a black man who left the altercation, thankfully, safe; and yet another terrible and all too familiar example of police officers murdering an unarmed black man. Even though what happened with Del Rey can be interpreted as a celebrity scandal, it does not exist in a vacuum. Every single part of the events of this week are connected, and are expressions of what is normalised and still accepted in a white supremacist society.

This is not, of course, a problem that only exists in the USA. As writer and journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge argues in her amazing book ‘Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race’, by focusing on race as something that happens on the other side of the Atlantic, Black British history is ‘starved of oxygen’ and not given the attention it needs. Racism and white supremacy are alive and well in the UK, and we cannot fall into complacency, believing that it is only in the USA that racism exists. I have spent the past few weeks writing an inquiry project for my teacher training qualification (PGCE) about race and curriculum in the UK and there is no doubt in my mind that the National Curriculum devised by Michael Gove, particularly in Key Stage Four English, serves to perpetuate white cultural hegemony, erasing, denying and ignoring the communities and cultural identities of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) pupils and anyone else who identifies as non-white British. White people are profoundly ignorant of the way in which we accept whiteness in all parts of our lives as standard and normal, as though our entire country’s history was not built off the back of slave labour and colonial oppression of BAME people. Now more than ever, white people need to be doing the work to make our unconscious privileges and ignorance, conscious. This is a battle, in part, because ideological vehicles like The National Curriculum hit us when we are young; but as responsible, conscious adults, we must actively educate ourselves. Too many people continue to suffer and we must do our part to fight and stop that.

This essay has been fuelled by anger, to be sure. But I also offer it in the spirit of generosity. I have been critical of Lana Del Rey because I think it is important for white people to call each other out and educate one another about the way our unconscious privilege and ignorance is a form of racial violence. As such, I want to provide a list of materials that have helped and continue to help me, as a white person, to recognise and check my own privilege and ignorance, which, I hope, help me to be an ally to all BAME people and actively fight racism. I recommend the following to all white people:

‘Why I am No Longer Talking to White People about Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge

‘About Race’ podcast by Reni Eddo-Lodge

‘Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’ by Akala

‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas

‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Dr. Maya Angelou

‘A Raisin in the Sun’ by Lorraine Hansberry

‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith

‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama

‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ by Arundhati Roy

‘The Wretched of the Earth’ by Frantz Fanon

‘Orientalism’ by Edward W. Said

‘OJ: Made in America’ by Ezra Edelman

‘Black Panther’ by Ryan Coogler

‘Straight Outta Compton’ by F. Gary Gray

‘Get Out’ by Jordan Peele

‘Mississippi Burning’ by Alan Parker

‘Lemonade’ by Beyoncé

‘Homecoming’ by Beyoncé

‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ by Kendrick Lamar

‘Kiwanuka’ by Michael Kiwanuka

Gal-dem

The Runnymede Trust resources

‘Let Them Drown: the violence of othering in a warming world’ chapter in ‘On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal’ by Naomi Klein

‘Episode 102: Empire State of Mind: overhauling the history we teach’ by ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’ podcast

‘Episode 59: Black Revolution and Whiteness Psychosis with Kehinde Andrews’ by ‘Under the Skin’ podcast

The International Slavery Museum, Liverpool

 

Here are some works that I am yet to start:

‘How to be Antiracist’ by Ibram X. Kendi

‘Brit(ish)’ by Afua Hirsch

‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe

‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ by Dee Brown

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernadine Evaristo

‘Women, Race and Class’ by Angela Davis

‘Sister Outsider’ by Audre Lorde

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by James Baldwin

‘Ain’t I a Woman: Black women and feminism’ by bell hooks

‘Bad Feminist’ by Roxane Gay

‘Hamilton’ by Lin Manuel Miranda

 

I am absolutely in need of more recommendations, particularly films, so please do send me anything that you are aware of that will help me in my learning.

Love Note – Corona-party

On Tuesday 17th March 2020, I was told at 15:20, after a full day of teaching, that my placement was to be suspended with immediate effect. At this point, I am aware that my course will continue with online learning and seminars, that I have up-coming assignments that I will need to prepare and I have a stack of journal articles to read, but that I will be housebound for the foreseeable future. This has presented me with something of a paradox: being at home is both unnerving and reassuring; liberating from the busy-ness of normal life but may also create a void of emptiness that will leave me climbing the walls. As such, I am doing my best to come up with a daily routine of interesting things to do that will keep me calm. I think that, in spite of all the chaos, this is a really pertinent opportunity for me to dig into some of my interests and hobbies, learn some new things and keep staying curious. At this point, and it is still early days,  I have three books on the go, which I can barely believe myself, I am filling my days with interesting tasks and activities that prevent me from binging on television, and I am keeping positive and cheerful in light of a perfect storm of governmental confusion, media confusion and general upheaval.

‘What Would Boudicca Do?’ by E. Foley and B. Coates

Boudicca

This was a New Year’s gift from a dear friend and is a fun whistle-stop tour of remarkable women from history. I have decided to read a chapter a day over the course of whatever it is that is happening (am I self-isolating, in quarantine, living out a course suspension? Who knows). So far, I have read condensed histories of Boudicca and Mary Wollstonecraft. Tomorrow, Mae West. The book is fun, digestible, full of nuggets of important intersectional feminist history and reading just a chapter a day gives me something to look forward to for tomorrow.

Duolingo

Duolingo

I downloaded and started learning through Duolingo before the corona-party started, and I am now even more committed to keeping at it. Currently, I am refreshing and building up my French and I have started learning Welsh from scratch. I was inspired to start by a friend who is on a 200-day streak and I loved his commitment to the cause. Additionally, I was stunned by the fact that whilst I’ve been chugging away nonchalantly speaking, reading and writing in English alone, over half the world’s population is bilingual. Language learning is going to become more and more essential for Britons, especially in light of our new (sob) relationship with the EU, so I think it’s important that learning new languages and, by proxy, understanding the cultural contexts of different countries and their peoples, becomes more of a priority. French has always been of interest to me (I have delusions of grandeur about moving to Paris) and Welsh is an important part of my own personal heritage. My mum is a native speaker, as is my Grandma on my Dad’s side. Hilariously, they speak different dialects so can’t communicate with one another. Nevertheless, learning Welsh has been an absolute joy. I can just about tell people that I am a vegetarian from memory (dw’in ddim yn bwyta cig) and it is just delightful learning how to speak and write a language that so liberally uses the letters ‘w’ and ‘y’. Duolingo isn’t perfect, but it’s exactly what I need it to be right now: good for my brain, good for my cultural awareness and a diversion from binge-watching TV. Speaking of which…

The Good Place, Netflix *slight spoilers*

The Good Place

Of course a bit of Netflix was going to feature. MW and I are on the final series of this hilarious sitcom that incorporates trashbagism with the central tenets of moral philosophy. The writing is sharp, effortlessly condenses complex philosophical ideas into twenty minutes segments, has truly mind-blowing twists and a range of characters that I absolutely adore. Up there for me is Jason Mendoza, a hapless dimwit from Jacksonville, Florida, who has a heart of gold. Jason is one of the most stupid and naive characters I have ever encounterd but is extraordinarily emotionally intelligent. Whilst head haunch Michael has to scam and manipulate everyone else to get them to do the right thing, Jason is receptive, honest and the most in touch with what he needs. Our time with the show is coming to an end and I am going to miss it enormously.

Going for a walk

The Park Nottingham

MW and I went for a half an hour walk around the Park Estate in Nottingham today. We saw the first of the cherry blossoms coming out; a cute dog with a bandage on its paw who was still tugging its owner along; beautiful Lady-and-the-Tramp Fothergill architecture; my favourite cedar tree; and we talked about everything and nothing. It started trying to rain at one point and we both arrived home with rosy cheeks. Going for a walk was such a nice break from the work of the morning. We felt refreshed by it, we’d had some good exercise, and it helped us to disengage from our screens.

