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the university of york’s culture magazine


volume 5, issue 3 summer, 2010


volume 5, issue 3, summer 2010

feature 3: Rachel Knighton on living in a dramatically urbanising Kenya 5: Alexandra Reynolds asks: Wire did all the women go?


the zahir

the university of york’s culture magazine

film 17: Tom Vickers feels the tension 18: Michael Tansini on ballooning urbanisation


19: Guy Wilson: friendly beavers, hostile humans

6: Josephine Rust demands compassion for sexuality


7: David Clarke: Labour lost, but they’re no losers

20: Daniel Moody on the impending thumb war

8: Sarah Dean on how care of the elderly is in quite a State

21: Alexander Allison: ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’

9: Alexandra Fhoo on patriarchal poverty


11: Guardian writer Greg Freeman hangs in the balance of a hung parliament

23: David Sims finds a diamond in the rough


24: Isobel Cowper-Coles on how education is Bach

13: Richard Lemmer talks Ballard and bollards

25: Joe Walsh: lyrics voice and melody, the 14: the trappings of urban holy trinity life, discussed by Harriet 26: Emily Chapman Evans composes a piece about 15: who is the British Stravinsky Palahnuik, asks Richard Lemmer

Got something to say? We’d love to hear your thoughts. If any of the articles inspire, outrage, confuse or enlighten you, let us know what you think by sending your comments to All comments will be published in the next issue of The Zahir, so please give us your opinion, however controversial! Having just introduced a creative writing section, we’re keen to keep it going. While there are lots of creative outlets on campus, The Zahir chooses the best of the creative writing submitted to give more focus and attention to deserving writers. Thank you to Alexander Allison and Daniel Moody for their contributions this term.


Siobhan Hurley

Deputy Editor Guy Wilson

Section Editors

Sarah Dean, Politics Holly Phillips, Literature Daniel Moody, Film Emma Unwin, Arts Joe Walsh, Music


the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3



Also in this section: 5 Alexandra Reynolds asks how gender is wired

Urban Kenya? Rachel Knighton speaks from personal experience


remember sitting in a geography class, several years ago, learning about urbanisation. The textbook in front of me told of the rise in migration from rural to urban areas, as people flocked to the city in search of a higher income for their families. The case study was Kenya. Growing up in Kenya, life seemed idyllic. My family lived next to a small village in the foothills of Mount Kenya. It is only now, though, that I can look back over my upbringing - replacing those rose-tinted glasses instead for a critical eye - and ask myself whether my experience of Kenya reflects what was written on that page. On paper it was just statistics. In real life, I knew it to be true: the rate of urbanisation in Kenya is one of the highest in the world. Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, has burgeoned in recent years. If you drive along any of the main roads through the city, you will see that it is rife with street-sellers trying to sell their wares. Eve-


ry convenience any tourist could want and need is readily available through your own car window during a traffic jam – do not, or at least try not to be alarmed if a huge and very dangerous looking knife is pointed at you “for a good price”! On the topic of roadways, the amount of traffic has become almost unbearable, so much so that a drive across what is a significantly smaller city than London becomes a twohour trek. But traffic is the least of Nairobi’s problems. Its slums are a larger issue. I haven’t ever been into Kibera (Kenya’s largest slum), but from what I’ve seen and heard, it’s not somewhere any human being should be subjected to live in - horrible, cramped conditions, not to mention the crime rates and disease epidemics. The fact is that people move to the city because they think that that is where the money is. They would be right, except that most of it is out of their reach. Instead, they are trading their lush envi-

ronment for squalor. In a bid to become more commercial and westernised, disintegration of culture is another concern. Tribes such as the Maasai, one of the oldest and most distinct semi-nomadic ethnic groups in Kenya, spend less time tendering the country that they know best and more time selling their ornate beadwork on the beaches and pavements of Kenya. As authentic and beautiful as these trinkets seem, there is an ugliness to their existence because you know that beneath it all is a painful uprooting and a sense of desperation in the search for survival. Ultimately, you know that they are selling their culture away for a few bob. Caps with the emblem of CocaCola take the place of traditional headgear; t-shirts and jeans covered in prints of various American rappers supplant the kangas and kikois – all in the name of globalisation. What saddens me most is that the urge to change exists at all –

the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3 why can’t the people of Kenya be able to cherish what they have and be happy where they are? The sheer scale and existence of poverty is a hard fact that cannot and should not be ignored; yet there is definitely more to the Kenya than the poverty-stricken adverts broadcasted over here. It is a brilliantly diverse country - the game reserves, great lakes of the Rift Valley region, and beaches are magnificent assets. Yet what is important here is what is often missed by the travelling-eye of the average tourist, and that is the very rural parts of the country. Rural Kenya contains valuable and varied reserves of land, conditioned by an equatorial climate. The slopes of the mountain where I used to live, with it’s greenery and rich red soil, lends itself as the perfect place to grow all kinds of things - most notably tea and coffee. Yet ironically, this source of wealth and of copious resources often gets overlooked. Everyone wants to be a businessman, but far fewer take on farming. White farmers may be disliked for their trade, but if the people of Kenya were able to learn how to take care of the land that they have, they could experience the same success. In fact, the issue of rural development in a third world country such as Kenya is often ignored. Small villages lack resources and are thus unable to make the most

of their natural environment, where everything that is needed to live on grows under the earth that the villagers tread. The problem lies with equity and the solution is complicated, yet the crux of the matter is political. Some grass-root charities have the right idea: they’ve realised that what

People place less importance on the countryside because it is in the city that they want to live - in the city, the streets are ‘paved with gold’ needs to be developed are the local shambas, yet it is down to the government to continuously support these smallholdings and to promote fair-trade. It is not about establishing huge businesses and money markets, which would destroy the countryside in a disregard for anything other than commodities; indeed, there has been a huge amount of deforestation in Kenya of late. It is about learning to recognize and to cultivate what is already there. People place less importance

feature on the countryside because it is in the city that they want to live - in the city, the streets are ‘paved with gold’. This myth needs to be dispelled as it has been in the occident. It is a real tragedy that Kenyans feel the need to leave their home areas to venture into the city and be swallowed up by service industries, and to live a life of lesser quality when there is so much potential, but so little opportunity, back home. Here in the UK, we are fortunate that wealth is distributed more evenly throughout the country. This means that we are enabled to value our countryside. Unfortunately, the current trend in Kenya is not about the rural areas – it’s about the city; it’s about urbanisation. In the year before I came to York, I went back to Kenya, wanting to seize the chance to live there for a relatively long period of time and experience as an adult what I remembered so vividly as a child. The truth is that it has changed and will continue to change and expand - first it was Nairobi and now it is the larger towns. Perhaps development on a smaller, more sustainable scale will occur in the ruralities, but until then, urbanisation will continue to enlarge the slums and the vigilante groups that strut them, inventing dislocated sub-cultures as it goes along.



the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3

Urban Poverty and Gender Perspective in The Wire Accelerated urbanisation has inevitably brought with it a rapid growth of urban poverty; a poverty produced not only by poor provision for housing, health services and education, but from socially conditioned constructs of equality, gender identity and criminal activity. The recently fevered support for David Simon’s acclaimed sociopolitical series The Wire (2002-2008) highlights not only the expected public fascination with sex, drugs and violence, but takes its appeal from a refusal to glamorise such facets of urban poverty. This programme seeks to create a brutally realistic vision of an urban environment, based upon the private experiences of Simon and his writing partner Ed Burns. What I ask is this: where do women stand in Simon’s depiction of the “faces and voices of the real city”? The words which head this article, spoken by D’Angelo (Larry Gilliard Jr.), are highly illustrative of the exclusion of women from Simon’s urbanity. Though the cast is not entirely male, all the characters inevitably operate in “masculine” discourses of power, legal control and violence. D’Angelo’s description of his “people” alludes to a social order founded upon domestic relations, but nonetheless his words demonstrate a complete absence of mothers, aunts and sisters from that family which governs his social urban existence. This absence of female family members is clearly given an ironic dimension, given Simon’s presentation of D’Angelo’s mother, Brianna Barksdale. A “real” depiction of motherhood in The Wire depends upon the recreation of gangster matriarchs such as Brianna and De’Londa Brice into images of the tyrannical state system itself. Any glimpse of maternal love from these women is seen to derive its source as much from a ruthless awareness of economic stability, monetary value and ownership, as from protective love. Thus domesticity, a dominion commonly declared as


