Observations in Paris 1: A Trump Voter

Met a Trump voter in Paris. She was actually really an intelligent woman, which surprised me, because, I admit, I’ve built a stereotype of racist rednecks full of bigotry and hate being solely responsible for Trump’s rise to power. She was an ex-school teacher, very brainy and smart thinking, extremely curious about the world in general. At one point early on, she asked:
“How come the rest of the world knows so much about American politics? They know stuff here that we don’t even know in the US.”
I said to her: “Well, if America’s going to take on the role of self-appointed leader of the free world, then we’re going to want to have a say in where we’re being led.”
Those two words “self-appointed” shook her. She asked me what I’d said and took a while to process it. As far as she understood it, the US had unwillingly taken the burden of world leadership. That is a central point of the American psyche that I had never noted before. That they think they’re doing us a great big favour by making the world bow to American policy because “democracy”, and that it isn’t that after World War 2 we all needed to band together out of necessity because we needed each other to face down Communism.
With the end of the Soviet Empire and with Trump now actively in bed with Putin, that mantle “leader of the free world” suddenly seems out of date.
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The Death of a Bookshop – Blackwell’s Portsmouth

Sadly, after much imploring, petitioning and dissent among university and townsfolk alike, today sees the closure of Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth.

The shop has been the most extraordinary hub, with writers launching numerous books here, academics and townsfolk alike mingling and sharing ideas, students supported and helped by an extremely dedicated staff and numerous authors coming to give talks about their work. It has been a place of meetings and information exchange, and an increasingly rare thing: an informal face-to-face meeting place where ideas can form and grow in discussion, where friendships and projects have begun. It has seen readings, art, music – and has been one of the major hubs of culture in the town for a fiercely loyal and surprisingly large group.

When I first heard that it was threatened with closure, I started a petition on 38 Degrees imploring the University of Portsmouth and Blackwell UK to think again. It got over a thousand signatures in one weekend. This bookshop was not only loved. It was needed.

As a casualty of the changing nature of information, the closure of Blackwell’s Portsmouth can be regarded in one light as a natural, even inevitable development. But it also shows a lack of understanding and imagination about how to really make it work. Its closure also reflects a wider matter: the disregard of large corporate entities for local communities. Bizarrely, the University has chosen to ignore the value it added to its own reputation and the service it provides its students in its headlong rush to milk money from the site in a more lucrative way. That will be to the University’s lasting shame.

So what really drove the closure of the bookshop?

The reality is that the idea of university died a death in Britain a generation ago. At least, the sort of institution I took my degree at in the early 1990s died a death. Even then, the idea of university was in the process of change, but there was still, in the slightly rarefied atmosphere of the philosophy department at York University where I studied, a sense that a subject had a value beyond its retail price conceived as a commodity. Back then, universities were, in fact, concerned with a wider issue – primarily, western culture, and also, with cultures more generally.

But the idea of the university as the custodian of culture is defunct. And, if you are of the mind that art and culture are byproducts of a successful economy, then you will take the accountant’s view that Blackwell’s University Bookshop’s passing is the natural function of economic Darwinism.

If, however, you place a value on culture beyond that of numbers in a bank account, then the demise of Blackwell’s is a belated weathercock for the way the wind has been blowing for the last thirty years.

Why, then, does this closure matter so much to me? Besides the personal support and purpose I found in the shop, it also strikes me that the closure of a bookshop in a town with high levels of illiteracy is the wrong way to go. Now, only one retail bookshop is left in a city of 200,000 souls, and that is a generalist shop on Commercial Road that piles them high and sells the bestsellers cheap. That is one reason.

But I am also struck by an irony. Thanks to the work of John Pounds, a figure from the 1830s now largely forgotten, the right to a free education in Britain was born in Portsmouth. Pounds believed that education is for everyone, including the poorest – and especially those who could not pay for it. That was a noble cause which eventually spread to the offering of education grants for all who made the grade, so they too could enjoy an elite education no matter what their personal finances. But, the decision to remove degree level grants has enslaved a whole generation with massive debt; the result is that the inevitable logic of economics has led to education being at the vanguard of cultural decline. From a social good, education and culture have been demoted to, simply, goods.

It used to be the case that education and culture were regarded as something more broadly useful to society than being retailed as employability skills, important though they are. It was held that the very nature of what it is to be human could be broadened and made richer through an education that transmitted the values inherent to an enlightened culture, those of understanding others, of creative endeavour, of articulate questioning and challenging of orthodoxy. That used to be the role of the university. There was also a general belief that having people educated in this broader sense spread out as a good to society generally. This belief made the criteria for political and social decisions include aspects of life other than those dictated by basic economics. This view of education was the symptom of a holistic view of society and culture.