Staying connected

Meme FINAL

I don’t mean this in a mindless, compulsive way: more like checking in with friends and family members on a regular basis, if you can. I have had hilarious and lovely chats with my mum and Grandma today, as well as touching base with a variety of WhatsApp groups where the memes, bad jokes and cute pet photos are flowing. I think it would be quite easy to become very insular and isolated at this time. As much as it is nice to hole up for a while, we need to stay connected and active in a healthy way. Additionally, we need to be mindful of the isolation others may be feeling, particularly older people who are having to self-isolate. Age UK run a befriending service that I volunteered for last year, and I am sure they would appreciate more people signing up at this time. I wrote more about the importance of building relationships with older people here

 Yoga with Adriene, YouTube

Yoga With Adriene

As many of you know from my incessant ramblings, I have sworn by Adriene Mishler’s YouTube channel for years. It is free, full of warmth, wisdom and fantastic yoga practices, and is a go-to for grounding and exercise. Life is always uncertain, but we are experiencing that all the more keenly at this point: yoga is an amazing way to breathe into the uncomfortable feelings, emotions and sensations that may arise, especially if you are prone to anxiety. Her 30 day yoga journey, released in January and prophetically entitled ‘Home’ (where I am spending an awful lot of time at the moment), is one I will be gravitating towards. She also announced today a new yoga playlist that contains videos of practices that pertain to uncertainty and crisis. Just twenty minutes of tuning into my breath and dropping down into my body makes such an incredible difference to my day.

Pema Chodron

Pema

I couple my practice with reading a chapter of Pema Chodron’s ‘The Places That Scare You: a guide to fearlessness’. Chodron is a cornerstone of Buddhist wisdom and guidance, encouraging us to see our fears, anxieties and stuck points as opportunities for growth, self-knowledge and integration. Instead of pushing away or resisting old patterns that no longer serve us, we can get to know them, allow them to pass through, and grow our compassion for ourselves and, as a result, all human beings. We all struggle. We all have our edges that push us to our limits. In this time of collective uncertainty, chaos and fear, we have a real chance to see our lives clearly: we may not like what we see, but that’s OK. It’s better to be conscious of our choices than to live in ignorance or stuck in cycles of self-abandonment.

Music

Music

Over the past couple of days, I have revisited a lot of my musical favourites. I was partially inspired by Daniel Radcliffe’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ which was an absolutely delight. Since then, I have been listening to Father John Misty, Bob Dylan, Sade and Agnes Obel, with a little bit of Andrew Lloyd Webber thrown in (he did a Twitter poll for a song to perform and ‘All I Ask Of You’ from The Phantom of the Opera cam out on top. The whole thing is lovely: check it out). Normally at this time of the year I have my annual Stravinsky Rite of Spring binge due to the impending seasonal transition: it definitely still freaks me out even after all these years, but I wouldn’t be without it. I have started reading Tolstoy’s description of the Russian spring in Anna Karenina as a companion to Stravinsky. The violence and the vibrance of spring, with its renewal and rebirth, is both excruciating and profoundly beautiful.

 

N.B

I genuinely believe that coronavirus is forcing us to re-assess our social structures and our places within them. At no other time has such a compelling case been made for Universal Basic Income; the free childcare labour of grandparents has been shown to be so underappreciated; the undervaluing of the NHS, teaching, and ‘low skill’ jobs such as cleaning and delivery work has been exposed and challenged; rates of pollution dropped in China because of lockdown etc. This is a confusing and uncertain time, but it can be a fascinating time. I think it is giving us the chance to evaluate what most certainly is not working for us and what we can change in the most positive way. Business as usual wasn’t working before coronavirus, it certainly isn’t working now, and we would be fools to let this opportunity to enact progressive, socially aware and compassionate policies post-coronavirus to just slip away. I am not completely fluent in politics, I don’t know what the right answers are; but it is clear that we are in a unique situation where we can move to build a fairer, more just world where everyone is taken care of. I wish that people would stop worrying about market volatility as though it were something that wasn’t invented and perpetuated by humans in the first place. Let’s build something else.

Love Note Year in Review: 2019

Like 2016, 2019 has, in many ways, been a stellar year for me, but has been societally shambolic and difficult to digest. Here, I have written about some of the films, music, TV shows and podcasts that have been my companions along the way. These have all inspired me, taught me new things, expanded my thoughts and given me a richer understanding of the world and the people in it. Enjoy and do let me know what you think.

Book: Crudo by Olivia Laing

Crudo 2

I have read a few books this year that have completely blown me away, including Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  and Circe by Madeline Miller. Here, however, I want to discuss dearest Crudo. I bought this book from Shakespeare and Company whilst in Paris on the recommendation of a great friend with great taste. Crudo is a very short book but it is an absolute gut punch of hilarity, darkness and tenderness. Indeed, it’s hard to really pin down exactly what happens in it because it is such a heady mixture of consciousness, recollection, projection and commentary. For me, this spells perfection: I have always loved character studies and don’t think an exacting plot is always necessary all the time. What I can get to with Crudo is that it centres on Kathy, who is getting married but has all sorts of qualms and skeletons to negotiate with first. Almost every page I declared ‘I LOVE THIS BOOK’ as it twisted and turned unpredictably through the mental chaos of anxiety, exhaustion, eating, friendship, loss, Twitter and drunken chaos in beautiful Italian locations. It is a love letter to anyone who is in despair at recent political turns of events, sardonically laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation whilst also grieving and mourning the rise of hatred, fear and intolerance in the West. I think this book will benefit from many readings, and I cannot wait to sink my teeth into it again.

Film: Apocalypse Now

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I was horrendously late in joining this film’s bandwagon, but was so glad when I did earlier this year. From that first shot of palm trees and the withering notes of The End by The Doors floating in like a breeze before the chaos, I was completely enthralled. This film is one of the greatest examples of a disorientating, arthouse viewing experience blended with the hallmarks of an epic: dramatic helicopter sequences and iconic lines offset with simmering delusion and madness all the way throughout. One such line, ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’, is a case in point: the line is delivered so much more softly than I thought it would be. I imagined that line to be a yelled declaration in the heat of conflict, but it is almost a tender revelation: an insight into how war and nationalism has warped and disfigured these men’s emotional engagement with the world around them. Amongst a host of spectacular performances, and there really isn’t a bad one in the whole film, Dennis Hopper stood out for me. With cameras draped around his neck like beads, Hopper plays a sycophantic, voyeuristic photojournalist, an unnamed self-declared ‘little man’ who has been brainwashed by Colonel Kurtz and is always ready to get a picture. An embodiment of a culture and a media that will transmit horror without reflection, Hopper’s photojournalist is the keenest harbinger of the shit state that is our current retinue of communication and media affairs.

Music: Beware of the Dogs, Stella Donnelly

StellaDonnelly_BewareOfTheDogs

Music-wise, this year has been a stunner. With the returns of Lana Del Rey (who I wrote about here), Michael Kiwanuka, fka Twigs and Nick Cave amongst many others, and Billie Eilish’s brilliant debut, this year has felt particularly golden. I want to give my attention here to singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly, whose album Beware of the Dogs is undoubtedly one of my favourites from the brace of brilliance that was 2019. If there were to be any soundtrack to the #MeToo movement, it would be this album. From a sassy , beachy opener that holds a ‘grabbing’ middle-aged man to account, in what I would argue is a direct middle finger up to the likes of Donald Trump, to the searing and devastating ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, Donnelly keenly and devastatingly  confronts rampant toxic masculinity and a patriarchal culture that is riddled with sexual assault and violence. And yet, even with these serious concerns, the album is undeniably fun. With a contents list that features the maddening performativity of relationships, the deconstruction of awkward family dynamics and cake allergies in a register that nods to Noughties Lily Allen and Kate Nash (but with plinky plonky music exchanged for a wilting easy-breezy Australian nonchalance), this album feels assured, mature and endlessly witty. I can’t recommend it enough.

