Archive for June 2008
it has been almost two months to the day since I started this little venture, mostly as somewhere to publish what I was writing, since it wasn’t getting picked up by any of the publications I was submitting them to. I assumed that I would just write whatever I wrote, and post it here, and it would just sit in quiet anonymity, adding their own voice to the screaming mess that is the internet.
instead, I find that people have been reading.
not in huge numbers – I’m certainly not going to make any money out of this thing just yet – but there have been over 1,500 individual views of this little blog.
and I just wanted to say thank you.
What are the characteristics of society and politics and the evolution of political institutions in one of the following countries or regions in the Middle East?
Iran has seen major changes to its government and indeed to wider society over the course of the twentieth century. The overthrow of the Qajar dynasty in 1921, Shah Pahlavi’s White Revolution and the Islamic Revolution have all had a tremendous impact on the political structure of the nation, but no less significantly led to widespread change in the everyday life of the people. Throughout this period the unique aspects of Iran are of constant importance – its fierce nationalist character, its geopolitical position between the Middle East and Asia, the value of its oil and its position as the only non-Arab Muslim state – and it is often the case that foreign powers, rather than Iranians, have huge sway over the direction of the nation.
The rule of the first Shah, Reza Khan, was marked both by this nationalism and by foreign intervention. During his sixteen-year reign the Trans-Iranian Railway was built, connecting Tehran to the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea. Furthermore, the University of Tehran was established as the centrepiece of a modern education system. It was also Reza Khan who established the use of the term “Iran” as the official name of the country, separating the new nation from its past connections to the Greek, Roman and British Empires. However, in one of the first clear instances of foreign interests trumping Iranian interests, the north-south line of the Railway that was constructed largely benefited the British, who used this line heavily to move troops through Iran to the subcontinent. Perhaps ironically, Britain and Russia invaded Iran during World War II in order to exploit the capacity of the Trans-Iranian Railway.
Further foreign intervention was evident in the removal of Prime Minister Mossadeq. By the time of his election in 1951 Iran had become the second-highest producer of oil in the world, but there was increasing dissatisfaction with how little Iran was receiving from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Mossadeq’s plan was to nationalise the AIOC, and combat “poverty, disease and backwardness” among the Iranian people, and refused the British any involvement at all in the new system. In response, Britain placed an embargo on Iranian oil, and worked with the US to depose Mossadeq in 1953.
The rule of Reza Khan’s son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was dominated by the White Revolution, a large-scale series of social, economic and land reforms. The land reforms were perhaps the most revolutionary, as the government bought land from the traditional landed elites and resold it to peasants below the market value. Over a twelve-year period, the percentage of land occupied by its owner increased from twenty-six to seventy-eight percent, benefiting an estimated twelve million Iranian peasants. The White Revolution also saw the creation of the literacy corps, where instead of completing their military service in their army, high school-educated Iranians could work towards educating the illiterate two-thirds of the population.
The period of the White Revolution, and more generally the rule of the Shah, was characterised by increased alliances to the West, especially with the US. During this period Tehran became the Middle Eastern headquarters of the CIA, and a huge number of US military advisers, technicians and strategists were often present in the country, and were granted what amounted to complete diplomatic immunity. Within Iran this was seen as another piece of evidence that the Shah cared more about the opinions of foreign dignitaries than about Iranians, a sentiment underlined by inviting scores of foreign dignitaries to the celebrations at Persepolis, commemorating 2,500 years of continuous Iranian monarchy while much of the land was suffering from severe drought and famine.
The defining characteristic of the 1979 revolution was that it was an Islamic Revolution, a clear departure from the Shah and his father, who had in some ways attempted to secularise Iran – most notably during the Women’s Awakening (1936-41). Khomeini formed his Provisional Revolutionary Government on February 4, 1979, declaring that it was God’s government and a revolt against it was a revolt against God. Despite the seemingly autocratic nature of this declaration, it must be said that both the new “Islamic Republic” and the 1979 constitution for this republic were overwhelming supported in referenda, both receiving support from 98% of the population, with supposed high voter turnout. This contrasts greatly with the rule of the Shah who, although granting women the right to vote, never really presented the people of Iran with a great deal upon which to exercise said right.