Now, however, pure right wing economics are our master.

Some will argue that art and culture are byproducts of civilization – that our ancient forebears in the spare time between hunter-gathering needed something to do with their lives and so created art to while away their hours. Those people imagine that our ancestors, like us, came back from a hard day’s hunting in the savannah, and in the absence of a flatscreen television amused themselves by gawping at the Lascaux cave paintings – square-eyeing away the winter evenings for 20,000 years until their successors could eventually come up with Netflix.

This reductionist view of culture sees art and artistic endeavour as non-essential. It is the epiphenomenon of commerce. Artists and writers and poets and creators exist because they are supported by the real activity of life, which is all hard facts, and especially hard coin.

It is not a view I share. To me, it has become obvious that looking at the general degradation of culture over the last thirty years being spearheaded by universities such as the one in Portsmouth, we are slowly going backward. We are devolving.

There’s no doubt that hunting and gathering enabled early humans to work in co-operative hunting groups; that it led to a particular type of social cohesion in the form of tribes; that it led to the necessity of building an understanding of the world around them – nor that all these are the foundations of modern life. No doubt, all these social behaviours are products of the activity that provided ancient humans with food and fire and safety – activities that would later be labelled economic.

But the ability to progress did not come from the act of hunting alone. Before the act of hunting in groups, someone had the idea that humans could work together, could find a way to trap an animal, could find food by hunting in packs. Every advance in human life is the result of an act of imagination, every advance comes from the visualisation and the discussion of ideas and possibilities. Yes, it is true that groups of creatures other than humans hunt in unison and do not paint cave walls or discuss Sartre over coffee, but none of those animals has the imagination to shape a flint or attach it to a spear, nor possess all the fine gradations and nuances in thinking and language that humans have, that have led to our rise over millennia. Ideas were born and passed from one generation to the next by culture and the spaces in which culture is transmitted, be they caves, temples – or bookshops.

That is why the sacred spaces of ancient cultures are covered in paintings, spells and words. That is why ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians sculpted creatures that were impossible in the real world, but which stepped straight from the imagination. It was not simple superstition expressed in the statues of ancient gods, it was not that artists and thinkers created fancies while the real business of the world continued on despite them. Statues of ancient Gods and the rituals that surrounded them were central to the running of society, to civilization’s understanding of the world that was disseminated through temple rituals. Culture and the transmission of culture is humanity at its greatest. It has precedence over narrow economics.

And so we come to Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth, and its closure.

There are arguments that the days of the book are long past. That with the coming of digitization and with the ability of students to access material online, there is little need to produce books. Indeed, books are a terrible waste of resources, and the world is a greener place without all that woodpulp being converted. Think of the environment, we are enjoined. Think of the planet.

But this is to miss the point of the rituals that occurred in this bookshop. Book launches, author talks, informal seminars, discussions, sharing, recommendations are more than stock-in-trade. Bookshops are not only purveyors of books, at least the good ones like Blackwell’s in Portsmouth, aren’t. That good will could have been monetised, but the University wanted the site of the bookshop for another project.

A British university didn’t see the value in keeping its only functioning bookshop open. Let that thought sink in a while. Because it really is as simple as that.

Portsmouth’s Blackwell’s was a space where ideas could be disseminated, beyond the economics-driven imperative of university finances. It drew people to it that were not connected to the university, and they met with students and lecturers and ideas were shared. Culture happened – spontaneously. Blackwell’s, Portsmouth, was, in fact, a means of the transmission of culture just as the sacred spaces once were to our forebears. It was in its modest, modern way, a temple to civilization.

Blackwell’s wasn’t only about commerce. It was about humanity in a wider sense. It was about standing up to the cost-benefit analysis view of life and saying “what we do, what we think, is vital because it is human, despite you” in the face of the machinery of bean-counting that pays lip service to such ideas, but sacrifices culture and ideas to its own calculating god, Mammon.

My call, now, is that in its passing, we continue the rites enacted at Blackwell’s Portsmouth, and work to preserve culture. That we do so, despite the decisions of businesses like Blackwell UK, and the value-free institution that is the University of Portsmouth.