TV: The Politician, Netflix

The Politician

As the Golden Age of Television enters its late period of peak saturation, this year has once again been brilliant, if not slightly exhausting. Shows I loved included Stranger Things, Big Little Lies, The Real Housewives of New York City which, quite frankly, deserves an Emmy (that trip to Miami, in particular the first night, was the trip to end all Bravo trips), The Last Czars, which expertly wove dramatic reconstruction with historical analysis, and His Dark Materials. The Politician, made by the producers behind Glee (which I never much cared for) is an absolutely hilarious, obscene, outrageous drama which follows a group of Californian uber-rich teenagers taking part in a high school election campaign. Whilst this may ring with all the hallmarks of another glossy, predictable teen drama, The Politician is hilarious, piercingly dark and shocking, with some of the biggest knots of twists and turns I have seen on a TV show. We had to take a break after watching the first couple of episodes because it was so intense. Yet, the show’s astute political and social commentary feels absolutely essential in a ravaged post-truth Western world, in particular the stand alone episode ‘The Voter’, which serves as a microcosm of the lives of undecided and politically disaffected members of the electorate. With a soundtrack reminiscent of Western revenge tragedies and dramas, and a wardrobe department to rival seminal teen show Gossip Girl, The Politician is a sensory riot, and one of the most groundless viewing experiences I have had: I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next or which bizarre direction the drama was going to take. This all serves to make it utterly compelling and brilliant television.

Podcasts

I have found it impossible to pick one podcast that has stood out as my favourite this year. Different podcasts serve very different moods and purposes, and there is no singular podcast to be drawn from my list of regulars and favourites.

Reasons

Reasons to Be Cheerful – Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd’s podcast forms the audio backdrop to my Monday mornings. This podcast has introduced me to many exciting concepts and policy ideas that I hope will become a part of the fabric of our politics in the future. Favourite episodes included topics like social care for the elderly, tax on frequent fliers, music and history education, the power of protest, community organisation, architecture and town planning and sustainable fashion. I am also exceedingly proud that my email on green fashion alternatives and tips was read out by Ed himself. #goals

Dressed.jpg

Dressed: The History of Fashion – This podcast fills the gap that glossy magazines have left in my life (I still buy the September issue of Vogue and the December issue of Harper’s Bazaar but that’s just about it). Instead, I have a podcast full of incredible interviews and explorations into the personal and cultural stories of my favourite designers and some of the clothes I wear on a day-to-day basis. I have enjoyed listening to episodes on The Met Gala, fashion and physique (mapping the female body), the history of the penny loafer, the biography of Cristóbal Balenciaga, the history of the French haute couture industry (Worth, Vionnet and Louis Vuitton being some of the most interesting stories) and a compelling conversation with Dr Monica Germanà about Bond girl style, looking at sexual, racial and colonial implications of women’s bodies and women’s dress in the franchise. I have shunned James Bond for many years but this conversation, with its focus on masculine and imperial anxiety, has shifted my perspective entirely.

DIDs

The Desert Island Discs Archive – This year, I discovered the delights of conversations and the musical favourites of some of Western culture’s greats. Tucked away in the archive, I found Powell and Pressburger, Leonide Massine, Tennessee Williams and Lauren Bacall amongst others. Gregory Peck was as dreamy as I hoped he would be and had a great story about the filming of Moby Dick, which coincidentally was shot down the road from where my grandparents lived in Wales; Jessica Mitford was hilarious and sassy; Roald Dahl was a bit of a snob; and P L Travers wasn’t as scary as I thought she’d be and picked a list formed exclusively of recordings of poetry being read aloud. One such recording was of Alec Guinness’s reading ‘Little Gidding’ from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, which was a balm I never knew I needed. Utterly transporting listening.

One last thing…

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Netflix

Joseph Campbell

Originally broadcast in 1988, and which I watched on Netflix this year but has now been removed, this series of six conversations in six episodes between comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers is one of the most fascinating TV shows I have ever seen. Combining conversation, story-telling, animation, archive footage and film clips, this series takes a deep look into the psyche and collective unconscious of human beings. Campbell takes us on a bewildering but utterly brilliant journey through indigenous ritual, Jungian archetypes, the world religions, Western capitalism, the sacred feminine, the interplay of symbols and allegory, the sublime, the liminal passage and many other areas to present a multi-faceted, deep and intriguing portrait of human behaviour, interconnectedness and culture. Every single episode had something profound to learn from it, but the episode that stood out to me the most centred on animal-human relations, including the role of sacrifice, the transcendence of Death and the horror of a world where human beings are divorced from where they get their food, their clothing, almost everything. Additionally, I loved Campbell’s ideas that stemmed from the Buddhist teachings: that the present is all there is, and in the present, when you sit wholly aware, unblinkered and unfettered from trappings of ego (fear, envy, jealousy, anger, boredom etc.) we are witness to and subjects of, what could be called, the divine. I have never thought of myself as a religious person, and I still don’t think I am, but I found immense power in what Campbell had to share. There are iterations of ancient behaviours and beliefs all around us, and Campbell’s myth work is a great source of inspiration and an anchor when the ocean of chaos, anxiety and societal disruption feels too overwhelming. His work prioritises the power of metaphor beyond what is material, and it has enriched my life immensely.

 

Rodin and the politics of sculpture

I didn’t start deeply caring about sculpture until I saw Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.[1] Prior to that visit, I had a vague admiration for Barbara Hepworth, but found more enjoyment in her abstract painting Winter Solstice:

BARBMy dad had also instilled in me an appreciation for Anish Kapoor, whose Sky Mirror is pride of place outside the Nottingham Playhouse theatre, and who created a rusty horn bursting out of the immaculate gardens of Versailles in 2015:

 

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On a very basic level, I just didn’t understand sculpture. A childhood filled with questionable pottery lessons chiselled down my interest in the form, even though I have long thought of all art as important. Just because I did not feel able to understand sculpture did not mean that there was nothing to it. For a long time, sculpture did not have the appeal to me that painting, film and other art forms have.

However, it was seeing two figures entwined and necking that really captured my imagination and re-framed what I thought sculpture was all about. I am sure there are many wonderful sculptors that I am overlooking in this capacity, that Rodin is an unimaginative choice to fawn over and that I am probably incapable of conveying academically why I think Rodin’s work is so brilliant, and yet here I am. A critic of art and art history I am not, but I am an enormous fan and advocate for both, and I am inspired enough to write a little something about some works that I have really connected with, starting with The Kiss.