Alexandra Reynolds questions how gender is hardwired to urbanity

a “feminine”, is apparently controlled by “masculine” concepts of transaction, territory and control. This interplay between female domestic relations and masculine control is evident on both sides of the Baltimore boundary between Drug Empire and the law. Take, for instance, the three main female characters Shakima “Kima” Greggs (Sonja Sohn), Rhonda Pearlman (Deirdre Lovejoy) and “Snoop” (Felicia Pearson). These three women form examples of what Simon himself identifies as “men with tits”. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) suggests that Kima’s capacity as a good police officer relies upon her lesbianism, a statement which denies her capabilities to exist beyond her sexuality and categorisation as a breasted man. Similarly, gangster Snoop actively operates in the “masculine” dominion of drugs and mass murder, yet in this role she performs not a rejection of gender stereotypes of “femininity”, but rather becomes androgynous; her sexualised body is

disguised beneath male costume and her female anatomy is thus removed from the gendering eye. Whilst Rhonda Pearlman displays competency and a fair, decisive nature, her heterosexuality is shown to be the valuable quality, as her attractiveness to fellow characters and audience alike resorts back to the Hollywood requirement for a sexually eligible woman. Rhonda’s romantic relations with McNulty and Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) represent the cultural trend which seeks to position leading female characters within a romantic storyline. We find, therefore, that such an exhibition of strong, astute females, possessing and performing masculine agency, does not negate Simon’s exclusion of women from his focus and his sympathy. Inevitably we see, as Simon’s own comment highlights, that women are identifiable not as victims of the oppressive state system which creates characters such as Bodie and Namond, but as anatomical objects definable only by their sexual value and eligibility in the male gaze. Provision for services in areas of urban poverty are, in many ways, “gender blind”. The Wire executes a progressive treatment of racial politics, and lucidly critiques the inherent problems within the very institutions designed to combat crime in poor urban areas. However, as progressive as David Simon’s creation is, there remains a certain amount of gender blindness in his depiction of the “faces and voices of the real city”. Whilst a narrow perspective on gender does not necessarily constitute anti-feminist design, such a perspective inevitably limits the effects such a work can have in radically improving some of the very “real” pressures women face in the urban environment.

the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3



Also in this section: 7 David Clarke: Labour aren’t losers, 8 Sarah Dean on caring for elders, 9 Alexandra Khoo on the gendered face of poverty, 11 Greg Freeman discusses the political climate

A life with my Dad and Daddy Josephine Rust tackles LGBT adoption


ecently a Catholic adoption agency won the right to be exempted from legislation which would have forced it to consider homosexual couples as parents. Catholic Care, which serves the dioceses of Leeds, Middlesbrough, and Hallam in South Yorkshire, claimed it would be forced to stop its work finding homes for children if it had to comply with the legislation. Other Catholic adoption agencies have either given up adoption or severed their ties with the Church because of the rules, which were introduced in 2007. Mr Justice Briggs, sitting at the High Court in London, allowed the society’s appeal and ordered the commission to reconsider its case. The verdict was welcomed by Catholic Church authorities, but was met with dismay by gay-rights campaigners and secular groups. The Bishop of Leeds, the Right Rev Arthur Roche, said outside the court: “Our case has not been brought on an anti-gay agenda of any sort. We respect, and would not want to diminish, the dignity of any person.” But Jonathan Finney, the head of external affairs at Stonewall, the gay-rights charity, condemned the judgment: “It’s unthinkable that anyone engaged in delivering any kind of public or publicly funded service should be given licence to pick and choose service users on the basis of individual prejudice. Even more recently David Cameron’s new Equalities Minister Theresa May was challenged about her voting record on gay rights on BBC One’s Question Time. She

voted against gay adoption in 2002 and against the repeal of Section 28 - the law which banned councils from “promoting” homosexuality - in 2000. Challenged by an audience member, Mrs May said: “If those votes were today, yes, I have changed my view and I think I would take a different vote.” She added: “On gay adoption I have changed my mind... because I have been persuaded that when you are looking at the future for a child, I think it’s better for a child who is perhaps in an institutional environment, if they have an opportunity of being in a stable, family environment - be that a heterosexual couple or a gay couple - then I think it’s more important that that child is in that stable and loving environment and I have genuinely changed my mind on that.” Adoption of children by LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people is an issue that is gaining prominence in ethical discourse. Supporters of LGBT adoption suggest that many children

are in need of homes and claim that since parenting ability is unrelated to sexual orientation, the law should allow them to adopt children. Opponents, on the other hand, suggest that the alleged greater prevalence of depression, drug use, promiscuity and suicide among homosexuals (and alleged greater prevalence of domestic violence) might affect children or that the absence of male and female role models could cause maladjustment. However, it seems to me that the existing body of research fails to consider the specific cases of adoption: it tends to look more generally at the issue of LGBT parenting rather than adoption and, where adoption is noted, it does not distinguish between adopted children who are parented by unrelated gay persons and those who retain their original family relationships in step-parent households. I can honestly say from personal experience that when it comes to adoption, the issue should never be about someone’s sexual orientation, but their capacity and ability to provide a loving and stable environment in which to raise a child. If they can raise a child to be happy and appreciative and all that comes in-between, then they are doing nothing differently from that of heterosexual couples. Nowadays in our fast paced metropolitan life, sexuality is something that is embraced, understood and loved and as long as we maintain that capacity for love everyone should have an equal opportunity at raising a child.



the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3

D:Reaming of ‘97 David Clarke recalls the spirit of change of 1997


hings can only get better”. Did they? Perhaps, but it all seems a long time ago. D:Ream, the band behind New Labour’s election anthem is now best known for the former membership of Brian Cox, who currently presents programmes about physics on the BBC. The highly questionable 1990s dance track seems to belong in another age, along with Tony Blair’s impassioned defence of free market capitalism and wide-eyed devotion to the City of London. (If the last 13 years have taught us anything, it’s that Brian Cox is much more suited to a physics professorship and that an ec=onomy based so surely on the financial sector may not be the best strategy.) But 1997 is still significant. Labour’s election campaign captured

The challenge for Labour as it seeks to find a direction is to create a vision for our age the public’s imagination in a way that no-one had seen for a generation. I remember it well. As a seven year old, I took my first slightly confused steps into political consciousness when our local MP visited my school and shook my hand. Impressed by this, I promptly announced to my visibly horrified Mum that I was a Conservative. But watching the results come in a few weeks later (now a staunch Labour supporter, having had the benefit of a lecture from my Dad about the minimum wage), I remember a real sense that something dramatic was happening; that it was exciting and that it was good. The spirit of 1997 has been conspicuous in its absence ever since. Never,


Amidst a sea of supporters, one girl knew things wouldn’t really get better even at the height of the Cameron honeymoon have we seen the same level of hope and trust that things will truly “get better”. Even Cleggmania was arguably more about a rejection of the politics people were used to rather than a real endorsement of an alternative vision. New Labour’s landslide victory represented something different. Blair and co succeeded so dramatically because they embodied a profound change in attitudes; a more compassionate, tolerant and liberal Britain. The vision of a country at ease with wealth and prosperity and where economic growth can be harnessed to promote social progress belonged in the hopes and aspirations of 1990s Britons. But what about now? The challenge for Labour as it seeks to find a direction over the coming months is to create a vision for our age. If New Labour succeeded because it represented modernisation and renewal in 1997, where does 2010 lead us? The answer is certainly not a re-affirmation of the New Labour project, nor a wholesale return to the traditional Labour values of previous decades. It lies in the challenges and opportunities of the world in which we now live. David Cameron has asked the right questions but has ultimately failed to convince enough people that he has the answers. His plan to empower communities to tackle a growing sense of social alienation simply looks like substituting volunteers for public services. He sounded positive early on about tackling climate change but has

fallen far short of any comprehensive plan; it’s Labour who are best placed to offer a vision of a state-lead transformation to a low-carbon economy, with massive investment in renewable energy and green public transport. All three main parties have worked hard to find ways to fund personal care for the elderly but have paid pitiful attention to the impending funding crisis of our ageing population. Labour need to present a comprehensive vision for the future of older people in our society, surely a defining issue for the 2010s. But it is the deficit which will present the central challenge for all political parties over the next five years. Instead of universal criticism of any move to make savings, Labour must seek to offer a coherent and comprehensive defence of the core public services which are under threat, while understanding the need for adaptation and modernisation. The party’s ability to agree on the role of the state in an age of austerity and to present a vision to the voting public will be of crucial importance in a return to power. Labour have lost but they need not become losers. History is littered with defeated parties falling into infighting and indecision but again, inspiration lies in the story of the 1990s. Defeat in 1992 was difficult, yet it was revival not ruin which followed. Just as Brian Cox left a failing dance group to become a physics legend, Labour must find a new role. It’ll be different, maybe difficult... but the spirit is the same.

the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3


The State of Care Sarah Dean considers our future care


s a student old age seams a far and distant fate, detached in almost all ways from the lives we are currently living. However during my gap year I found myself working at a care home and giving home visits to elderly and disabled people in my area. This was a rather rude awakening to the future that lies before us all. It is understandably difficult to imagine yourself in a position where you need continuous care and attention from strangers. But for many elderly people, this is reality. The quality of the care we receive when we are older should be an issue we concern ourselves with now. So with the beginning of a new government, I want to find out what is in store for us when we are all old and grey. My first concern with the care system came with the lack of training I was given as an 18 year old. I was let loose upon poor un-expecting elderly people after a mere two days training. I started by assisting another carer but by the next day I was on my own. I would be expected to wash, dress, feed, and give medication to people in their homes. As a teenager I quickly became overwhelmed by the responsibility and troubled by the misery of the women I was trying my hardest to care for. It was extraordinary how the other carers managed to so easily deal with the situation, but often I would be met by carers who would treat the clients like animals. The company was so disorganised and poorly run there were times I witnessed women left in bed without the ability to move for 17 hours at a time. When I moved from house visits to a care home I assumed there would be positive changes. Surely a care home would give the residents companionship not achieved by the house visits. I also assumed the level of care would be higher as the nurses and carers would be on site all day. Needless to say my hopes were in vain. Residents were often ignored,