The 1979 constitution institutionalised the role of the religious ‘ulama, establishing the velayat-e faqih and the power of veto of the Council of Guardians. This Rule of the Jurists was unprecedented, and unsurprisingly attracted heavy criticism, especially the position of rahbar – the supreme jurist who was owed the allegiance of all others. Many suggested that this blend of the religious and political was incompatible with Shi’ism, revering the rahbar in a manner that was usually reserved for the Prophet.
It is this blend of religious and political that has been one of the two most significant aspects to come out of the period of Iran with Khomeini as leader. That current President Ahmadinejad is the first Iranian president to come from a non-religious background clearly shows that there is an expectation, or at very least a general acceptance of religious leaders as political leaders – something that would be greatly unprecedented, and perhaps slightly worrying, for many other nations.
The second significant social change that came out of this period was the engagement of women in the social, educational and political process. While many may argue that the Revolution was a backwards step for women’s rights – especially in regards to segregation of the sexes, inheritance and other areas of the civil code – there can be no question that the number of women involved in anti-Shah demonstrations spurred increasing involvement. Further to this, the enormous number of Iranian men killed during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 (estimated as high as one million) led to many women entering the workforce and the public sphere in great numbers, with a strong push for women’s education. In the 1996 Consultative Assembly elections, fourteen women were elected and the percentage of total enrolments at primary, secondary and tertiary levels were equal between men and women in 2007/8.
Iran’s history has been violent, turgid and deeply, deeply complex. Autocratic leaders and lame duck parliaments have been overthrown in revolutions and replaced by more autocratic leaders and lame duck parliaments, and in nearly all of these “regime changes” there has been significant international involvement from the US, Britain, Russia and other Middle Eastern countries. And every time it seems as though Iran is headed towards reformation – the idealism of the White Revolution, the early days of Khomeini, Mohammad Khatami’s Dialogue of Civilisations – something happens that leads to a closing of ranks, borders and minds. However, there is no question that due to Iran’s immense size, increasingly significant geopolitical location, population and oil wealth, it will remain a major power, potential threat and incredibly important actor on the world stage.
Ryan Reynolds – Competitive Eating
reposted from The Huffington Post
As the fourth of July fast approaches, what better way to celebrate being at the top of the food chain than having a good ol’ fashioned competitive eating contest? IFOCE (International Federation of Competitive Eating) proudly recognizes my main man, Don “Moses” Lerman, who wolfed down an impressive 11 burgers in 10 minutes last year. “I’ll stretch my stomach until it causes internal bleeding,” he says. “I do it for the thrill of competition. Some people are good at golf. I’m good at eating.”
Mr. Lerman was flanked by the finest assemblage of eaters ever to compete in this annual monument to decadence, making his win all the more impressive. Though his work will be cut out for him in the coming days if he hopes to break the current record of 49 hot dogs in under 12 minutes when he competes at “The Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest” in which the finest gurgitators in the world will fight for one of 20 spots in the most celebrated sporting event of the year. Each contestant hopes to bring home the coveted Mustard Yellow International Belt; competitive eating’s greatest prize. (Akin to The Master’s green jacket of golf, or the Vince Lombardi trophy to football) Like 2006’s contest, the event will be televised as a live, one-hour broadcast on ESPN. “We are thrilled to offer this spirited event on America’s most patriotic day,” said Wayne Norbitz, president and CEO of Nathan’s Famous.
There’s little question these fine athletes possess a unique talent separating them from the unwashed mass of normal people. But would it be fair to say competitive eating holds the renown of professional football, or the lore of Major League Baseball? What about other unsung athletic heroes across the globe? 14 year old Mustafat Osmana holds Western Sudan’s competitive Not-Eating-A-Thing-a-Thon record, by going 39 straight days without food. Barely edging out defending champion, Ahmed Rashid who went a whopping 38 days before accidentally eating one of the flies living on his eyelid. (Ouch! Better luck next year, Ahmed.)
Young Mustafat, who maintains a strict diet of inner turmoil and bleached hope, looks forward to watching the ESPN-televised event to better understand what gigantically wasteful, fucking super-retards we all are.