Whilst in Paris earlier this month, we visited the Rodin museum on the Left Bank and it was perhaps the best museum we went to all holiday. The sculpture garden is endlessly dreamy and the chateau, Rodin’s home for a time, was charming and delightfully  littered with Rodin’s sketches, plaster casts, practice sculptures and works he’d collected himself, including pots and fragments from antiquity, as well as a couple of Monet , Munch and Van Gough paintings dotted about. The Kiss was here too:

The Kiss

We can see, as with many of Rodin’s marble sculptures, that he was influenced by Classical figures from Ancient Greece. And yet, in his portraiture of people through sculpture, Rodin does not merely recreate or appropriate Classical styles. He uses Classicism as a base note, but goes on to mold his ideas through the language of limbs, faces, the fluidity of bodies in a way that is nothing other than modern. It is hard to comprehend just how challenging the blatant sexuality and passion of this sculpture would have been to receive at the turn of the century when it was produced. Additionally, the sculpture seems to have been carved with a nod to what Charles Baudelaire described as ‘the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’ that defines modernity:  as with many of his sculptures, Rodin employs here the technique of juxtaposing the smooth carvings with marble left rough and rugged, not just at the base, but rising up and between the intricately rippling bodies. It appears the exquisite smoothness of the marble is reflected in the unbridled intimacy of the figures kissing, a flicker of bright, divine and transcending light bursting out of the obscurity of what is rough and earthly. And yet, the figures could so easily return to rubble. By maintaining the rough marble and bringing it into the structure of the figures kissing, Rodin has created a piece of work that recognises the transitory moment of modernity: the Classical-style bodies occupying the eternal and the marble left rough indicating the flighty present, nigh-on impossible to pin down.

This is an idea that is seen everywhere in his sculptures: in the marble with what is jagged and uneven left propping up or invading the figures represented, or in bronze where forms rise out of the molten into something vaguely less fluid. What I loved about Rodin’s bronze work was how these majestic figures rise from the oneness of liquid bronze embodying the impulse and awkwardness of individuation and self-determination. To show this, Rodin ensured that he injected quirks and oddities in his work to create a sense of visual discomfort. In one sculpture, the head- the centre of Cartesian rational thought and the Jungian ego-mind- is heavy, too heavy, as though burdened with the constant, revolving noise of the mind, dangling awkwardly to the side and creating one long awkward line from the neck across to the shoulder.

Awkward Rodin

Elsewhere, a sculpture leans over slightly too far; it looks uncomfortable, like the sculpture is in danger of falling: the arms are flung out as though for balance; emergent from what is whole and one, bursting forth but still reliant on the whole to provide it with strength and structure. In these sculptures in particular, I would argue that Rodin could be making a criticism of the modern world, defined as it is by commodity capitalism, where the drive and inevitable fallout of being an individual, separated and alienated from the collective, is mired in suffering, contortion and pain.

Leaning Rodin

The final sculptures that really stood out for me were a series of bronze sculptures called The Monument to the Burghers of Calais, made in 1887. These six sculptures commemorate six dignitaries who surrendered themselves and the key to the city of Calais to the King of England during the One Hundred Years War. I was neither familiar with these works nor the story surrounding them until our visit to the Rodin museum. On display were the six grouped together, as well as the six individual sculptures dotted around elsewhere.

Burghers Six.jpg

There are lots of ideas and emotions conveyed in these sculptures, the predominant being incredulity, despair, sadness, dignity and acceptance. Some of the sculptures are fully clothed, regal in their gait; others are naked and exposed. The Burgher that stood out to me the most was naked, arms outstretched, enquiring and admonishing, barely believing the cruelty of his own fate and asking on-lookers, at the time and of tourists traipsing around the Rodin sculpture garden whether we are going to settle for the injustice that attempts to quell and control us.

Burgher naked

They felt pertinent to me at the time for a number of different reasons: because I have such a limited knowledge of the One Hundreds Year War; that they are a reminder of the suffering that has occurred throughout history that I feel barely able to comprehend or quantify; and of the vulnerability of being a human being, tossed around and seemingly inconsequential in the rough seas of man-made war, devastation and chaos. Here, again, we can see why art is so important. The attempt to capture these seemingly obscure men from a time long since past is both an act of remembrance and an act of resistance. What fools we are if we believe that the turmoil we face today has not been passed down, like a chain of trauma, throughout the generations. Art offers us the insight and the ability to cut through the churned up homogenous events that we might call ‘history’; to give us the mirror and the platform to reflect and re-think our assumptions and orthodoxies. It is and always will be vital; no wonder the Tories don’t want people studying it.

On a day like today, where the British government, helmed by Boris Johnson, has decided to prorogue Parliament, I think about the Burgher of Calais sculptures: I think about the Burgher standing with his arms outstretched imploring his viewers to think about who they are and what they are doing; I think about the frosty-faced Burgher, handing of the keys to the city, a metaphor for freedom, both personal and societal, a moment where freedom is now longer a gift or a right, but something that has been forfeited. Maybe it is no coincidence that I am more attracted to sculpture at this present cultural moment. We are living in a time where our freedoms feel so much more restricted, that large societal forces, whether it’s Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, the Government, fossil fuel companies and others, are hell-bent on controlling us, harvesting our data, relentlessly trying to sell us things and destroy our planet. In sculpture, we see space being claimed and occupied. Much like Rei Kawakubo’s iconic fashion house Comme des Garcons, whose pieces verge on the sculptural in every single collection, there is power in sculpture’s ability to take up space, be large, voluminous, making it impossible to ignore. Maybe the Kapoor sculpture at Versailles was my biggest clue before my full on awakening with Rodin. Kapoor’s disruption of the sanctity, historical and otherwise, at the clipped and coiffed Palace of Versailles, appealed to me and began to broaden my understanding of what sculpture does. Our ability, as tourists, to take photographs of the pristine lawns and fountains was disrupted by this rusty looking horn, which had erupted out of the ground, churning up the grass. The stronghold of France’s ancien regime and absolutist monarchy was ripped up, long after the first flickers of revolution in the 18th century. I enjoyed the frustration.

The radicalism of sculpture lies in its ability to take up space and to morph and manipulate visual reality. What I love specifically about Rodin’s work is that it revolves around people and their bodies, making his work deeply vulnerable, personal as well as political. I was greatly impressed by his work, highly recommend the museum in Paris, that is completely self-funded, and relish future opportunities to explore and learn about sculpture. In these times where the world becomes scarier and where democracy and freedom do not feel or look like absolute givens, sculpture is an art form that offers challenge and defiance.

Le Penseur

[1] Two sisters, Margaret and Gwendoline Davies, together amassed an enormous collection of Impressionist and 20th century art, 260 works in total, which they then bequeathed to the public. The collection is on display and free to access in the Welsh capital. I can’t recommend it enough.

Love Note – Graphic Novels

The world is full of dark, difficult and complex issues that need to be sensitively and appropriately discussed. War, genocide, abuse, loss and our hopes of building a better life for ourselves are all incredibly difficult conversations that need to take place: but how? Is there are right way to talk about these things? How can we ensure that we get the greatest insight into the emotional and critical upheaval when unimaginable things happen? This is where art and literature have always been important. Film, visual art, poetry and novels have always helped to expand our understanding of what it means to experience life and all of the social, political and archetypal challenges that we face. Representation of experience is crucial in helping us to understand the world around us, but when what we are talking about is so traumatic or challenging, it is even more important to think about how these are presented.

Graphic novels, otherwise known as comics, are an almost niche area of textual production that are, in my opinion, some of the best media for representing conflict and its fallout. Edward Said, in his tribute to Joe Sacco’s Palestine wrote that:

‘In ways that I still find fascinating to decode, comics in their relentless foregrounding […] seemed to say what couldn’t otherwise be said, perhaps what wasn’t permitted to be said or imagined, defying the ordinary processes of thought, which are policed, shaped and re-shaped by all sorts of pedagogical as well as ideological pressures. I knew nothing of this then, but I felt that comics freed me to think and imagine and see differently’.[1]

Graphic novels help us to ‘see differently’ because they are a hybrid form that combines accessible, but no less wonderfully ambiguous and complex, art with punchy storytelling. They give an imaginative and, at times, extremely personal telling of stories, bringing drawings and language into conversation. Fragments of images, language and spatial organisation on a page builds an almost compulsive narrative that can at once expose and explode systemic injustice and power structures (what are complicit with Said’s ‘ordinary processes of thought’), whilst also attempting to make sense of the personal experience within them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most famous graphic novels are autobiographical memoirs, which focus on the experience of the individual against the backdrop of something much greater and, oftentimes, misunderstood or difficult to represent. We have two confusing and compelling worlds clashing, the public and the private, and the graphic novel attempts to navigate us through both.