I heard screaming from a room and alerted a nurse and the response was ‘oh she always does that’. So distress is acceptable if a resident is always distressed. The residents were often left in their rooms without any form of stimulation or entertainment, then wheeled out into living rooms when anyone of importance came to visit. It soon became clear to me that the home was understaffed and that

The quality of the care we receive when we are older should be an issue we concern ourselves with now the appearance of good quality care was more important than the actual quality of care. So why is the government allowing such substandard care to be provided for the elderly? The obvious answer is that we don’t like to think about it. We ignore the impending death that lies in front of us, block out the inevitable reliance upon others that we will eventually experience. Is it this fear of our own mortality which leads us to neglect the important issues around care for elderly and disabled people? It seems distorted

that even though the elderly vote in strong numbers, such an important issue is ignored. The Conservatives have made promises to improve the quality of state pensions and to also put measures in place to reduce the number of elderly people forced to sell their homes in order to pay for their care. These are both positive steps but they fail to address the fundamental issues which deprive many elderly people the dignity they deserve. It will fail to ensure that quality skilled carers with experience are looking after the elderly. The neglect I witnessed in the year that I worked as a home visit carer and in a care home was appalling, yet nothing is being said or done about it. When councils hand over the care of the elderly to companies instead of providing the service themselves they are turning the vulnerable elderly of our society into a commodity. I have far too often seen underpaid and under qualified women rush through house visits because they know the more people they see in a day the more money they will earn. I’m not suggesting all care homes are bad, as I am sure they aren’t, or that all carers are selfish and selfserving, as I know many of them dp excellent work. But I do believe we need a new system to ensure we safegaurd the vulnerable people within society. It is important that we change the system now whilst we still have a voice.


the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3


setting the poverty agender

© 7 Nation Army

Alexandra Khoo looks at the patriarchal bias in the fight against poverty


he portrait of poverty is often given a female face, and it is a fact that women are over-represented in poverty. Yet, women’s agency is rarely given much thought in poverty-reduction projects. It is falsely assumed that they benefit equally


in regaining control over their lives as do their male counterparts from the projects. Poverty is gendered in its experience and impact and any projects that fail to recognise this almost inevitably have a pro-male bias. Specifically targeting women in poverty-reduction efforts is a more moderate move than having an overt element of women empowerment, but it is an effective start to helping poor, disadvantaged women obtain control and attain a better future. Impoverished women tend to be harder hit by poverty. Adopting a women-orientation in poverty-reduction projects would help level the playing field for women in pro-

viding them with a fairer chance of regaining control. Gender-based power relations translate into impoverished women generally experiencing poverty differently and more intensely than their male counterparts. Within the household, the ‘antifemale bias’ results in a male preference when allocating food and healthcare. Inequitable distribution of household resources extends to poor men withdrawing portions of their income from domestic collective funds for personal consumption like alcohol. This may be around one-third in Honduras to a half in areas like Nicaragua and Mexico. Hence, women and girls in the fam-

the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3 ily usually experience sharper poverty than husbands and sons. In the sphere of public policy, poor women have difficulty accessing welfare benefits in their own rights and have to act through being dependants of male relatives. Poverty-reduction projects ought to rectify this flaw through targeting women in particular and enabling direct access to resources. Additionally, women may work long hours every day in the household, but this is often ignored when the government or household members account for the respective inputs of women and men in the family’s joint prosperity. When scrutinising the labour market, poor women are shown to be economically active, and yet they form a majority of the world’s poor. This is because they are often limited to jobs with little or no income. Unless, poverty alleviation projects are women-centred, it is difficult to address women’s poverty issues on equal terms as that of men. Having a female focus also betterplace these projects to tackle the additional obstacles women have in comparison to men in overcoming poverty. It allows poverty alleviation results to be more gender-balanced, especially in helping beneficiaries obtain greater control over the circumstances they live in. In a context with a rigid and in-egalitarian socio-economic order, women are unable to utilise opportunities presented by development as effectively to improve their welfare. The unjust order may manifest in legalised discrimination in property rights and income-earning rights. In many countries including Namibia and Swaziland, husbands are permanently the custodian of married women who have no right to manage property. Even where that is not the case, husbands can limit their wives’ outside employment. Less attention is also given to the intellectual and cognitive development of women. Poor women are thus comparatively less endowed with physical assets (e.g. land) and essential skills like literacy. A downward spiral persists as they are then often bypassed in typical poverty reduction strategies due to such approaches mostly attempting to build upon existing assets to produce results. Specifically, the Poverty Reduc-

tion Strategy Papers (PRSP) as prescribed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Poverty Reduction Strategies (PRS) by organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme focus on income, salaries, commodities transactions. There is a significant lack of women involvement in those areas, often leading to women being omitted as aid recipients. Informal sector work, especially that of unpaid, domestic work, in which women are the primary labourers, is rarely considered in poverty discourse, despite the long hours required and its contribution

Gender-based power relations translate into impoverished women generally experiencing poverty differently and more intensely than their male counterparts. to formal income-generation. A gendered approach is more critical in targeting a group identified as the majority of the world’s poor, women. According to DFID, they make up about 70% of the world’s 1.3 billion people in. Gender must be taken into account in efforts to reduce women poverty and poverty as a whole. This means recognising that poor women have differentiated needs from poor men. For instance, women’s high concentration in the unstable, low-wage informal sector when compounded by gender discrimination indicates that they have more pronounced problems of inadequate social security and limited access to credit. Helping poor women regain control requires a prior understanding that they are also ‘time-poor.’ This arises from their dual roles in ‘reproductive economy’ as primary family caretakers and in outside labour markets. For example, according to the World Bank, water collection already takes up to 40% of a woman’s day in some rural areas of Kenya, not withstanding her other duties. It is clear that poor women are in acute need of labour-

politics and energy-saving technologies and strategies catered to their context. This, women-centred poverty reduction projects are better-positioned to introduce to grant them greater autonomy in how they spend their time. Also, it must be realised that women are not a homogeneous bloc. The question of ‘which women’ must be asked; in that poverty-reduction efforts must be differentiated to target different groups of women who require help in different ways. There exists a ‘geography of poverty’, in which the extent and kind of help women required depends on how the patriarchal structure in a community disadvantages them through defining gender-specific roles and powers. Finally, programmes must also consider individual economic positions: For instance, women who are poorest of the poor are often still excluded from microcredit scheme targeting women. Culprits are problems like the vicious cycle of having no initial entrepreneurial projects required to access loans that are needed to start such projects. Human dignity demands that people have sufficient control over their lives to create meaningful livelihoods. Poor women, a marginalised group within a marginalised group, face much deprivation in this aspect. Poverty is harsher for them, they have weaker social mobility to overcome poverty and they have largely unmet female-specific needs as the majority of the world’s poor. In order that they are given the redress due them, more needs to be done in poverty-reduction efforts. Not all contexts are suitable for having an explicit element of women empowerment in aid programmes, but having more programmes specifically target women is a good step forward. It will be helpful that governments facilitate NGOs co-ordinating such programmes by working to: improve women’s education, launch public campaigns to counter gender discrimination, and adopt gender-balanced policies in the public sector. Globally, concerned citizens could petition these governments or their partners in aid development such as international aid organisations and donor governments to address the issue. Making the invisible women visible, paints a brighter future for them.


the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3


Forward the Libservatives


ibservative … Cleggeron … Con-Dem-nation? Whatever term you come up with to describe the new coalition government – and there have been quite a few others – there is a sense that no one knows quite where we are heading for yet. Just as we didn’t as I went home at 5am on the morning after the election. As a backroom journalist at the Guardian - a news sub-editor who has worked on every general election at the paper since 1983 - I can’t remember a night quite like it. On normal election nights, you always knew the result by the time you set off home at the end of the shift. In the 1980s I would drive through the streets of south London and out into Surrey, another blue dawn breaking, another Conservative landslide to contemplate. In 1992, as soon as Basildon stayed Tory, we knew that the exit poll prediction of a hung parliament was wrong and, whether thanks to the Sun or not, Neil Kinnock had missed out: the air of trounced expectations in the Guardian office the next day was palpable. New Labour’s triumph in 1997 included the Portillo moment, when the astonishment of Stephen Twigg in ousting the-then Conservative glamour boy summed up a remarkable night. In a rather tedious election in 2001, when only a few seats changed hands, the one highlight was Peter Mandelson’s “I’m a fighter, not a quitter”