Mustafat, a long time enthusiast of western culture, even took time out from his busy starvation to write a letter to MTV in the hopes they’d come to Darfur and “pimp his ride.” Which really means giving him shoes. Unfortunately, an outbreak of highly contagious death in the region forced producers to postpone the trip.
While it may be impossible to understand the mental temerity and physical excellence it takes to master these dazzling sports, we can expect great things in the future from exciting athletes like Don Lerman and Mustafat Osmana. And although oceans and even the most basic human rights may separate these two great peoples, we are ALL bound together by the vibrant spirit of competition and grotesque displays of boundless, unapologetic shitheadery.
Ryan Reynolds – The Clown God
If you can remember the movie A Christmas Story — which plays in concert with every holiday season — starring a towheaded four-eyed boy named Peter Billingsley, his character, “Ralphie,” bears an uncanny resemblance to my brother at that age. I love this movie, but that’s not important right now.
As a kid, hanging out with my brother, I often felt accomplice to a very lowbrow style of Vaudevillian crime. My friends and I were eternally caught in the crossfire of his evermore, spectacular stupidity. As if by magic, he could transform a simple trip to grandma’s house into a felony, while simultaneously he could have you rolling on the ground with his unique brand of electric hilarity. He once set fire to a tree at the side of our elementary school and in an aborted attempt to extinguish the rapidly spreading structure fire, fled to retrieve water IN THE BURNING SCHOOL. Needless to say, he was apprehended almost immediately — invariably punctuating each stunt by flashing me a look of heartbreaking bewilderment. “Ryan, I’m such an idiot,” he’d say in his imploring tone. “Ryan, I’m so dead” or “Ryan, I’m-in-so-much-trouble.” As though these declarations would somehow turn back time or rescue him from whatever punishment lay in waiting. With that pair of crooked coke-bottle glasses perched on his nose, his face begat a sympathetic quality impossible to ignore. He was almost adorable in his mismanaged existence.
Before becoming the successful, strong willed rock he is today, Gordie was a socially awkward kid. He didn’t have many friends back in the day, and found himself relating more to my gang, two years his junior. His character was divided between a wellspring of innocence and an Evil Knievel-like fearlessness that seemingly had no limits. Around my friends, the desire to impress brought these two opposing traits into a kind of crude harmony, the results of which were often memorable for me, and deeply embarrassing for my father — who had the temperament and patience of a landmine. Yet, no matter what consequences followed our misadventures, my brother was forever willing to laugh at himself, provided no one else laughed first — as though he wanted stock options in his own humiliation. On the surface he seemed a black cat outlaw. If he crossed your path, there’s a good chance you’re fucked. But to me, he was also a hero. A Clown God.
As was tradition each Halloween, we would accumulate an arsenal of illegally purchased firecrackers and smoke bombs from the local Indian reservation and wander the neighborhoods in search of trouble. A particular Halloween that remains fond in memory was 1988. I was eleven years old and Gordie was at his havoc-wreaking peak. Shortly after depleting our stash of Cherry Bombs and Mighty-Mights in surrounding mail boxes, homes and slow-running civil servants — he came upon what appeared to be the mother of all dog turds, left by what seemed to be some sort of supernatural Great Dane. Or perhaps something even bigger did this… It was huge. And not at all congealed. My friends and I sidestepped the rancid pool of festering horror and kept walking. Why wouldn’t we? It was something to be avoided, something to childishly crack wise about and forget. But not for Gordie. No. To him, it was the mother load — a munificent holy grail of prepubescent anarchy. As far as he was concerned, we may have been staring at an alarmingly large pile of excrement. But what he was staring at, was greatness.