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Stream of life – a piece of spontaneous writing

Stream of life:

This is the great stream of life, we are in. Wait. Stop. Listen. Notice the movement on your skin, the slightest of shifts as the sensory cells activate and fire off, reporting all that is going on in your life. It washes over you, washes through and drags you along in its current. There is nothing you can do but submit to it. It loves you, it is you, it is the whole universe, and it knows everything and nothing about you and your thoughts and your hopes and your fears. The stream of life is intimately you, and abstractly both uninterested and disinterested in your life, you future, your past, your pains, your joys, your woes, your smiles and your tears. It is greater than you and you are so much greater than the you that you think you are. The stream washes on. Wait! Stop! Do you hear that sound? It is the laughter of the water, washing all around you.

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The Last Jedi – Reviewed by a Star Wars sceptic

I’m going to make a confession. I really don’t like Star Wars.

It’s been a complicated relationship. When I first heard of Star Wars, I loved the sound of it. At school, I got swept along swapping the Star Wars bubble gum cards, I devoured the novel adaptation and collected the comics. I was seriously into Star Wars. I loved the idea of it.

But going to the cinema wasn’t something our family did very often, and I have to confess that during all the Star Wars mania that I joined in, I never once went to see it at the movies.

So, when it premiered on BBC tv in the early ’80s, I was intrigued. I really wanted to see what I hadn’t seen when I was a kid. Sadly, I had grown up, and the film was… well… boring. It was plagued with long, slow establishing scenes, by unsophisticated dialogue, and by jumping between story arcs in a mechanical way that felt like it was simply story-telling by numbers. Basically, the Star Wars in my imagination was better than the one on the small screen that Christmas. What a let-down!

I did watch The Empire Strikes Back at the cinema, and I liked it – though I’d already read the novelisation by the time I saw it, and the book was better… and then came the third one, whose name I’ve forgotten. The one with Jabba. And by then, I’d lost interest.

The thing that I felt let the series down was muppets. Yoda was a muppet, the stupid jazz band at the Mos Eisley canteen were (sort of) muppets, bits I saw of that third (yes, I know, sixth) movie had muppets. And boy, did I hate Yoda. Everything about him from his stupid Fozzy Bear voice and Kermit face, to his bad grammar and his faux spiritual insights made my blood boil.

Yet, like a massochist, when Phantom Menace came out, I thought, I’ll give it a shot. It’s a new take on the old series – a fresh start. Maybe things will be better.

That’s when I encountered Jar Jar Binks. Oh, boy. We’d gone beyond muppets to racial stereotypes in CGI. I squirmed in embarrassment at the cinema. I skipped a couple, catching them later online. Pretty much the same dull storytelling. I caught up with that third (sixth) one whose name I’ve forgotten – the Jabba one – and noticed how there wasn’t really a story. And as for the terribly portrayed dilemma Darth Vader has in finally saving Luke – that just took FOREVER to unwind. Man. The series was a no-hoper. Lame.

Yet, I still hoped. I hoped that Lucasfilms would turn out something smarter than it was doing at the moment – which was creating kids’ space operas.

So I continued to watch the films, like a spectator watching a car crash through the gaps in his fingers.

Rogue One was better, I thought, though still with its problems. The Force Awakens not great, and basically a re-run of the first one (the fourth one – that numbering issue also pisses me off).

And so, like a penitent going to church to confess his sins, I went to watch The Last Jedi – once again expecting to be disappointed, but somehow, hoping against hope that this movie would hit the right bases to make me love it.

And, despite all my scepticism, it did it! This movie actually worked. The storyline is tight, the arcs within it layered, with plenty of different emotional truths. It even manages to look at the life behind the continual warfare between Rebels and Empire / First Order to those who profit from it. It was more mature than I expected, and the characters felt real – conflicted, smart.

I’m not going to go into detail and give spoilers – but I’m going to say, if this jaded, anti-Star Wars viewer would be happy to watch it again, then the show is doing something right. Great work. This movie is a recommend.

Even despite the muppet.

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I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai – Matt Wingett Book Review.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban

I’ve just finished reading I Am Malala, The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban, and I’m far more moved than I expected.

This is partially because of the excellent skill of the co-writer who has interviewed and put together this powerful account of a young girl’s life in the Swat Valley in Pakistan – but it’s more than that. It’s also a story of great personal suffering as the result of simply wanting to do something we take for granted in our lives – the chance to learn to read and write, and from there to learn more things.

There is something deeply authentic about the way Malala’s story unfolds. From her early life she faces the deep conservatism of the Pashtun tribal system which does not celebrate the birth of a girl and fetes the birth of a boy. As their first child, her parents are deeply proud of her and her father is aggrieved when his father won’t bring gifts to celebrate her birth. Since Malala’s grandfather didn’t acknowledge her birth, he prevents the grandfather from then celebrating the births of the boys who came after. Radical thinking for Swat Valley.