Guardian journalist Greg Freeman looks at an unusual election

speech at the count at Hartlepool: the entire newsroom woke up and went: “Whoooo!” In 2005, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, the Tories and the Lib Dems significantly reduced Labour’s majority but Tony Blair remained in No 10, albeit a diminished figure, a tarnished brand. Two years later Gordon Brown replaced him as prime minister. After a brief honeymoon period with the electorate, he became deeply unpopular. Somehow this 2010 election

campaign felt different. After the bad odour of MPs’ expenses, it drew attention to the perceived unfairness of the first-past-the post voting system and raised hopes that something might change. During the three leaders’ X-Factor style debates, which rejigged the opinion poll fortunes of the parties during the campaign, Nick Clegg’s appeal seemed obvious: he was the prettiest. As young as David Cameron, but more appealing. In such a beauty contest, with any mention of spending cuts airbrushed out of the picture, Brown didn’t stand a chance. Tabloid newspapers grew ever more desperate as they appeared unable to swing public opinion decisively. There was the Mail’s “Nazi Clegg” splash, and the Sun’s woeful “Scrambled Clegg and Toast” headline after one of the TV debates. (They had taken to depicting Gordon Brown as a slice of brown toast, for some reason. It was good to see the Sun so comprehensively losing its touch, after its dominance of the political agenda in the 1980s and 90s). Reflecting the apparent public mood, the Guardian dismayed some of its readers and journalists in switching its allegiance from Labour, advising in a long, well-argued leader that voting Lib Dem was the best hope of keeping the Conservatives out, and implementing many of the paper’s values. On May 6, as we arrived at our desks in readiness for a long election night, the arrival of the exit

the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3 poll with its prediction of a drop in Lib Dem seats was scarcely believable, given the Cleggmania of the preceding weeks. Had the BBC got it spectacularly wrong again? In that immediate surprise its far more important forecast was momentarily overlooked: no overall majority for the Conservatives. Hung parliament. In the next few hours, Guardian staff brought round portions of risotto and shepherds pie, fuel for its hard-pressed hacks – a welcome innovation for our first election in our new, gleaming offices at King’s Cross, beside the Regent’s canal - amid TV scenes of chaos at some urban polling stations as late arrivals missed out on their right to vote. Thanks to the higher turnout, the results were taking longer to come in than usual. Even Jeremy Paxman seemed, for once, out of his depth, haranguing politicians of various hues with questions based on information that was quickly out of date. Editions came and went, intros were altered, headlines were tweaked, the air crash of Ukip’s Nigel Farage moved further down the story, but nothing was conceded: nothing was certain. In his constituency speech in Witney David Cameron said Labour had lost the mandate to govern, but he felt unable to claim victory for the Conservatives. Despite the Lib Dems’ apparent surge in popularity during the campaign, on the night they had lost seats; yet because the Tories still had no overall majority, Nick Clegg was emerging as the kingmaker. On the Friday after the election there were subsidiary stories to

focus on momentarily: the satisfyingly comprehensive trashing of the BNP, the election of Britain’s first Green MP in Brighton. But the breaking news at around 5pm or 6pm is usually the composition of the victorious party’s new cabinet. Not this time. Instead, it was replaced by a fascinating if bewildering swirl of speculation, reported minute by minute on website blogs and written up

by dog-tired political reporters, as coalition negotiations began in earnest. Over the next few days, as hopes of a “rainbow coalition” dipped, principally because the numbers did not add up, drooping spirits were momentarily lifted by the sight of Sky’s Adam Boulton losing it big-time in a spat with Alastair Campbell endlessly replayed on YouTube. The Guardian’s photographer Martin Argles revealed in a series of pictures the poignancy of Gordon Brown’s final moments

politics in Downing Street, surrounded by Campbell, Mandelson, and Ed Balls, but more importantly, Sarah and the boys. And Brown was really smiling at last, rather than displaying that rictus grin that you saw during the TV debates and outside Gillian Duffy’s Rochdale home. Then came that Cleggeron moment in the No 10 garden, two former public schoolboys at ease with each other, the body language, and you sensed that, all through the negotiations involving Labour as well, it had really been the only game in town. During the 2010 election campaign you often heard this despairing cry from a member of a public: “Why can’t they all just forget their differences, and work together?” As someone who regarded himself as an old hand, who had seen it all over many years - the disappointment, the elation, and the disillusion - I would usually think to himself: “Your poor, deluded fool. That’s not how politics works.” But it’s much more difficult to read the runes now. Is everything changing in this new era of pick ‘n’ mix policies? What wrongfoots many gnarled old politicos is the air of idealism abroad. Talk of “a new politics”, “historic, seismic” shifts, “the national interest”, “reasonable, civilised, grown-up behaviour”, “the bigger picture” … It’s not what we’re used to. But when the country is facing its most stringent, long-term economies since the second world war, maybe the political landscape has to be transformed. We live in interesting times.




the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3 Also in this section: 14 Harriet Evans on the quintessential Quinton, 15 Richard Lemmer on the history of the novel

J. G. Ballard: the Bard of Central Hall What could we do with Central Hall? Could anyone see past the cute ducklings and the picturesque weeping willows to reveal the darker side of our artificial lake? In short, who could turn the grey, uninspiring blocks of our university into the setting of disturbing fiction? If anyone could, it would have been the late Prophet of Sheepteron James Graham Ballard. Despite leading a quiet, windowed life raising two children in the south London suburbs, JG Ballard dared to imagine cannibalism behind every office block. He dared to imagine JFK’s assassination as a downhill motor race – ‘Kennedy was disqualified at the hospital, after taking a turn for the worse…’ High Rise. Concrete Island. Kingdom Come. Behind these seemingly banal titles lay the same violence and decay that is to be expected from those more provocative: Crash. Cocaine Nights. The Atrocity Exhibition. Supermarkets, high-rise apartment blocks, and seemingly endless stretches of motorway - Ballard claimed them all as his fiction’s disturbing settings. So much so that his name has entered into our language: Ballardian, an adjective suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels; dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments. As a boy Ballard grew up in Shanghai, and he lived through the experience of the Japanese invasion of the city during World War Two. That experience - the brutality of the guards and the


Richard Lemmer details James Quinton’s contracted cities

deterioration of both his family’s mental well being and the city’s ornate buildings - was later turned into a film, Empire of the Sun, staring 13 year old Christian Bale and directed by Steven Spielberg. But the experience wasn’t exorcised in just one book or one film - it permitted his entire work. ‘I suppose one of the things I took from my wartime experience was that reality was a stage set’, Ballard said in interview ‘the comfortable day to day life, school, the home where one lives, the familiar street…the trips to the swimming pool and the cinema…they could be dismantled overnight’. Coming to England, Ballard found the new environment a joy to dismantle. One of his earliest stories, 1957, imagines a city with no outside; there is only high rise after high rise after high rise and 9775335th street is an actual address. In 1963 he imagined a bleak dystopian world where people are treated as consumers

to be manipulated by subliminal messaging emitted from colossal billboards. His second novel, The Drowned World, imagines Europe submerging into a giant swamp, the likes of which not seen since the Triassic period - leaving the novel’s characters psychotically disturbed. This theme, the individual and their environment being subtly but inextricably linked, would appear again and again. In a note on The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard writes ‘the nervous systems of the characters have been externalized, as part of the reversal of the interior and exterior worlds…highways, office blocks, faces and street signs are perceived as if they were elements in a malfunctioning nervous system’. Ballard pushed this to the extreme with his novel Crash, which was turned into a film directed by David Croneberg. The story revolves around a collection of characters who receive intense sexual arousal and gratification from car crashes - watching them, coming close to them, even being in them. Ballard even exhibited a gallery of car wrecks and hired a stripper to interview guests. So the next time you walk past Central Hall and think it’s an architectural car-crash, stop. We happily walk around a university that supports both the arms trade and a post-war reconstruction unit, an absurd stage-set Ballard would have taken great delight in highlighting. Who says our campus’s grey, cerement breezier blocks have to be so sturdily boring?

the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3


Urban Rhythms


he city is the dominant trope in modern poetry and the rushed, hectic city life, the life of the poet. In 1798 Wordsworth began ‘Lines Written In Early Spring’: ‘I heard a thousand blended notes / While in a grove I sat reclined’. Today, modern city-dwelling poets have little opportunity to be similarly inspired by nature. Instead, their urban environments fill that void in the poetic process and urbanisation infiltrates the very rhythms of modern poetry. James Quinton is a modern poet in every sense of the word. His first collection of poetry, Street Psalms, was published last year and the verse contained within that slim volume is as bare and distilled as it could possibly be. Every word is charged with raw emotion and there is no trace of that ‘poetic diction’ Wordsworth so sought to reject in Lyrical Ballads. Quinton’s primary concern is city life: his poetry throbs with the rhythms of urban existence. In ‘Between The Cracks In The Floorboards’ Quinton admits he doesn’t ‘like to go outside’ and wishes to confine himself ‘behind the door / of a locked room / an existence enclosed’. Urbanisation has provided the poet with a refuge, a place safer than the unpredictable natural world outside his window. Despite the debt which Quinton’s rhythms owe to the hurried pace of metropolitan existence, the poet often expresses distaste for his city lifestyle. It is not fulfilling; the ‘busy, dirty city streets’ are something to be endured. In ‘Ghetto Souls’, the sparse stanza of one or two word lines provides the best illustration