Unfortunately, we were fresh out of firecrackers, save for one precious Mighty-Might residing in my brother’s right breast pocket. He removed it with a care and delicacy reserved for such an auspicious discovery, placing it with pride in the center of the specimen. My friends and I giddily watched from a safe distance as Gordie pushed the glasses up the bridge of his sweaty nose, carefully lit the fuse and awkwardly fled for cover. But sadly, no explosion followed. No horrible shit-storm. Nothing. Moments later, Gordie returned to the extinguished fuse, which despite repeated attempts, wouldn’t stay lit in the damp Vancouver air. Our time was running out. Dinner was surely on the table by now — and experience had taught us not to be late. Surrendering to the reality we may not bear witness to his final act of small-minded lawlessness, Gordie soldiered on. Without even a flicker of reason, he continued, obsessively so, lighting the moist fuse until it looked like a tiny pimple atop a giant volcano of ass — the obvious dangers of igniting a fuse so short, miraculously lost on him. And it was that day, that precise moment, I remember for the first time, grappling with dueling factions of my nature. The side of me that wanted to be a decent brother and tell him to forget about it — live to fight another day, and this other darker, more devilish side that just wanted to see something awful. And it was also that day, the dark side won.
My brother had been dealt a lot of tough cards in life, yet it was as though in this moment, he just kept telling the dealer, “hit me.” As I remember it, I just sorta sat there watching stupidity in perfect harmony with conviction, while the following unfolded in slow motion…
Pressing the lighter to the fuse, his mouth left dangerously agape in its usual slack jawed indignity, the scene scored perfectly with the nauseating music of anticipation; he gave it one more try. An agonizing second later, the firecracker, along with Gordie saw its destiny in one swift, undeniable explosion delivered straight from hell itself. This thing didn’t simply explode. No. As if guided by the Rectum of God, every last fleck of feces coated my brother from head to toe — including the back of his throat, left brilliantly exposed to the hurtling ocean of diarrhea. He stood there motionless, still hunched over with the lighter in his hand, looking like a duped-again Wile E. Coyote. He removed his glasses and what remained were two perfect circles of white skin, broken only by a single shocked tear, rolling down a freshly painted cheek. We both knew there was no way to hide this — No way to explain to our old man why his son had become a shit-covered effigy to Planned Parenthood. We both knew he was screwed. And with that face, that perennial target of bittersweet happenstance, he just looked at me for a long while, keeping his mouth open to avoid savoring any of the excrement that now wholly encrusted his palette. And without even the slightest trace of irony, the Clown God unconsciously said something I’ll never forget… “Ryan, I’m such a shit-head.”
What are the characteristics of society and politics and the evolution of political institutions in one of the following countries or regions in the Middle East?
Lebanon is almost unique among the nations of the Middle East, as it is one of the only nations established as a result of lobbying and politicking by an indigenous group – the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon – rather than by colonial decree. However, despite their strength on Mount Lebanon, the Maronites did not constitute a majority in the country that was eventually formed throughout its own supposed historical and cultural extensions. Instead, the Maronites were merely the largest minority among several others in a new nation markedly divided by ethnicity and religion. Despite early attempts to nullify this sectarian division, the Civil War revealed the extent to which they remained, and today Lebanon faces many of the same issues as other middle eastern nations; namely sectarian divisions, uncertainty as to their position in the world, and of course, the Israel question.
Lebanon’s past must be examined through the policy of confessionalism, the system of proportional representation for the major religious sects in parliament, the civil service, the judiciary and the military. Initially it was designed (at the instigation of the French) to give the non-Maronite Muslims some share in the government of Lebanon. However, the terms agreed to in the National Pact of 1943 constitutionally guaranteed the continued supremacy of the Maronites, according representation on a proportional scale, based on the 1932 Census. As a result, the Maronites were accorded 30 seats out of the parliament’s 90, with Sunnis receiving 20 seats; Shia 19; Greek Orthodox 11; Greek Catholic 6; Druze 6; Armenian Orthodox 4; and other minorities 4.
However, far from bridging sectarian divides, the National Pact constitutionally reinforced them. Although it did preclude bitter sectarian battles over each and every parliamentary seat, it entrenched the notion that one’s religious affiliation was the primary marker of one’s identity rather than, for example, their Lebanese nationalism. A further problem created by this conciliatory system was that people were given positions based on their religious sect, not necessarily on the basis of their ability. The ensuing administrative inefficiency is impossible to quantify, but potentially very high. The greatest problem with this system, however, is that it forever tied representation to the information gleaned from a national Census. And, as a result, all the Maronite presidents of Lebanon had to do to ensure their continued supremacy was simply to fail to conduct a census. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been no official Census since 1932.