Thus Malala grows up supported by a father who is an educationalist, living at first in utter poverty as he borrows money to try to start a school – and several times being flooded out by unexpected deluges. But slowly his reputation grows, and the school he sets up becomes well attended. Scenes of village life and the beauty of the Swat Valley are lingered over in the book, with idyllic scenes of the girls playing among the ruins of the Stupas of the former Buddhist religion that fell into disrepair over a thousand years before.
This section is rich and powerful, and the structuring of her slow rise to becoming a renowned local speaker as a schoolgirl, all the while encouraged by her father who has a strong belief in girls’ education is brilliantly evoked.

Then come the Taliban, as part of the overspill of the war in Afghanistan. The political background to their rise in the Swat Valley is clearly explained. Malala describes how, in order to bolster previous governments, former dictator-presidents had made Pakistan a Muslim state – encouraging a hardline Muslim attitude to life in contrast to the everyday Islam that Malala and her classmates enjoyed at their enlightened school. Thus, the arrival of the Taliban is sanctioned at least tacitly by central government and the Pakistani secret service.

The Taliban’s rise to power has a chilling lesson for anyone concerned with freedom. A self-appointed Talib, or teacher, a man called Fazlullah starts a radio station, apparently deeply pious and benign in intent. In natural disasters, it is always the Taliban who arrive on scene first to help, while Fazlullah’s pronouncements on the radio are approved of by the populace, who see his observations about the length of a man’s beard or whether women should go out covered up or not as wholly in keeping with the Qur’an’s holy message.

But over time, as Fazlullah’s influence spreads, the message hardens until he has turned the population in such a way that it accepts the whipping of people in the streets, and shrugs at the murder of those they disapprove of. All videos and CDs are handed in and burned. No ideas other than Fazlullah’s ideas are allowed. And slowly some of the population begin to wake up to what has happened, despite many also approving of his hardline message.

In many ways my blood ran cold with this. Because although the techniques are different in the West, I see the same creeping doctrine of Far Right organisations in the West mirroring this rise. Brexiteers spread division through lies about Europe, while suggesting that Britain in some way has a special place in the world – a playing to the myths and the hankerings of the general populace, whilst hiding their Far Right agenda. The same happened with Trump in America – normalising extremism and demonising the enemy. It is extraordinary how the techniques of misinformation are echoed in this story.

That Malala reports all this in anonymous reports for the BBC makes her secret alter ego a natural target for the Taliban.

The upheaval and displacement that comes for Malala and her family is well reported – but eventually the secret of her identity comes out.

The final section of the book deals with the revenge of the Taliban. The personal suffering her shooting causes is brilliantly handled, and the reality and colour of the lives of the family are truly vibrant. I confess, I cried.

This is a great book.

It’s available here.

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Justice League, short review. (contains spoilers)

I watched Justice League yesterday afternoon. Probably a mistake to go on a Sunday, day. Very badly behaved group behind me, which meant I relocated in the cinema three times. First to get away from noise, but then, after sitting at the front, being interrupted repeatedly by people leaving to go to the loo / get a drink. I never realised just how much traffic there was – it was incessant. So I moved again.
The film is a vast improvement on previous DC offers, Wonder Woman aside. It has learned that the dark mood that worked for Batman didn’t work for its other hero movies, and so it has lightened up, with a degree of piss-taking going on between the central characters.
They do have a problem with the Amazons. It was great to see them again, but they are seriously underpowered. In Wonder Woman, they are mowed down by invading Germans with guns – in JL they are fighting a creature that’s far more powerful, and they simply haven’t got the strength to put up a fight. The problem is that in the comics, the Amazons have an advanced technology that is cloaked in Bronze Age robes. In the new films, the Amazons have Bronze Age technology. Firing arrows at an invading superpowered villain looks stupid.
Wonder Woman was, once again, a star turn. I teared up as soon as she came on screen. She is for me a kind of singularity of heroism and grace. The implied love interest with Bruce Wayne was a surprise.
The League’s teamwork was also good, and well worked out in the fights, which, although there were extended fight scenes, weren’t too long, and this helped the story move on.
There is one other problem, and it’s been one I’ve thought for a long time. The problem with Superman is that he is too powerful. Basically, without Superman, the DC universe is interesting. With him, there doesn’t seem to be much point in having any other superheroes. This has been the case since Superman developed the ability to fly in the late 40s, early 50s. No more was he just a tough, strong man with tough skin, but a god. That’s a problem, and I don’t know how DC gets round it.
But all in all a fun film. Not as sublime as Wonder Woman, which is the best superhero movie for a long time, but good, nevertheless, and sees the DC Universe starting to find its feet.
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Review: Black Earth, A Field Guide To The Slavic Otherworld

Andrew L Paciorek’s Black Earth, A Field Guide To The Slavic Otherworld is two wonderful things at once.