Harriet Evans magnifies James Quinton’s contracted cities of one of Quinton’s bouts of antipathy for the urban world: ‘despair / poverty / repetition / alcohol / and tobacco / related deaths’. For Quinton, there is ‘an unspoken

It is impossible to go out and seek ‘peace’ or solitude anymore because there is nowhere lovely enough border / between / two worlds’. Yet, this second world, this green and natural world, is unattainable – or at least for the purposes he designs. In one of his longer poems, ‘Midnight Drive’, the poet and a friend drive out to the country to find ‘inspiration’. While drinking and smoking and looking at the stars the pair are interrupted by another car. Quinton laments that: ‘there is nowhere / that you can go / nowhere untouched / nowhere sacred / every-

where you go / either someone has been there before you / or someone is just behind you’. This is perhaps the best description of the effect of urbanisation on modern poetry: Wordsworth’s nature no longer exists. It is impossible to go out and seek ‘peace’ or ‘solitude’ anymore because there is nowhere lonely enough the cities are everywhere. Urbanisation has alienated poets from the rhythms of the natural world, and the resulting language used to describe our urban existence is inadequate to describe nature. Urbanisation has robbed poets of their ability to experience the sublime through nature. They must instead recourse to the trappings of urban life and try to attain subliminity through a drugaltered consciousness. The speaker in ‘Midnight Drive’ admits that the morning after the drive, he could remember nothing of their inspired ideas – the pit falls of urban life ruined natural experience. In ‘Under The Stars’, Quinton lists his ‘greatest pleasure[s]’ as drinking and smoking under the night sky. Yet, it is not the stars that are the focus in this poem, as they might have been in Wordsworth’s work: it is the cigarettes. He writes, ‘cigarettes may be bad / for the body / but they’re so good / for the soul’, distracting the reader from the experience of looking up at the stars, and directing their attention toward the greater and more sublime pleasure of smoking. It seems that the burning of the universe is no longer as important as the burning of the end of the poet’s cigarette.



the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3

The British Novel: 500 years out of date?


he satirical news website The Onion’s very own atlas – ‘Our Dumb World’ - describes England as ‘Surging Ahead To The 19th Century’. A little reductive? Maybe, but looking at last year’s Booker short list, The Onion’s shallow description may sum up deep problems with the modern British novel. A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book is set between 1895 to the First World War; Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall revolved around Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the 1500s; Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room is set in 1930s Czechlovakia; Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a ghost story set in 1940s Warwickshire; and Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze features Lord Tennyson visiting a mental asylum in the 1800s. Maybe your highlight of 2009 was protesting outside the bank of England or watching the inauguration of the first black American president of the USA. For the British literary world, 2009 was all about The Reformation. It’s a sad fact that novels, no matter how speedily written, find it difficult to capture the modern moment. Speaking to Adam Foulds, current Writer in Residence at York, he reiterated that ‘it isn’t fiction’s job to provide reportage’- a belief


Richard Lemmer identifies the present mood of British literature he shared with The Guardian last year. ‘With a previous moment, you will have a vast wealth of documents, oral history, stories and many forms of different sources to draw upon’, Foulds explains, ‘it’s very difficult to cull meaning from the 24-hour blizzard of news coverage - it’s not what fiction is about’. And even if

It’s a sad fact that novels, no matter how speedily written, find it difficult to capture the modern moment some literary Ranulph Fiennes conquered Murdoch Mountain, they would still have to wait up to two years to edit, publish and promote their novel. You only have to look at Salman Rushdie’s name dropping, pop-culture bloated

novel, Fury, to appreciate how quickly ‘now’ goes out of date. This representation of the modern moment is difficult but not impossible. As if tentatively answering Tom Wolfe’s 1989 essay ‘Stalking The Billion Footed Beast’, in which Wolfe called for realistic fiction that attempted to dramatize realistic, modern concerns, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth dipped its toe into the real and contemporary. Published a year before the September 11 attacks, White Teeth highlighted - albeit in a light hearted manner - the rise of Islamic fundamentalism portrayed as K.E.V.I.N. (Keepers of the Eternals and Victorious Islamic Nation). Despite his reservations, Foulds acknowledges ‘the argument that we failed to see the War on Terror was partly because fiction failed to pay attention to the realities we weren’t hearing about’. But, for me, it was a revelation to see fiction relishing what I thought was the banal everydayness of modern life - noticing a new actor playing your favourite TV soap character, or speaking the jargon of the school yard (‘halves’ and ‘last tokes’ on fags) - as relevant as ballroom dancing to Austen and The Poor Laws to Dickens. Of course, such reportage

the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3 has its dangers if the reporter is caught short. Sixty-yearold Ian McEwan describes the teenage son in Saturday (2005), an eighteen-year-old lead guitarist for blues band New Blue Rider; the son is ‘a man of promise’ in ‘the confined, gossipy world of British Blues’, a guitarist who loves to cover ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, last made popular by the Blues Brothers in the late 70s. You can’t help but think McEwan is daydreaming more about his own Rolling Stones enthused adolescence than Dizzie Rascal’s ‘Boy In The Corner’ or Radiohead’s ‘Hail To The Thief’. To give McEwan his dues, his novel was an attempt to describe the run up to the Iraq War, and his latest

novel, Solar, discusses global warming. Of course, fiction can always shake off such concerns about pop-culture and the latest ideological worry by appealing to its very nature: fiction. And, as nearly every novelist will stress, good fiction is all about good characters. Foulds points to the ‘default romanticism about the individual’s story and the individual in society which supersedes those kinds of concerns about particularity’. We care for Tiny Tim regardless of where he bought his crutch. The crutch is, for Foulds ‘just the what-isin-peoples’-lives, it’s the person’s life that is the story’. But increasingly, the what-is-inpeoples’-lives is defining the person’s life. ‘How can even the idea of rebellion against corporate culture stay meaningful when Chrysler Inc. advertises trucks by invoking “The Dodge Rebellion”? How

is one to be a bonafide iconoclast when Burger King sells onion rings with “Sometimes You Gotta Break The Rules”?’, American writer David Foster Wallace asked ten years ago in his essay ‘Es Unibus Pluram’. The story of the rebellious character has to change. The story of the passionate lover has to accommodate the cliché of every Disney movie, every Kenko advert and every episode of Friends or Scrubs. The props - a TV, an iPod - of a modern character can seem innocent enough, but they are intimately bound to the character’s story. Just as a good novel’s contextual particularities draw

out human universals, the current state of the British novel draws out deeper problems with literature. What do we expect from a literary book? It seems David Foster Wallace earned every penny of his McArthur Genius Grant with his demand that literature be about ‘what it is to be a fucking human being’. If historical novels like Wolf Hall are to escape charges of being pure escapism (in which case, is there a difference between literary fiction and Sci-fi or Fantasy?), they have to say something about what it is to be human. And the average human being in the UK watches four hours of television a day. That is four hours of being told how to be fitter, healthier and happier between watching countless plots, characters and settings. And that’s not including all the time spent on the internet

literature or another media device. Henry VIII has a lot of catching up to do on Sky Plus. American fiction learnt long ago that if modern life meant a difficulty culling meaning from 24 hour news coverage, then serious, literary fiction must express this difficulty. George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, Douglas Coupland, William Gibson, Don Delilio, Thomas Pynchon, Chuck Palahniuk, and the late, great Donald Barthelme; where are the British equivalents? J.G. Ballard passed away last year. Will Self is concentrating more and more on

journalism. Salman Rushdie has retreated to Renaissance Florence/Mughal-rule India. Martin Amis nailed the 80s but his latest book has gone back in time to the 60s. Ian McEwan fluxes between past and present. But in our globalised world, who is to say that the English authors of tomorrow need to feel their literary heritage lies closer to the Dreaming Spires than the Land of Opportunity? And we should look on the bright side; there aren’t enough zeroes to represent our country’s debt, a bizarre Oxbridge chimera rules over us and we can look forward to an old age feeling guilty about the underwater kingdom of Bangladesh. Excellent potential for character building. So let’s surge ahead.


the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3



Also in this section: 18 Michael Tansini discusses the impact of urbanisation on film

“...two souls, alas, and their division tears my life in two...” Tom Vickers discusses artistic turbulence