This unresponsiveness to demographic shifts proved to be a huge problem for Lebanon’s government, and indeed one of the major catalysts of the civil war. The main demand of the coalition of Muslim opposition groups known as the Lebanese National Movement was the taking of a new Census and a more representative structure for the nation’s civil institutions. Ironically, the Lebanese military was unable to prevent war as the army was recruited on sectarian proportions, and proved incapable of operating once religious sects began forming their own militia.
The civil war itself, in reality a succession of wars over nearly thirty years, ending only in 1991, was a microcosm of the complexity of Lebanon, not only internally but externally as well. The conflict began as a dispute over sectarian representation in government, a very Lebanese issue, but various stages of the fighting saw Iraqi and Libyan support for Sunni militia groups, Syrian and Israeli support for Christian militia, UN Security Council Resolutions and significant involvement by the United States and the PLO. Nothing so explicitly shows the many influences and stakeholders in Lebanon as does this catalogue of the major players during the civil war years.
Despite the hundreds of thousands killed, crippled and displaced, perhaps the most significant outcome of the civil war was the establishment of Hizballah as a major force both within Lebanon and in the context of the Israeli question. Inspired by Khomeini’s Islamic resurgence in Iran, Hizballah has been both a blessing and a curse for Lebanon, but both good and ill stem from the fact that Hizballah has become stronger than the Lebanese government in almost all conceivable areas.
Firstly, Hizballah is far better positioned to attack and expel Israel from Lebanon, largely due to the fact that its military wing, Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (“The Islamic Resistance”) is not a national army, and furthermore is armed with long-range missiles, anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft weapons and surface-to-air missiles. It has also been estimated that Hizballah has a standing army of one thousand full-time soldiers, with perhaps as many as six to ten thousand volunteers. As such, it is possible for Hizballah to attack Israel without incurring sanctions from the UN, NATO or EU, and is largely able to operate without fear of military retribution from these bodies. If any of these bodies were to attack Hizballah, or Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, it would be seen as a gross violation of Lebanon’s national sovereignty and as proof of anti-Arab sentiment in Europe and the US. Furthermore, it is impossible for any body or nation to attempt to wipe Hizballah out, as the civilian casualties could be enormous. It is estimated that during the 2006 war, one thousand of the 1,200 Lebanese killed were civilians, not Hizballah fighters.
Secondly, Hizballah is not just a military power. According to the UN Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs report Lebanon: The many hands and faces of Hezbollah, it boasts an extensive social development program including four hospitals, twelve clinics, twelve schools, two agricultural centres, an environmental department and a welfare office. These social and health programs are estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars every year, money that Hizballah claims comes from donations from Lebanese people. However, both Syria and Iran are suspected of significant financial support to Hizballah
Furthermore, Hizballah are rapidly becoming a significant political party in their own right. Since 1989 there has been a noticeable adoption of a “political jihad” that resulted in their winning eight seats in the 1992 elections, fourteen in the 2005 elections, and gaining control of 21% of all municipalities in the municipal elections in 2004. Currently, following the most recent clashes and the Doha agreement, the opposition parties have been granted a “blocking third” in the Lebanese cabinet, making it possible for Hizballah members to veto any government decisions.
Arguably the most important issue facing Lebanon today is the position and influence of Hizballah. That Israel, the US, UK, Canada and Australia all officially consider Hizballah a terrorist organisation, having them play a greater and greater role in Lebanese parliament could be a step in the wrong direction. However, if Hizballah do devote their energies to Lebanese government, and begin to behave like actors within the system rather than separate from it, it could be greatly beneficial. There is no question that they are an imposing military force, especially given the weak, factitious nature of the Lebanese army, and they are undoubtedly a social force, often more able than the Lebanese government to respond to crises. However, if Hizballah are to truly become a part of the system, there is no way that they can continue to receive funding from Iran and Syria, and their military will become a great deal more accountable. Despite the continued conflict over proportional representation, Lebanon’s internal situation, as well as its position in the Arab world, the Middle East and the international community could well be resting on the shoulders of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
I miss you my boy. This long-distance thing blows. I’m in a weird, introspective mood and I would love nothing more than to drive over to Kingsford, walk to that park around the corner and sit and talk and smoke for a couple of hours
But you’re not in Kingsford.