I find reading graphic novels to be an incredibly immersive and compelling experience. I recently finished reading Malik Sajad’s Munnu and had to share my thoughts on this text and some of my other favourite graphic novels. These texts take us to the depths and fringes of human experience, re-write what we think about the world, countries within the world, and the people within them. They blow open preconceptions and stereotypes that we are fed, and my understanding of conflict and world history, is all the more rich and nuanced as a result.

Maus, Art Spiegelman, 1980

 

Maus

 

Maus is one of, what I consider to be, the Holy Trinity of graphic novels. It portrays Spiegelman as a young cartoonist, interviewing his father Vladek about his experiences during the Holocaust. The comic charts Vladek’s survival of Nazi atrocities, but also portrays Spiegelman’s oftentimes strained and difficult relationship with his father. The two regularly butt heads in ways family members often do when a deep amount of love and respect is patched over with trauma, neurosis and unrealistic expectations. Notably, the characters in Maus are all presented as animals to represent their different ethnic groups: Jews are depicted as mice, Nazis as Germans and Americans as dogs. One of the panels that stood out most to me is one that presents Spiegelman himself wearing the mask of a mouse, sat at his desk, talking about the opportunities that have come with his novel’s publication. Around him are littered the bodies of Holocaust victims.

maus2

This panel suggests that through the production of Maus, Spiegelman has assumed almost unwanted ambassador status for his presentation of Holocaust testimony. The artificial mouse mask, tied at the back of his head, points to the idea that in the telling of this story, he has almost performed his Jewish identity, and become a spokesperson for Holocaust victims and survivors in the process. He has achieved acclaim and appreciation off the back of so much death and horror, signified by the cadavers gathered around him and his drawing desk, yet still struggles to maintain his sticky relationship with his father. As a result, the dissonance between his success and the emotional burden his success has become weighs heavily on him, entangled as it is with feelings of guilt, misplaced responsibility and fraudulency. The Holocaust is such a difficult and upsetting subject to discuss and represent, and Spiegelman demonstrates great sensitivity and self-awareness in his handling of such a traumatic and barbaric event. The novel is not only a historical document of his own father’s survival, but also provides a platform for conversations about how we successfully represent the un-representable, and all the responsibility that brings.

Palestine by Joe Sacco, 1996

palestine cover

The second graphic novel in the Holy Trinity follows a Joe Sacco, an American journalist, travelling to Palestine and the Gaza Strip to witness and interview oppressed Palestinians during the Intifada. In the West we are given a very limited idea of the history and lived experience of Palestinians under Israeli occupation on the West Bank. This graphic novel has been hugely influential in its multi-dimensional perspective of conflict; and especially those conflicts that receive little traction in the news or are obscured by global and media power players. Sacco gives voices and faces to the seemingly unending hardship on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip that easily bypasses the consciousness of many in the West. The violence and terror that Palestinian men, women and child experience on a daily basis is front and centre of Sacco’s novel, as he tracks his own journey from bystander and objective interviewer, to witness.

 

Palestine

 

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, 2000 and 2014

Persepolis cover

This novel is the third graphic novel in the Holy Trinity. Persepolis blew open what I knew and understood about Iran and Iranian history. As far as I was aware, when I first read this novel in 2010, Iran was a rogue bogeyman country, intent on making nuclear weapons to blow everyone up and destabilise the Middle East permanently, and that was the way things were and the way things always had been. As with my original perceptions of the Palestinian conflict, this graphic novel proved this idea of Iran to be completely limited and short-sighted. Through the story of her family and childhood, Satrapi presents Iran as a vibrant, secular country before the Islamic Revolution, and depicts the horror of war as Iran and neighbouring Iraq are drawn into a deadly conflict. She presents the oppressive practices and rules enforced in school and in public, in particular regarding women’s rights, whilst struggling with her own direction in life, with her time in Europe marred by racism and homelessness.

Persepolis

Persepolis is a coming-of-age story like no other, offsetting universal teenage angst and confusion (the start of The Vegetable chapter with panels of Satrapi’s face changing through puberty spoke to me like little else) with religious extremism and Western xenophobic bigotry. The novel provides both creative freedom for Satrapi to explore her own personal story and to shine a critical light on the injustices and pervasive power structures that successfully control people in both the East and West. At the same time, the graphic novel, with its black and white colour scheme and regular panels, successfully conveys the claustrophobia of living in a world where you are penned in by cultural expectations, conflict, bigotry and your own demons.

embodiment-1

 

Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Malik Sajad, 2015

Munnu

In the tradition of Maus, Persepolis and Palestine, Munnu follows the coming-of-age of the eponymous Munnu, the youngest member of a family living and hailing from war-torn and devastated Kashmir. In a similar vein to Maus, Sajad uses animals, specifically Kashmiri deer, to highlight Kashmiris’ endangered status as a free and independent people. The novel balances the intricacies and tensions surrounding the conflict and hypocrisies between Kashmir and India, Kashmir and Pakistan and amongst Kashmiri resistance groups, whilst also exploring family, existential anxiety and trauma as a result of conflict, and the power of cartoons to grant personal freedom. The final panel is particularly unnerving and unsettling, and I was most touched by young Munnu grappling with his fear of death. Munnu also critiques the West’s seeming inability to comprehend the severity of the conflict in Kashmir and its ineffectiveness in using diplomatic pressure and might to bring about a resolution.  I recently discovered that Munnu has not been published in India, which is very telling about the current tensions unfolding in Kashmir as a result of the occupation and how powerful, and thereby threatening, this graphic novel has been in exposing them.

eu-embed-sajad-malik

 

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Kate Evans, 2015

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Rosa Luxemburg is a giant of the Left and nowhere else has her life and work been so beautifully presented and so articulately explained than in this graphic novel. Luxemburg’s philosophy that Marx was not beyond criticism, even though she took her political and economic position from his work, is a lesson for us all: nothing is beyond critical interrogation, especially the people we most admire and whose thinking has been the most influential for us. The concise and accessible exploration of Luxemburg’s philosophy includes her radical pacifism: my favourite panel coming with Luxemburg’s response to the First World War: head bowed, she is disturbed and weighed down by the destruction and wanton chaos of a war that will end nowhere and will result in the deaths of millions of working class people. Evans also gives us an insight into Luxemburg’s personal life, the incredible obstacles she overcame to become a writer and political leader, and her relationships with close friends, family and lovers along the way. This graphic novel, and its subject matter in Luxemburg, is absolutely inspiring.

RedRosa_extract_TheNation_img

 

Other graphic novels to explore:

Dragonslippers: This is what an abusive relationship looks like, Rosalind B. Penfold, 2006

Diary of a Teenage Girl, Phoebe Gloenecker, 2002

Threads: From the Refugee Crisis, Kate Evans, 2017

Tamara Drewe, Posy Simmonds, 2007

 

 

 

[1] Homage to Joe Sacco, http://journeyofideasacross.hkw.de/anti-narratives-and-beyond/edward-w-said.html [accessed 22/05/2019].