So speaks Faust of his pact with the devil, and so begins a unique journey to which the collaborations between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski bears a striking resemblance. Over the course of five films, beginning with Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972) and ending with Cobra Verde (1987), the two, in Herzog’s words, ‘had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned the other’s murder.’ They found themselves united by a refusal to give in, with Kinski, the manic actor constantly demanding reverence, and Herzog the quiet, uncompromising directorial perfectionist. The Herzog/Kinski opus truly feels like an alliance between devil and man, but which played the role of Mephisto and which Faust? This is a harder question than it might first appear. Throughout his career Kinski claimed his life mirrored Niccolò Paganini, the ‘infernal violinist’, a man driven only by manic passion in every aspect of his existence. Kinski’s final film, which he wrote, directed and starred in, made this fantasy into a palpable reality. The most important aspect of this films construction however is a note of absence – Kinski had asked Herzog to direct it and had been refused, Herzog having called his script ‘unfilmable’. Kinski was a man who would never beg, and the amount of time he waited for Herzog to change his mind is the closest he ever came. Completed in 1989, Kinski Paganini is an erratic, ragged ego-trip, admirable for its ferocity and daring, but ultimately unguided; it is Kinski tangling with dreams without Herzog. Those wishing to understand the relationship might latch onto Herzog’s docu-


mentary entitled My Best Fiend. On watching however, the documentary does not present the dynamo of their relationship, for the simple reason that Kinski is absent from the screen. His death hangs throughout the film, with clips of his disembodied raging voice only making his mania seem more defining. Stating that Kinski was the more aggressive and devilish of the two would appear to be the logical conclusion, if it were not for an anecdote recorded from the creation of their fourth film in 1982, Fitzcarraldo, that complicates this vision. During filming Herzog was approached by the Peruvian tribe the film was working with, who offered to murder ‘the devil’ Kinski for him. Whenever Kinski raged the tribe would retreat into the forest, however in their conversation with Herzog they revealed they were not frightened by Kinski’s screams and yells, but rather because Herzog was so silent. Herzog’s reaction to this was to ask the tribe leader to state his case for Kinski’s death to the cast as they ate (Kinski being unable to speak their language). A camera was turned on them and the scene was used in the film. Herzog silently captured the most dangerous of animosities and fears in the name of achieving his dream. This story is recounted in various interviews as well as Les Blank’s documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo – the aptly titled Burden of Dreams – demonstrating Herzog’s pride in his own dark determination. The film also contains a sequence in which Kinski’s protagonist uses the tribe to drag a steam boat over a rainforest mountain, allowing him to reach a river leading to untold

riches. A feat no one else would dare attempt nor even imagine, the film is self-aware of its parallels to the lives of these two men; Fitzcarraldo’s motive for all this is to bring opera to the jungle. If anything demonstrates the truth of both Herzog and Kinski’s mutual ambition, the fact this scene was enacted to create the film does so. The attitude of these men to the rest of the world seems to be their difference. Herzog’s respect for the beauty and wonder of reality is evident in his numerous documentaries – both of human endeavour and natural beauty. Kinski’s self-obsession was a quality that both created unique ability, ‘something perhaps no one else in the world could have put into a scene,’ and in contrast, fits of ego-driven rage impossible to work with. In some recording he can be heard shouting, ‘Lean begged, Brecht begged, and you’ll do just the same!’ Kinski’s talent was intense and individual, a madness to be carried alone. Herzog’s talent is instead an intuitive understanding of humanity, of uniting people to create projects such as Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde, of guiding the madness he perceives. In the last scene of Cobra Verde Kinski drags against a sandstricken boat, desperate to escape his fate, as along the beach the most deformed of the cripples featured in the film slowly moves towards him. Verda collapses in the waves, exhausted by the universe, just as Herzog described Kinki’s death years later – ‘He had spent himself. He burnt himself away like a comet,’ and crucially, Herzog chose to capture it rather than try and halt it.

the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3


Urbanisation on the Up? The city is one of the most filmed spaces in cinema. Their constant expansion is a process that has provided filmmakers with dynamic locations, and potentiality limitless scenarios to be drawn on. However, interwoven with capturing mankind’s development and progress, is the opportunity to preserve or re-create what would otherwise be lost in the rush to urbanisation. In Metropolis (1921), Fritz Lang envisions perhaps one of the most arresting scenes on celluloid; a towering futuristic city with humans no more than ant workers. Though his Marxist polemic is often regarded as of its time and consequently kept there, representations of future cities made afterwards owe it a great debt (think of the layout of New New York in Futurama). Urbanisation here, or the growth of the city, is presented in terms of certainty. The growth of the city is a logical linear progression corresponding with the intelligence of man: as our capacity to think expands, so too does the city. Lang’s weighted account of the workers operating the machinery that keeps Metropolis functioning delineates both the cities dependency on the labour force, and the population’s dependency on their habitat. If the workers revolt or the human race withers, as depicted in post-apocalyptic films such as The Road (2009), the cities atrophy into grey and dilapidated relics. The state of humanity’s health is represented by the state of the city. Rendering a grey bleak world of Council houses and poverty, Fish House is a low budget film that explores the the potential of a dystopian future in Britain, with the urbanisation of the city having deteriorated from a process that enriches the lives of its citizens to one that holds them in a cycle of purgatorial endlessness. If the city’s progression and expansion is assured but its destination is suspected to be morally dubious, it would seem prudent to question the decision makers who seem to be guiding the development of cities, or failing to guide them. As the legality of open criticism towards hierarchies and public figures has risen, po-

Michael Tansini considers the urban spaces in film

litical systems have been revealed as failing to provide the progression hoped for by early futuristic cinema. In the seventies, a host of films show a lawless city whose citizens feel disconnected from each other, and so resort to violence. In Taxi Driver (1976), Travis Bickle has been so affected by his military service and ignored by the authorities that he sees himself as a crusading vigi-

expanding cities and a growing population will ultimately polute the city beyond repair lante against what he calls the “scum”; the pimps and politicians who are as much a part of the urban aesthetic as bus stops and

fire hydrants. As progress becomes even more fragmented and uncertain, a top-down rule is shown to have inadequate vision, both in terms of development and consolidation. The seemingly unchecked growth of the city and authoritarian responses to the chaos further damaged any sense of stability or unity, and the city on film became more dangerous. The seemingly unmotivated Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971) kills out of pleasure, but is later posited as a victim, despite having little to separate him from his torturers. As the city has progressed technologically, people living within it have lost their sense of moral direction. The city is only as strong as its inhabitants, and their decline means a general urban decline as well. Criticism of urbanisation has most recently been bolstered by the environmental movement, with evidence that expanding cities and a growing population will ultimately pollute the world beyond repair and deplete our planets resources. Up (2009) presents a citizen named Carl; an old man being forced out of his old, attractive house he has lived in for most of his life. The building is now surrounded by busy motorways, high-rise skyscrapers, and loud construction work, and without an empathetic view in sight, Carl escapes by tethering balloons to his house and flying away. Though Pixar has provided a fantastical account of how one can escape from the harsh economic reality of the city with their possessions still in tact, it is easy to imagine a depressing art-house version of the film where Carl is forced out into a care home. The advance in the city in monetary terms makes its citizens think entirely within those terms; compassion is an old concept that is soon forgotten. Though arguably ethically debilitating, urbanisation is presented as necessary to house everyone. Though some might find themselves privileged enough to finance their own extradition from city life, the constant growth in all directions seems to imply that the suburbs will soon be on their doorstep, along with everything urbanisation is accommodating.


the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3



concrete evidence © Jamie MacDonald

Guy Wilson: beavers, buildings and the urban adventure


n the summer of 2009 beavers were reintroduced to Argyll, Scotland. These aquatic mammals are famous for the dams they build. They work by carefully selecting suitable trees to cut down and by using the resources around them as sustainably as possible. Over a period of time they build their dams, flooding a small area; they live in their lodge for many years, before finally moving on to a new area. The dams slowly fall apart, the flooded area drains and the forest returns. In 2000, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen coined the term ‘anthropocene’ to describe Earth’s new geological epoch which he argues has been caused by human impact. In the blink of an eye, our species has radically altered the evolutionary course of the planet. We pump out carbon dioxide faster than volcanoes, we tear up forests and mine minerals buried deep underground. Perhaps the greatest change though is urbanisation. Over three billion of us now live in concrete jungles. In a heartbeat a new ecosystem has been established: the urban environment, something


wholly different from anything that has come before. In millions of years, when our time is long over, the geological record of this period will be characterised by concrete. When the beaver builds its dam it is shaping the ecosystem around it, interacting with the resources and environment in which it is set. Fundamentally the aim of the conservationists in Argyll is to preserve something fleeting whilst the world around it is altered irrevocably. The aim is to challenge time, to try and preserve something for us to enjoy, with our comprehension of history and memory. In the urban ecosystem, the Urban Explorers take on a similar role. They wander around abandoned buildings, with the perhaps ironic rule ‘take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.’ This is in many ways a contemporary rework of Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur, who wandered in a state of acute self-awareness, observing the early industrial city. The internet is littered with photographs trying to find some beauty or intrigue in the decaying ruins of structures made obsolete by our post-

industrial societies. These are the playgrounds of the urban adventurer. A frequent theme is the sense of going somewhere you’re not supposed to, or that people ignore and pass by. But rather than simply trespassing, urban exploration claims to be an artistic endeavour to better understand the city. Military installations, theatres, factories and old hospitals all have a story written in their walls, that risks being lost. The inescapable revelation from urban exploration is of a vast decaying underbelly to our shiny Western urban environments. There is a world we see everyday, when we watch TV, go shopping or visit a bar. But there is another world largely hidden from us. Without human interaction, without purpose and use, these places become lifeless. Through exploration and documentation, the urban adventurer seeks to reawaken and create new meaning in buildings. In experiencing these structures first hand and photographing them for others to see, the stage of a building’s life cycle where it would usually be forgotten, becomes something shared.

the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3



Also in this section: Alexander Allison , troglodyte or socialite?