And I’ve quit smoking (10 days and counting).
And the story I have to tell would take too long. There are too many characters, too many explanations, too many qualifications. And you would rush to conclusions the way you always do, and I’d have to walk you back from taking someone’s kneecaps, and you still wouldn’t be convinced.
(And my iTunes just started playing Steely Dan. Who I realise now I really don’t like. Yet I would go to that gig 3 times over just to see you and your dad sitting side by side, tapping your feet and hitting your thigh with your hand in a wonderful, appreciative, jolly-good-show Hercu-les-Hercu-les kind of way).
(And three Fleetwood Mac songs have come up when I’ve been skipping through tracks, looking for a song I can’t identify. And I immediately think of you, and of a Double Bay cafe, and tears in a pair of eyes and “i wanna be with you everywhere” on the radio).
(And I finally settle on Augie March, and I remember going to see them at The Metro with you last year. And you hadn’t seen them before, and were terribly impressed).
And now I’ve lost the train of thought that I was running with before the music-related brackets. Which seems oddly suitable, since you’d always stop me and ask if I’d heard this band, and I would have, because we’d have both read the same Rolling Stone article about them and instantly downloaded their album.
(And now my – and, apparently, my mother’s – favourite piece of classical music has come on. Beethoven’s 132nd Opus, from his String Quartet no.15 in A Minor. And I want to play it to you, because I think you’d get it. And you wouldn’t like the middle part quite as much, and we’d both agree it was the start and the end where it was at. That it was the cello (we think) that really makes the piece. And then I’d follow that by mentioning that Byron plays cello, and then we’d be back on the loop that we left half an hour ago, as if it was the most natural thing in the world).
And you’d laugh at Byron, now that we’re back there, and say that you wanted to kill yourself after seeing his Horatio. And then we’d launch into how cool our Hamlet was, and talk about theatre, and high school, and SUDS, and VCA (would you have gone to VCA in this daydream? I think so).
And I would drag the conversation back to what I really want to talk about, which is why I feel so great a lot of the time, but as though there’s a deep ocean of melancholy just beneath the surface. Which you’d recognise, but wouldn’t remember from where (and then in ten minutes would realise). And we’d talk about why I felt like I did, and I’d spill everything, and make it sound much worse than it is. At least, I’d make it sound much worse than I think it is. Maybe it is bad and I’m just being stoic. There’s that Brutus again.
And I’d have to go, or you’d have to go, and so we’d rapidly tie up all the loose ends, but not with enough conviction to really think it’s all solved, but we’d both know that I’d call you in a couple of days to report on progress.
And I doubt that anything profound would change, although I’d feel better for talking about it with you.
But you’re not in Kingsford.
How does Simon Armitage’s poetry ask us to think about the relationship between the local and the universal?
Simon Armitage’s poetry is inescapably inclusive, as it constantly pulls back from the specific scene to the universal theme. If the purpose of poetry is, as Hamlet once said, to hold the mirror up to nature, then Armitage’s enviable quality is his ability to make one thing reflect another, and to encourage his readers to recognise themselves in his poetry. Through his use of topoi, a starting point, Armitage’s poetry radiates outwards. Drawing more and more people in as he expands out. And it is these leaps, these juxtapositions and the enormous scope of his work that forces his readers to think about the connection between their small, local world and the grand, universal narrative that surrounds them.
The most obvious leap from local to universal occurs in the poem ‘Zoom!’ where, in the space of 29 lines Armitage takes the reader from house to black hole back to the supermarket, making our world and all the facets of our lives seem almost ridiculous in their minutiae. He zooms away from the banks, the football teams, the highways and the hemispheres with a mixture of inevitability (“before we know it it is out of our hands”) and amusement (“oblivious to the Planning Acts”), perfectly encapsulating many people’s response to the notion of the sheer size of the universe around us. And once he has made his point about our galaxy being “smaller and smoother than a billiard ball but weighing more than Saturn”, Armitage brings us, quite literally, crashing back to earth, to the street or the supermarket queue. It is an extraordinary poem which “cambers arrogantly” through the entirety of human existence and history in order to show the absolute tiny-ness of our world. It is this depth of perspective, this “zoom”, that so brilliantly contrasts the local with the universal, and this perspective is such that, inevitably, the reader must at least come to terms with when reading this poem.