Love Note – Mustang

Sisterhood truly is the most potent, inspiring and exasperating relationship: where grievous bodily harm can magically turn into profound silliness, which can turn into deceptive and mysterious thefts of anything from books and clothes to biscuits, which can turn into profound existential bonding conversations about love, life and the Real Housewives (substitute RH with your mutual sisterly trash). Jane Austen knew it with Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility; Louisa May Alcott knew it with Little Women; Phoebe Waller-Bridge knew it with Fleabag; and Deniz Gamze Ergüven absolutely knew it with Mustang. I re-watched Mustang a couple of weeks ago and it is still one of the most compelling and emotionally charged films about sisterhood I have come across.

The plot revolves around five sisters: Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale, and told largely through the point of view of Lale, the youngest. The sisters live with their ultra-conservative grandmother and uncle in a small village in northern Turkey. One day, after Lale tearfully says goodbye to her teacher who is moving to Istanbul, the sisters go to the beach with some male friends and play in the water. They are spotted and reported to their guardians, who effectively turn their house into a prison and arrange marriages for the girls. It is at times devastating, brilliantly funny and an incitement to free spiritedness in all teenage girls, especially when confronted with the deepest and darkest patriarchal forces.

And those patriarchal forces are well and truly horrifying. One of the scenes seared into my memory is at the wedding, where the girls’ uncle, Erol, who has proven himself to be aggressive and violent not only with the girls but with their grandmother (his mother), stands drunkenly and happily in the middle of the dancefloor, eyes closed, firing his gun into the air. Where the girls had at first been dancing, they cower around him, clamping their hands to their ears as he shoots and shoots. When I first watched the film, I thought to myself ‘Why on earth is he happy? Why is he celebrating?’ He cares nothing for the girls beyond keeping their virginity intact and, with hideous irony, it is heavily suggested that he sexually abuses two of them. Maybe he is just happy that they are no longer his responsibility and that he’d fulfilled some kind of patriarchal role in getting them married off? I think this is part of the way there: in this scene, ultimately, Erol is relishing his power. He is the one with his hand on the trigger, asserting and revelling in his dominance over the lives and fortunes of his nieces. It is sickening and infuriating to watch.

Additionally, watching Lale learn how to drive holds such urgency and pathos. Selma tells her that she was unable to escape because she couldn’t drive and Lale refuses for that to become her reality too. She tries and fails and tries again to learn how to drive, enlisting the help of truck driver Yassin, even though she is easily only 11 or 12 years old. Driving is a right we so take for granted in the UK, but is a fundamentally powerful means of power and control in religious and conservative countries. The importance of women being allowed to drive in countries like Saudi Arabia is all the more pertinent after watching a film like Mustang.

Amongst the hellish religious conservatism that the film actively exposes and challenges, we see the enduring and undimming power and pleasures of sisterhood, in all its multi-faceted manifestations. Indeed, the gentle intermingling of relatively light-hearted sisterly dramas with the devastating cultural power dynamics is what makes this film at once irreverent and tragic. We see the sisters defending one another from beatings; breaking out of the house to attend a women-only football match, then gossiping and messing around in their bedroom. One sister tells of how she radically subverts the injustice and intrusion of virginity tests by partaking in anal sex to prevent ‘losing her virginity’, before later on warning another sister that she’ll rip her head off if she steals her clothes again. As such, the film perfectly balances the magically mundane sisterly qualms and quarrels with the bigger, scarier patriarchal violence that determines their freedom and their happiness.

In this, I think the film goes a step further than Jeffrey Eugenides and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides: the Lisbon sisters are only ever a mystical figment of the young boys’ suburban imagination, never fully realised as ostensible young women with desires, quirks, tempers or interests, Lux being, perhaps, the exception. Mustang shows that coursing underneath all of the patriarchal violence, double standards and unfairness of being a young woman living under religious conservatism, is the understanding, camaraderie and mutual struggle of being a girl and having female siblings. It is both heart-warming and heart-wrenching and speaks to anyone who has had a sister who has driven them absolutely mad but who will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them through whatever chaos comes their way, patriarchal or otherwise.

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#ArmisticeDay100 one week on

A week ago saw the international commemorations of Armistice Day: on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the First World War came to an end. There was the annual event at the Cenotaph in the UK followed by a service at Westminster Abbey, gatherings of world leaders in Paris, and services taking place at cemeteries and memorials in India, New Zealand and the USA amongst many other countries. I had a draft version of this essay ready last Sunday, but decided to wait until a week had gone by before I posted it. I was curious to see how the spirit of remembrance would pan out a mere week after the solemnities of the remembrance services, the public grief and mourning over lives lost and the thankful vows to ‘never forget’. After the week we have just seen, where the level of British political debate has been puerile, headlines have featured militaristic language of ‘plots’, ‘battles’, ‘fighting’, ‘rebels’, ‘calling in the cavalry’ etc. and the harassment of a prominent female investigative journalist became institutional, I am convinced that remembrance in this country is little more than an annual self-indulgent performance.[1] Additionally, and sadly, this did not surprise me in the slightest.

Of course, there is always a performance element to any kind of national event; however, above all others, Armistice Sunday really has become the biggest yardstick of nationalism with which to bash people around the head for a couple of days of the year, until business as usual resumes. Remembrance, we are told (and I firmly believe should), involve respect of difference, empathy, compassion and a renewed sense of hope in the potential of human beings to acknowledge the injustices of the past and to unite to do good, try harder and be better in future. Nowhere have I seen any of these played out in British politics this past week: the lack of respect, the spite, the selfishness that we have seen manifesting at Westminster has been galling. As such, I think it’s absolutely crucial that we deconstruct and re-think remembrance, so that we carry its spirit with us all year long and begin to conduct life as human beings with integrity and long-sightedness. As a species, we can live consciously and kindly, we can serve one another by embracing and protecting difference, and we can prioritise love, compassion and justice over greed, intolerance and hate.

As with many things in these polarised political times, there is much division over the poppy as a symbol of national remembrance. On one hand, it is a nod to John McCrae’s famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ and is an emotive and powerful symbol representing sacrifice and loss for a cause greater than oneself. On the other hand, it can be interpreted as an uncritical expression of nationalistic pride; brought out once a year to remember the devastating effect of war on human life whilst governmental policy continues to pursue and fuel unnecessary conflict.[3] For literary critic Walter Benjamin, this thinking in binary opposition, that has incidentally become so inflammatory and toxic over the past few years, is inevitable if we are to understand our history, our present and our future through the use of symbols. The poppy will never go far enough to help us understand and remember history. Instead, we need to culturally embrace and elevate allegory.  As Benjamin writes in The Origin of German Tragic Drama:

[…] in allegory, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face- or rather a death’s head […] it significantly gives rise not only to the question of human existence, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.

Reading this on and around Armistice Day, there seems to be no more a fitting image of a ‘petrified, primordial landscape’ than the hellish ‘No Man’s Land’: stretches of Belgium and France that were muddy, pockmarked with shells (some still unexploded), land scoured with barbed wire and dead bodies churned up in it all. If this is the face of history, then we need to understand history in a much more multifarious and multifaceted way than a symbol can allow. Indeed, when we try to remember and observe the impact of such complex and destructive human inventions such as war, nationhood and self, this becomes crucial. I would argue that it is important to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War; it is important to remember the destruction and devastation that war entails; it is important that we share a collective grief and mourning over the past so that we can build a more progressive, peaceful future. I am very serious about peace and if the world is to take the principles of Armistice Day more seriously i.e. observe it beyond one day of the year, then we must look above and beyond the symbol of the poppy alone. A symbol cannot go far enough to explore the depth of experience that Armistice Day entails. To reflect on all the fallout of war, we need to go beyond the surface level of symbols and engage with allegory. In my opinion, one of the best ways to access the historical nuances and perspectives of allegory is through art: poetry, music, film and visual art. Art and creative expression take us away from the confining realms of the symbolic, widening and deepening our conception of historical event and history itself. It is essential that remembrance incorporates art.  In light of this, I want to begin by discussing a particular piece of music that can help us to explore remembrance in a way that provides a more comprehensive, broader and yet deeper understanding of the past that Armistice Day requires.