The Rule of Thumb


t seemed as though the world was ending. Yes, the face of every man, woman and child dared you to say otherwise. Everyone has a different opinion, naturally. To some, today is Judgement Day. To others, it is simply an end. From space however, the would-be fire and brimstone are transformed into fairy lights, as smoke trails dance and weave a web around the world, occasionally disappearing to punctuate the sentence with a lingering flash. It’s incredible what a bit of perspective can do for you. But this isn’t the immediate situation, the situation we’ve gathered to observe. The situation that requires your attention, your unique perspective. They were always so seemingly superior, humans. So intelligent, with an impressive brain to body ratio. So sociable, with complex larynxes and countless dialects. Yes, they were so seemingly superior, right down to their two opposable thumbs. Yes, thumbs. Primus digitus. The hammer magnets. Enabler of first ‘the grip’ and then ‘the grab’, without which you couldn’t flick or hail a cab. Yes, the thumb. Redeemer of the hand, and eternal upstager of the toe. A provider of comfort. The decision maker. Red, amber, green. Mankind honed its fine motor skills, as facilitated by the thumb. Mankind built the car. Mankind built the plane. Mankind built the super-col-

Daniel Moody voices the opposable antagonism of thumbs

lider. And mankind built the bomb. But did they really build these things? Yes? NO. Thumbs built these things. But in spite of all their potential, thumbs have always been the conflicting digit. Stranded and alone with four companions who do nothing but wiggle, thumbs became very territorial. The hands of men have always had a thirst for war, but does this thirst come from the brain? The lowest form of combat two humans can engage in is the thumb war. But is it really the lowest, or the epicentre of an entire history of conflict? Some would argue otherwise,

but I say look at the evidence. It was always the finger on the trigger, the finger on the button. The thumb. Enabler, dictator, controller. But what was their collective ultimate goal? What did they whisper about when brought together for brief handshakes? Freedom. To be free of the human, to be their own vessel. Research into mutation seemed the fastest way to accelerate what would otherwise take millions of years of evolution; their liberation as they shed all unnecessary body parts. And so, as all the worlds arsenals stand aimed and ready at major cities around the world, an unsuspecting leader allowed his thumb to linger over their nuclear control panel, the thumb took the opportunity to cleanse the world of their transports. It seemed as though the world was ending. Yes, the face of every man, woman and child dared you to say otherwise. But you should have seen the look on the face of every thumb. A population of nearly double the human race awaiting its baptism in fire. And from the ashes... The rubble of cities that thumbs built... The thumbs looked up... Then stood up... And smelt their enemies’ ruin. Their time was now, the war was won. The rule of thumb had begun.


the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3


The Depressive Considers York


horuses of ‘chug’ regularly resonate about the desolate confines of my college. The melodrama of this monosyllabic command is an anathema for me. I cannot summon the energy to make all the conceited efforts that sociability demands any longer. It seems there’s a miasma that lingers from dusk till dawn here, a pressing desire to fit a lifetime within each fleshy receptacle. I had vaguely assumed that there would be a lull in the density of this noxious atmosphere, but it just seems to spread, raucously infectious in its potency, demanding submission from all inhabitants. University life offers no reprieve. Time not spent achieving is wasted. I suffer from acute dysthymia, a disease which spits upon perspective and leads you unwittingly to a self-indulgently engrossing nadir. There is a word in the Russian language that Nabakov chooses to translate as ‘Poshlust’, roughly meaning ‘that which is shoddy and cheap, posing as something noble’. For me, that seems to sum up university life better than any English phrase could. Depression here is like a journey where the destination will always remain beyond reach, where the


Alexander Allison: a confessional piece scenery is consistently hollow: a bare, shoddy morass, built on foundations of cigarette butts and lies. I live a rambunctious melancholy, wary of the seemingly troglodyte existence demanded here. There is a conspiracy that everything worth doing can be done in darkness. One must perform the greatest sacrifice, and submit to psychosomatic exhaustion, conceding that whilst a mind might be a terrible thing to waste, all opposite choices are no where near as attractive. I see boys performing petty semiotic analysis in clubs to gauge which girl he can bring home. I see girls measure out their journeys by the number of cigarettes they anticipated smoking. I see people in clothes they wore as children pretending to be adults. In general, people seem to be wearing costumes of skin, speaking in sound-bites and routinely running their fingers over scars they have for-

gotten the origins of. Everyone seems to have something to complain about, but no incentive to act upon it. Loose faucets pound porcelain across inadequate accommodation every day and broken light fittings flicker restlessly, but pro-activity is beyond question. It is an achievement to do the minimum of work: a pass carries gravitas and real success is met with indignation and suspicion by peers. The town herself seems unwilling to gratify our cravings for beautiful ordinariness. Cobbled paths have an allergy to high heels. Drunken somnabulations through maze like streets baffle those too far gone to care. Souls dead at the roots allow their bodies to be trespassed in dark corners of heaving, diaphoretic clubs. Even the word ‘love’ sounds like some dramatic, archaic illness. Bruised skies cry so often here that the cathedral’s towers, like hypodermic needles, scratch desperately at the firmament in the hope of injecting light. Maybe my adjustment period to the north is just taking longer than it is supposed to. But I have not travelled here from 1991 just for the sake of justifying the journey. I now realise it

the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3

was delusional to assume university would be some cornucopia of filial understanding and sympathy. I now realise aesthetic salvation is off the cards. I now appreciate the reassuring shield that religion can give some people. I just can’t seem to accept the, ‘If she’s a two at ten, she’ll be a ten at two’ culture. I have adopted some sort of panoramic, apathetic view of this hubbub, and it has just cemented my existential despair. The fierce opposition to authenticity I put down to people desiring to re-define themselves. I am disgusted at my instinct to judge and its symbiotic relationship with my lack of joie de vivre, esprit de corps or whatever you want to call it, but what can I do? I am not a common denominator. I am the hero and the villain of this piece. If life is a struggle for meaning, I’m a masterpiece on its mantle. What reprieve, what comfort is there to be had? Atavistic, id based pleasures like our three-a-day food injec-

tions? No. Comfort in youth, health and potential? Hardly. Why else would I still be smoking? I should have wrinkled fingers from floating through this adolescence. What reason is there to leave my dream laced

I am the hero and the villain of this piece. If life is a struggle for meaning, I’m a masterpiece on its mantle

bed sheets each morning when only a panoply of plainness awaits? Church bells chime like ice cream vans in this sullen state, where a kettle’s bird song is all that wakes me. I need to re-calibrate and codify my expectations and am-


bitions. It is undoubtedly the menial that has weighed most heavily on my depression. Cleaning, washing, sleeping seem like the most radically futile acts. This is reinforced by the feeling that technology should be doing them for us. Our dependency has been so romanticised that it’s almost nauseating. Ebooks won’t flutter in the wind, that’s for sure. The key to it all seems to be admitting that ‘growing up’ has now been put off as long as possible. University is a way of recessing back to a state of nature; a radical, profound freedom imbued on people who have been taught by rote for so long that instruction taking has been written on their hearts. Depression is a matter of everything. Call it ennui, acedia, black bile, anomie, dukkha, weltschmerz or whatever, it is ultimately a lingering, numbing disquiet with people. Sartre wrote, ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’ meaning ‘Hell is other people’. All too often he seems to have hit the nail on its metaphoric head.


the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3



Also in this section: 24 Isobel Cowper-Coles on tuneful education, 25 Joe Walsh on the triumphant trio, 26 Emily Chapman talks genius

A Hidden Gem David Sims sings the praises of a band so unknown, Google didn’t know who they were Jai Stokes. Mat Russell. Ian Faragher. Ever heard of these three musicians? No, of course not. And this is a real shame. When you think of early 2000s British music, we think of corny pop, early Coldplay, Travis and later ‘grime’. But there is the great undiscovered – the plethora of artists who have, arguably, far more talent but none of the exposure. The three fellas already mentioned share this sad fate. In the early 2000s, the aforementioned trio appeared in two guises; first I am Seven, more of a rock group, sounding similar to Oasis without the aggression, and secondly as New English Music Foundation, a much calmer folk-sounding band with chiming guitars and soothing melodies. Despite this transition, under both projects the quality of music flourished. The former spawned three singles and a greatest hits album, while the latter produced a single and a full length album. Hailing from Birmingham, the group who first got together in 1996 soon made steps towards ‘the big time’. By receiving both the Pepsi-sponsored ‘New Band of 1998’ prize coupled with Bob Geldof praising their work, it is clear that this wasn’t just another ‘runof-the-mill’ band. British guitar music was on the decline following the zenith of Britpop and so, to put it simply, this was the right band at the wrong time. However the songs have that beautiful mix of upbeat and yet melancholy, which makes them so attractive to the listener - and gives them the staying power to make them relevant and fresh even today. The pick of the bunch is an outstanding tune called