This sort of perspective is common to many of Armitage’s poems, but never more so than in “Out Of The Blue”. Indeed, it could be argued that this poem displays the same sort of arrogance as was exhibited in ‘Zoom!’, attempting as it does to squeeze the most significant event of a generation into the experience of one man, “ninety floors up” in the World Trade Centre. However, Armitage is not trying to define the experience, nor is he trying to share the experience with his audience. 9/11 was the most documented event in the history of the world, and more hours and pages have been expended chronicling, documenting and analysing it than could ever possibly be counted. So, aware that his audience will inevitably be all too aware of the sequence of events, Armitage does not attempt to document them.
Instead, Armitage forces his audience to come away from the universal and focus on the individual. He ignores the reams of newspaper and piles of news reels, and instead presents a haunting, individual experience of the day. It is his focus on the little things, the personal touches, that forces his audience to ignore the cultural baggage and approach the work with new eyes. This focus on the minutiae is both terrifyingly immediate and reassuringly human, and Armitage manages to evoke intense emotion without ever seeming exploitative or callous. The image of a Pepsi Max jumping out of its cup as the first plane hits the neighbouring tower, or the lamps, coats, chairs flying past the protagonists’ window all force the audience to move beyond their memory of the planes smashing into the buildings, and instead focus on this smaller, miniature, largely discounted history.
Perhaps Armitage’s most effective weapon in the constant focus on the personal and local is the paraphernalia on the protagonist’s desk. However, at the same time as being intensely personal, these items are universal through recognition – the cricket ball, the map of the London Underground, the St George cross – these are universal and ubiquitous images of Britain, as synonymous with the country as if Armitage had placed the Queen in the very same room. However, this event was not a British one but rather a global one, and so we have the universally recognisable wedding photos, and the picture drawn by the child.
But perhaps the most effective tool Armitage utilises to extrapolate the local into the universal is his protagonist’s language and tone. Parts 6,7, 9 and 10 especially are almost detached in their descriptions, echoing the astonishing sense of disbelief and awe felt by all those watching the towers from the outside. And rather than attempting to describe a feeling that he could not possibly know, Armitage instead endows his protagonist with the same feelings thoughts that many of us possessed at the time – that sense that we were watching the trailer for the next Die Hard film, and that, eventually, someone would surely “they’ll wind back the film, / call back the plane”.
Simon Armitage constantly takes small, local, recognisable images and vignettes and mercilessly extrapolates them, stretching them to the very bounds of human experience, and indeed of our inverse. However, this never seems forced, but rather the most natural thing in the world to examine the minutiae of our lives through the grandness of the universe. By expanding the local occurrence to the universal setting, much like the two young boys in ‘The Shout!’, Armitage constantly walks his readers further and further back, but all the while making sure that they can still hear him.
HOW DOES NEIL BARTLETT’S NOVEL, SKIN LANE, CONTRIBUTE TO OUR UNDERSTANDING OF A HISTORY OF GAY LIFE IN BRITAIN?
Neil Bartlett’s novel Skin Lane is not a novel about gay life. It is not a novel about gay history. And it is not a novel about gay culture. In fact, Bartlett’s protagonist Mr F is almost constantly living outside history and culture, ignoring or failing to understand the events reported in The Evening Standard. Instead of making assumptions of or drawing conclusions about social movements or government legislation, the novel focuses on one man’s routines, neuroses and nightmares, and also his profession. Quite tellingly the novel never once uses the words “gay”, “queer” or “homosexual”, but makes thinly veiled references comparing the fur trade to gay life. However, it is not homosexuality that is explained via reference to the fur trade, but rather the fur trade is explained and revealed to us via allusions to homosexuality. Bartlett assumes a certain knowingness of the reader, and exploits this to highlight the low profile, the secrecy and the close-knit community of the fur trade. However, while Skin Lane does not increase our knowledge of life as a gay man in London in 1967, it does contribute to an appreciation of unknown histories, of those who don’t fit the grand historical narratives, and makes clear that then, as now, lived people struggling to know, describe and understand themselves.