I first heard Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending, written in 1914, during the rather lengthily titled ‘A Solemn Commemoration of the Centenary of the Outbreak of the First World War’, which took place on 4th August 2014 at Westminster Abbey. Amongst the usual hallmarks of British national remembrance on display, from poppy wreaths, the soaring strains of Elgar and Bible readings to the royal family clad in a combination of black and military regalia, the service made room for poetry and music. The work of T.S Eliot, Wilfrid Gibson, Sebastian Faulks and Bach all made appearances and I was happy to see German prayers and poems featured too. Yet, it was Jennifer Pike and Daniel Cook’s haunting performance, on the violin and organ respectively that, in my opinion, brought an exceptional emotional weight to the service.[5]

The Lark Ascending (I’m thinking of the almost mythical Wessex as a backdrop to Hardy’s concerns with contemporary misogyny, hypocrisy and class limitation).

There is an elegiac quality to The Lark Ascending, making it suitably fitting for remembrance. Its mournful folk strains convey a sense of painful, intangible loss where we know that we are losing or have lost something, but we’re not entirely sure what.In light of this, how else can we think about remembrance, and what can remembrance also include?

War is an attack on critical thinking. In 1914, Europe was heavily armed, and the powerful ruling elites, who had spent years acquiring arms and stealing land and resources across the world, needed little excuse to start blowing each other up. What they relied upon, however, were young, fit men who would do the fighting on their behalf. The propaganda campaigns across all the nations and alliances involved in the First World War were sustained and convincing. In Britain, for example, 2.4 million men volunteered to fight before conscription was introduced in 1916. Men from Britain’s colonial territories were also convinced/forced to join the war; for example, 10% of New Zealand’s 1.1 million population volunteered to join the fight in Europe, with 18,000 eventually losing their lives.[7] The war was presented in a very simplistic way: ‘we’ are good, ‘they’ are bad, and, as such, young men were encouraged to enlist to assert and defend a strong sense of nationalistic pride. The posters and adverts appealed to unambiguous xenophobia, a misguided sense of glory and heroism and the war was likened to a big, grand adventure.

We can gain a clear sense that war was marketed to the young, and it was undoubtedly the young who suffered in their millions. At no point were they actively encouraged to look beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and explore the history and complexity of the war: young people were just encouraged to get involved, for quite literally fear of missing out and for fear of being accused of cowardice. For all that many young people today are called ‘snowflakes’ for challenging the orthodoxies and traditions into which they have been born, at least they have been encouraged to explore contexts and perspectives beyond their own. In a world of ‘dodgy dossiers’ (the Iraq War was nothing if not a shining example of critical thinking being swept aside for the sake of power and posturing) and fake news, we need to be more careful than ever with the information we consume. We must learn to question the information and stories being delivered to us, especially when they are being presented to us with a motion towards objectivity, and not allow facts and opinions to become so hopelessly muddled. Remembrance and critical thinking must walk hand-in-hand so that we do not slip and slide down the murky paths of bigotry, vested interest and power into catastrophic violence.

War is an attack on all of humanity: the total number of deaths resulting from World War One is estimated at 20 million, which was divided into 9.7 million military personnel and 10 million civilians.

During services of remembrance, we are told that we must remember all wars; however, what we think of as ‘war’ is, in itself, very limited. ‘War’ conjures up images of strategic military campaigns and operations, trench warfare, spitfires, tanks and the ideological aim of attacking some form of an aggressor. I think, however, that the conception of ‘war’ needs to be broadened much wider. In particular, I think we need to acknowledge the role of brute force and military violence in the form of colonial atrocities. There must be a space for acknowledgment of colonial barbarism in our collective Remembrance. The pillaging and theft of human beings, their land and their cultural identities from across Africa, Asia, the South Pacific and Americas at the hands of European soldiers must also be acknowledged as the acts of war that they are. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey is a national focus on Armistice Day, but what about the unknown millions who were killed and raped at the hands of soldiers when their countries were colonised and destroyed? If invading another country with weapons and arms, claiming it as your own, butchering and oppressing the people there isn’t an act of war, I don’t know what is. To add insult to grave injury, Remembrance is savagely whitewashed. What is rarely acknowledged is how many indigenous peoples fought in a European war, hundreds of miles away from their homes: 1 million Indian soldiers served in the British army; 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans were brought to Europe by the French; and 2200 Maori soldiers were in the New Zealand army, plus many more ethnicities. This was all whilst military campaigns and bombardments were conducted across Africa by the colonial powers to divert attention, money and resources away from the Western Front.[10] The contributions to the ‘war effort’ of Commonwealth and other former colonial countries cannot be acknowledged without also acknowledging that those very soldiers were victims of colonial and cultural war. Britain, in particular, is very reluctant to have a frank and honest discussion about atrocities committed in pursuit of ‘Empire’. If we are to remember all wars properly, we must cast our perspectives wider, beyond the trenches, over the seas to lands that Britain had absolutely no right to steal from others; to peoples who bore the scars of foreign soldiers.

Finally, there is always hope.  Even after witnessing British politics revealing itself  to be the sorry shit show that it is one week one from the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, we can be better. Through proper mourning and grief work, through a concerted, meaningful practice of remembrance, we can touch upon the prospect of better future. Elevating symbols like the poppy without acknowledging the deeper ambivalence surrounding the fallout of war, simply will not help us to learn from the past to produce a better future: here, a greater appreciation and understanding of art will always help. All wars have to end with diplomacy and conversations where we actively seek resolution: remembrance, therefore, should bring awareness to those very things, before arms are hastily taken up to begin with. Instead of blindly following the traditions of remembrance, remembrance itself must be an action. More specifically, it must be an explicit action of thinking critically and compassionately: weighing up arguments and perspectives, developing historical fluency and taking responsibility for all military atrocities.

 

[1] ‘The Papers’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs/the_papers [accessed 19th November 2018].

[2] Additionally, a mere three days before Armistice Day, a report was published highlighting that 41% of children have seen adults bullying one another in the past six months. How can adults preach to child to not bully one another when the way in which adults relate to and speak to one another is wholeheartedly aggressive, disinterested and narrow-minded? ‘Bullying: Children point finger at adults’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46140135 [accessed: 18:35, Sunday 18th November 2018].

[3] Here I refer to the controversial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the British government’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia.

[4] The full order of service can be found here: https://www.westminster-abbey.org/media/5205/ww1-vigil-service.pdf

[5] The original 1914 composition of The Lark Ascending was written violin and piano. Williams later reconstructed the piece for an orchestra that premiered in 1920 and has become one of the most popular pieces of music of all time.

[6] I think there may be room here for discussion of the pastoral with Sigmund Freud’s conception of ‘melancholia’: ‘One feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either […] This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness’ from ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud,  Volume XIV (1914-1916) p.245.

[7] https://ww100.govt.nz/history-guide [accessed 21:28, 18th November 2018].

[8] ‘Reperes’, http://www.centre-robert-schuman.org/userfiles/files/REPERES%20%E2%80%93%20module%201-1-1%20-%20explanatory%20notes%20%E2%80%93%20World%20War%20I%20casualties%20%E2%80%93%20EN.pdf [accessed 21:15, 18th November 2018].

[9] ‘Europe on the move: refugees and World War One’, Peter Gatrell, https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/refugees-europe-on-the-move# [accessed 19th November 2018].