Firstly, it is an entry point into a mythology largely unknown in Western Europe. Secondly, it is beautiful.

On the first point, Paciorek’s one-page descriptions of specific gods, spirits and folk horror entities found in the Slavic pantheon are concise, intriguing and well researched.

Perun, the king of the gods, is a thunder deity we are told, who can transform into an eagle and hurl exploding apples. Veles, the serpentine god of the underworld is a deity of sickness and also, interestingly, of cattle. These two gods, Perun and Veles are in eternal warfare – thus symbolising the seasonal cycle…

The mythological stories are laid out without labouring the point, but with enough to reveal the logic behind the myths. In this way we begin our journey into the mysterious Slavic otherworld.

But wait a minute. What constitutes the Slavic world? Paciorek culturally and geographically orients us in the introduction, pointing to Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and those living in former Yugoslvia, among others. This means Paciorek’s Black Earth draws on the rich and strange folk world that produced, on the one hand, Baba Yaga with her house on chicken legs, and Stravinsky’s Firebird on the other.

Along the way we meet spirits of water, forest, mountain and field, sorcerers, witches and hags, shape-shifters and demons, and entirely new classes of vampire, of which there are surprisingly many. Through Dhampirs, Lampirs, Upior, Nelapsi, Nachzeherer and Eretiks (the last being undead heretics) one enters into a whole other world full of possibilities and potentials.

As a writer, these creatures and entities are invaluable. I am sure some of them will surface in my storytelling at some point in the future. For providing a valuable entry point into an alien mythology, Paciorek should be commended.

There is also another aspect to this book that gives real delight. The artwork in these pages is just wonderful. The line art style, bold and exquisitely executed, gives an earthy life to the text. They powerfully boost the overall effect. Pictures of gods grappling with dragons, and three-headed, five-headed and six-headed forest gods, spirits and superhumans fill the book with a sense of otherworldliness that fires the imagination.

In all, this book is a recommend for anyone interested in the strange and the beautiful, in mythology and in folk horror. Great stuff!

Black Earth is available from: http://www.blurb.com/user/andypaciorek, £10 for paperback, £20 for hardback with either printed cover or dustjacket.

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The soundtrack to Wonder Woman – how less can be more.

Yesterday I watched Wonder Woman with specific attention to the soundtrack. It is extremely interesting how much this aspect, largely ignored, adds the power to the scenes.

Throughout the movie there is a sense of brooding growth and suppressed emotion. It mirrors the story of Diana, who as a stripling does not know the strength of her powers and is seeking to find them. There is a leitmotif for the warrior Diana in full battle mode, but also for other aspects of her personality throughout.

The interaction of the soundtrack and image in this movie is surprising. For example, the famous No Man’s Land scene, which could be played with loud orchestral flourishes and strident orchestral stabs is instead accompanied by a kind of steady solidity, a growing sense of certainty as the untried warrior first steps into battle.

The fact that it is set in one of the “holy of holies” of warfare – the awful horror of the trenches – makes the scene all the more powerful. Few writers / directors of mainstream film have had the temerity to use this setting, and to do so with a superhero movie could have been a disaster. Instead, the imagery is powerful. A lone woman striding across the fields of death and destruction of the Great War.

When she reaches the other side, she fights with as much emphasis on breaking the guns than killing the enemy, as if she will do what she must, but acknowledging that the enemy is war itself – which is one message of the movie as a whole.

Later, the soundtrack does break out into full action sequence with the Wonder Woman battle leitmotif in full cry. But this sequence works for its auditory restraint. This is an old lesson for writers and works across media: less is more.

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The strangeness of creatures 3: elephant kindness

Another example of the conscious behaviour of animals – these elephants are excited and keen to offer succour to a new orphaned elephant. This is not explicable except in terms of awareness of others and their feelings.


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The strangeness of creatures: 2

Part of my continuation of arguing for consciousness in animals – here we have a rabbit brawl broken up by two hens. Argue that in non-conscious terms.

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