It is inevitable that Bartlett’s 21st-century audience is going to be unfamiliar with the fur trade, and the simple fact is that this is a world that we as readers are not really involved with. Instead, it is a world that the author knows intimately and has access to, but we only become included when the author includes us. It is his descriptions, his voice, his direct addresses to the audience that tell us most about where we are, who we are dealing with and the environment in which this story takes place. Indeed, so complete is the author’s access to this world that he refers to actual historical evidence in his descriptions, such as the photograph taken in 1962. Our knowledge of the atmosphere of the world in which the entire British Fur Trade seems to operate is, of necessity, constructed by Bartlett, who calls it “a secret one”, one which “few outsiders had any idea of the outlandish transactions and transformations that made up its daily business” (p.32). We, the readers, assume the role of the outsiders, and it is Bartlett’s place to make us familiar with the goings on of Skin Lane.
The way he does this is often by alluding to things that readers would have knowledge of, or at the very least a sort of cultural awareness of. It is with this knowing wink that Bartlett describes the door of Mr. Schneider’s building:
Looking at that door, at the top of its flight of dark steps, I get the distinct impression that, as with certain other highly specialised businesses that the City still considers are best conducted well out of sight, it was expected that anyone who needed to seek out the services on offer on the Lane would already be in the trade; in the know. If they were a customer, they would certainly have been given directions – if not a personal recommendation. I’m sure you know the sort of thing. (p.33)
We do, indeed, know the sort of thing. But what is interesting is that, in the 21st century, these highly specialised businesses are not conducted nearly so out of sight, and thus Bartlett’s allusion to them is made all the more explicit.
The knowingness of the reader contrasts greatly with the general failure and indeed reluctance of Mr F to know much that is going on around him. However, it is more than simply a failure to know; instead, it is a failure to identify. Bartlett points out that, if Mr F had paid more attention to his Evening Standard on a particular July afternoon, he would have known to use “we” instead of “I” and would know that he was not suffering alone. Although on that particular day Mr F shares the experience of reading the lead article on page 12 and looking around the train to make sure no one had noticed a change in his face, he immediately decides that this story is not about him.
The most revealing thing about this passage is that Mr F has already decided that, really, the story is about him. Part One of the novel ends with Mr F speaking of his love “for the very first time”, and it would not be unrealistic of the reader to assume that this, finally, was Mr F realising that he is gay. However, this episode on the train could not show more clearly that Mr F feels his love is entirely his own, and none of anyone else’s business, thank you very much. In speaking his love, Mr F does not realise that he is gay – he realises that he is in love with Beauty.
Here, as throughout the novel, Mr F and Bartlett both consciously reject classification and labels when describing emotions and sexuality. Indeed, not once is Mr F’s lusting after Beauty attributed to sexuality. It is just another fact, much like Bartlett’s use of historical artefacts and his pedantry for the correct street names and descriptions of the part of London that concerns the story.
Bartlett’s historical accuracy with place names, and his assertion that he is personally in possession of Mr F’s books, letters, clothes and furniture, underlines this separation between what is immutable fact and what is conjecture. The street names have labels, the fur trade has very specific names and practices, but Mr F’s love and sexuality do not. They are not definable, they are not able to be lumped together under a general umbrella that might be used to “explain” his behaviour. Instead, Bartlett makes it abundantly clear that while there are things that can be known beyond doubt, there are other things that can never be known, and only really guessed at. As Bartlett himself says, people will look back and agree that everyone knew that exciting things were afoot in London in 1967, and that the excitement and “hubbub” could not possibly be mistaken for anything else. But the fact is that you can never truly know what each individual is thinking, feeling or doing. And, in reality, as Bartlett declares at the end of the novel, you never really know anything about anybody, other than the story you were told.