[10] ‘In 1914, the whole of Africa, except Ethiopia and Liberia, was under European rule and Great Britain and France controlled the two largest colonial empires’, Experiences of Colonial Troops, Santanu Das https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/colonial-troops [accessed 16:29, 19th November 2018].

‘It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back, so shake him off’: thoughts on the 2015 General Election result

This essay was originally published on a blog called Cloudbanks and Shimbleshanks on 8th May 2015, the day after the Conservatives won an outright majority in the General Election. Re-reading it a couple of days ago, I felt that it warranted re-publishing on Harping On. In spite of some of my more youthful writing, it’s shocking how pertinent it still reads, in particular with the idea that we need to use creativity and public space to combat inaction and apathy. As the world has been on a slippery political slope of increased austerity and hate ever since 2015, it is even more urgent that we are engaged and active now.

The 2015 General Election result undoubtedly set a precedent for everything that has followed since: most obviously with Brexit, but also for the much needed rise of Jeremy Corbyn and a regenerated socialist discourse. I know I did not do nearly enough during the EU Referendum campaign to get the result that I wanted and that didn’t come to pass. I hope, however, that in the publication of my novel ‘Tender is the Gelignite’, past me will be satisfied with my attempt at using creativity politically; the mad beastie of a book I have produced that explicitly critiques, mocks and performs the chaos that the 2015 election result laid the foundations for.  

When the broadcasting Exit Poll was published last night showing a Conservative outright majority, for a lot of people alarm bells started ringing. So many, myself included, were convinced that a hung parliament was on the cards only to see a seemingly endless sea of sickly, putrid blue envelope the country. For anyone who regards this country more as a society and a community than an economy perpetuated by self-interest and individualism, the result has been disastrous.

We all know what’s coming: the sinisterly named welfare ‘reforms’, a word that suggests progression and change but now signifies cuts and rolling back; tax cuts to the wealthiest and most affluent proportions of society; the NHS being carved up and sold off on the sly; security and protection services cut and contracts given to private companies; more people using food banks; cuts to sexual and mental health services; cuts to domestic violence services; council houses not being built, and those that are built being sold off; large corporations benefitting from state funding and not paying their taxes; banks still not paying back the £1 trillion that public money paid to save them because of reckless lending; and schools following an increasingly archaic and redundant curriculum. Just the tip of the iceberg for a party that had almost half of its members vote against gay marriage, who have ballsed up various inquiries into the sexual abuse of children because they have too many links to the perpetrating Establishment, and who want to abolish the European Human Rights Act. With David Cameron declaring in an uncanny and not at all un-ironic way that he wants to lead a ‘one-nation’ government, harking back to Benjamin Disraeli’s paternalistic One Nation Toryism, it looks like we’re set to be dragged back, even further than we already have been, into the recesses of the 19th century.

Again, we have seen that this country is held to ransom by Rupert Murdoch. It was easy to start believing that the power of social media could become a meaty force to be reckoned with, what with #milifandom, the fuelling of the #greensurge on Facebook and Twitter and the ease with which we can now engage with other people and with politicians themselves. It seems, however, that the old-school newspapers and tabloids, those slabs of tangible news (sic. bollocks) have seeped into public consciousness more successfully. Facebook has been recently heavily criticised for an algorithm that essentially filters what we see and read depending on our clicks and likes, thus ensuring that our newsfeeds become clogged up with articles and posts that we want to see: it is the blatant construction of false hope. Nothing I or anyone else of a left persuasion could have posted would ever have been able to compare with the reams of nasty vitriol spewing forth daily from the front pages of The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Times in supermarkets, on buses and everywhere in between. Once again, as with the case of former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, the Murdoch-run rags have undoubtedly helped their Tory pals to seal the defeat of the opposition. It proves that once again, he should never be underestimated; the media is society’s main ideological machine, the conveyor of hegemony, and boy did Murdoch’s cronies take themselves to a whole new level of spiteful this election with the industrial smearing of Ed Miliband. They even managed to track down @twcuddleston, the girl who founded #milifandom, turning up on her doorstep having mysteriously found her unpublished address.

After the initial shock and panic of the election results, everything has become very clear. We need to shout louder, make our points clearer and harness this anger and sadness that so many of us are feeling right now and do something to counter the predominant narrative. I would argue that people have voted Conservative because of the endless diatribe of fear and austerity that we have been pummelled with. In these times of crisis, it looks like many people have decided to vote in a way that they will think will better them and their families specifically, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that it facilitates a climate whereby people don’t vote for the sort of society they want to see as a whole, but for what will benefit them and their own for the longest time possible. This is an idea that has appealed to people of all social circumstances and is, perhaps, one of Thatcher’s most lasting legacies. It is time for hope: an end to the fear of difference in any of its racial, sexual or gendered forms and a return to the compassion and empathy that years of crisis in the early twentieth century created within the people of this country.

One of the books Michael Gove famously removed from the GCSE syllabus was To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel is full of important questions regarding race, gender and the interpretation of the law; but perhaps the most prominent ideological feature that can be read within the language and plot is the idea of trying to relate to another person’s ideas or actions, with Atticus most famously telling Scout, ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it’. It’s such a simple concept, walking around as though you are another person, seeing with their eyes, feeling their emotions, but it can be, understandably, incredibly difficult and disconcerting. But that doesn’t make it any less important or worthwhile to do. We need to stop being so self-involved and think about a society that is fair and kind, not run on a heady quest to make ever more profit for oneself, no matter the cost to human lives and human experience.

In his book on the Establishment, Owen Jones talks about the need for grassroots political activism, think tanks and assemblies, and I completely agree. I seriously recommend the aforementioned book (the chapter on corporations scrounging off the largesse of the state in particular makes for simultaneously fascinating and sobering reading), but I think this is also the time for arts and creativity to, once again, to walk hand-in-hand with the political ideas. We need to produce more literature, more music, more film, more comedy that challenges the ideas that the Tories stand for. Whether we lean with Labour, the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, TUSC or that empty shell of a party the Liberal Democrats, we need to be united and organised in our challenge to Tory and neo-liberal dogma. Undoubtedly, the SNP are going to give the Westminster cartel a complete headache with their grit, determination and passion, and we can do the same. The writers, the musicians, the film-makers, the academics, the twenty-somethings lost in the 21st century maelstrom of debt, unaffordable housing and a struggling NHS that we have inherited, need to use our creativity to reverse the consensus. Political activists need to join forces with bands, artists need to represent the struggle of unions and workers, we need to use our talents to hammer home that even though the Tories have this majority, they are not good enough for us. The pages of magazines and newspapers should be full of hope, images of like-minded people from different races, cultures, genders and sexual orientations in solidarity with one another.

Director extraordinaire Michel Gondry once said that ‘Every great idea is on the verge of being stupid’, which is both comforting and empowering. Here’s a potential one that could work: I always used to think that university elections were one and lost in toilets: stalls used to be plastered with mass produced stickers and flyers, and what better time to get to know someone’s policy than when you have a bit of time to kill in the loo? Similarly, in light of Protein World’s Beach Body advert, billboards were defaced and edited in small acts of powerful protestation. Maybe if we start reclaiming public spaces like loos or even better advertising boards (that invade almost every inch of our lives to make us aspire and feel insecure) on a big scale, on an un-ignorable scale, maybe we can start helping people to see beyond their front gardens, encouraging critical thinking, undercutting the power of the media and thereby the ideological dogma of our new government. This is the time for ideas and creativity as well as activism, and hopefully in 5 years time, we can shake of this exhausting, dead Tory weight that’s been holding us down for years.

Thanks again to the monument that is Florence Welch for the lyrics that inspired and serve as title to this essay.