‘Time’, the third single, which takes this point to the extreme of brilliance. The beautiful accompaniment and sonic palette, and tremendous guitar work, is contradicted by the downward melody and the heartfelt lyrics of time ebbing away, ‘Time comes after time, there’s no rewind / no alibis to hide behind’. With New English Music Foundation, the topic of time ebbing away became the theme of the album - and thus it is a first class example of a concept album. And it is a very summer-sounding record, suitable for this time of year. The flowing chords, beautiful guitar lines and wonderful soundworld (added synths and a brass band) make for a wonderful unique listening experience. Within the calming, laid-back music there is also a certain urgency. For example in the nine-minute epic ‘A Woman Like You’, the lyric bemoans: ‘I’ll write you a sonnet or sing you a song / So I can be there with you when I’m gone’. It all sounds very depressing to read, but to listen to it is some of the most sincere, touching music I have ever heard. The very texture of the music makes it a summer album despite the often downbeat nature of the lyrics, which forecast the imminent arrival of autumn in many cases. But despite this there is an overwhelming sense of happiness and contentment, as found on the horn-laden ‘So Much Beauty’ or the soaring back ing vocals on the title track, ‘Heart, Earth and Space’. The album’s centrepiece is the magnificent ‘Blue Sky’. It is one of my favourite songs ever and an

outstanding summer song. Relentless, rhythmic guitars form the basis for this summer classic – a brilliant riff, a brilliant texture, and all round a very calming song. This isn’t a Muso marvelling at weird, far-out pop; this is three chord magic. The whole album is perfect driving music during the summer, or just for chillout. I find it a real shame that these guys remain totally unknown – for a long time, I was their sole listener on their page (although spreading the word has helped ease that burdensome mantle from my shoulders), and I only stumbled upon them by pure chance. If you look at the current pop acts in the chart, hardly any of them are British (American Invasion taking its vengeance 45 years later) and even the homegrown stuff is poor. I urge you to have a quick Google search for free tracks on the net. What have you got to lose? American music has hardly been more dominant in British popular music since rock ‘n’ roll took off in the 1950s. It’s good to listen to the unknown stuff from these shores rather than championing the latest American sensation or 12-year-old pianist singing Lady Gaga songs. As Suede frontman Brett Anderson once said, ‘In America, there is no tragedy, no failure... no premature ejaculation’. Stokes, Russell and Faragher embrace failure and make it something beautiful. I don’t know about you, but songs about time wasting too fast and glorious summer days are a lot more relevant to us than songs about people shakin’ their arses. Just consider that..

the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3


An Education in Music Isobel Cowper-Coles hopes to bring Bach education in schools of classical music When asked about their music preferences, the average adolescent might not immediately mention Bach, Beethoven or Handel. An enjoyment of classical music is generally seen something for the more aged among the population, or those who are not ‘cool’ or ‘with it’. This, I know, is a very narrow view, but nevertheless I would like to explore why so many people hold preconceptions of the classical world, and are not receptive or enthusiastic to the thought of listening to it. Perhaps, for some, it is a more difficult genre to access. Classical music is best enjoyed when one has experienced some level of participation of it. Those who have learnt an instrument at some point in their lives have gained a greater understanding of the genre as a whole, and are more likely to have favourite periods or composers. A few decades ago, the proportion of schoolchildren who learnt an instrument was much higher, and there was a much greater participation in youth orchestras. Margaret Thatcher was responsible for the decline of this due to her introduction of rate capping, which meant that councils could not raise their rates (the forerunner of council tax) above a certain percentage. The council rates had previously funded the youth orchestras, and the loan of instruments to student, which was sometimes free. Indeed some councils gave all the children in their borough a music test to discern whether a free instrument, or music lessons of greatly reduced price were warranted. These are the schoolchildren who, a few decades down the line, make up the majority of audiences at classical music concerts today. Included in this are our grandparents, for whom many pop music as we know it today did not exist. This only adds to the impression that classical music is enjoyed by older people. This, I know is a very one-sided view of the issue. There are, to my knowledge, a great many young people who enjoy classical music both as a hobby, and to listen to. However, this generally comes with the prerequisite of being exposed to classical music from a very young age, or receiving a rich and

enjoyable musical education. Sadly, a musical education today is somewhat more costly than it used to be. Music lessons can cost up to £20 an hour, with the added cost of purchasing an instrument, ample music, taking exams, and paying subscription for orchestras or choirs. This is enough to put any parent off, no matter how interested a young child may seem in learning an instrument. The best music departments, with attractive facilities, able and enthusiastic music teachers and plenty of music making opportunities seem, with exceptions, to be confined to the private education sector. This leaves the majority of the population with minimal access to a highly enjoyable and beneficial musical education. Music, although a compulsory part of the National Curriculum, is not taught at great length in most schools, due to time restrictions and lack of full time music teachers. With more and more pressure put on children’s attainment in the three core areas, and so less being available for other subjects, the Government is sending out a clear message: music is not seen as important or beneficial in a child’s education. This leaves the many benefits of learning music undiscovered. The sense of progress and added confidence that mastering an instrument can bring, as well as the enrichment of an academic education are lost. For children who find the three “R”s less than interesting, or who benefit from doing things for themselves,

learning an instrument satisfies this need, and creates an outlet for creativity. It can also lead on to many other things- joining orchestras can foster lifelong friendships as well as making free time enjoyable and productive. Of course, I am not suggesting that music making solves all problems, and that children who do not learn music go through life in unfulfilled manner. For those who are tone deaf, are strongly disinterested in music, or who have tried an instrument and not found it enjoyable, there are many other just as enjoyable hobbies and activities. But there remains the fact that there are now many primary school children, now more than ever, who simply never get the chance to even hear what different instruments sound like, let alone try one, and so are unable to ignite an interest in what can become a lifetime’s hobby and enjoyment. This, I think, goes some way in explaining why the majority of young people today have no interest in classical music whatsoever. The lack of inexpensive opportunities available at an early age is making it difficult for many families to access this beneficial resource. To prevent classical music becoming something for the privileged few, let us give it back its hour in the school day, and let councils give the funding necessary to benefit those children who would otherwise not have the chance.


the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3


The Definition of the Artist Joe Walsh looks at three bands who epitomise a certain unique musicality strive for but can rarely attain. In a couple of tracks, such as ‘The Devil’s Crayon’ and ‘All the King’s Men’ (the latter from their second album), bassist Tom Fleming takes the vocal reins, providing a deeper, huskier voice, enhanced similarly by occasional bursts of his own falsetto capabilities.

There is one question which always plays on my mind when listening to music: what defines them as a band? Every artist is defined by their melodies, lyrics or their sound, but it leads me to question how each area demonstrates some kind of uniqueness, how it brings something new to the world of music. So I took a gander in my library and pulled out the three artists who best defined uniqueness in lyricism, vocals or musical accompaniment. I dearly hope you shan’t be disappointed. Lyrics Frightened Rabbit is a band that possesses some of the most poignant and well-conceived lyrics that I have heard in any band before – particularly their second album, ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’, based on the singer’s broken heart. I realise this sounds mundane, whiny perhaps, and I assure you I’m not great fan of the emotional woes that many sing about. Frightened Rabbit, however, seem to articulate these emotions in such a way that they do not sound clichéd or condescending. It is the fact that the lyrics reveal in the singer, Scott Hutchison, the very insecurities that make him human that the songs become something more than just generic love songs. Hutchison tells the woman he loves in ‘The Twist’ that she can ‘whisper the wrong name / I don’t care and nor do my ears’, his need for ‘human heat’ being so great that he sacrifices his own self respect. And this is just it – he tells her. There is the sense in this entire album that we are privy to emotions that should be kept hidden. To a great extent, it is a self-pitying album – Hutchison refers’


to himself as ‘a modern leper / On his last leg’, and says in another track how he will ‘save suicide for another day’ – yet his lyrics are so honest that one cannot help but feel sorry for him and like the guy (a sentiment even more profound when seen live). Meanwhile, ‘Old Old Fashioned’ is a track about getting ‘back to how things used to be’, an ubiquitous line in the song laden with regret for how things have become. ‘My Backwards Walk’ is a song based upon that very concept: ‘I’m working on erasing you, / I just don’t have the proper tools.’ Lyrics like this are no longer spoken by a different entity – they could just as easily be about the listener as they are about Hutchison. Voice An artist is made all the more definitive by the singing voice, and although naturally every voice is individual, there are those who possess something so unique in the timbre that the band is given a completely different edge. It is the countertenor voice of Hayden Thorpe that gives the band Wild Beasts a sound unlike many other bands on the scene today (though it does resemble the falsetto voice of Antony Hegarty, lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons). Their debut album, ‘Limbo, Panto’, achieved critical acclaim, garnering particular attention for Thorpe’s unfalteringly crisp top notes. The remarkable thing about his voice its ability to slide down the scales with a kind of crackling texture to his voice – one that only enhances the sound of his voice. It provides the intensity that plenty of other bands would

Melodies A harp- and piano-playing twentyeight year old, who perhaps embodies one of the best of every area that makes an artist definitive, cannot be overlooked when it comes to the music behind the lyrics. Joanna Newsom paints pictures with her songs (her writing is as much poetry as it is lyrics) while her incredible voice weaves, twists and turns with a consistency which lasts faultlessly throughout her ten minute songs. The orchestral music, however, is what truly marks her music out as special. While she plays the harp to construct the complex and rapid folk melody of the piece, the orchestra behind her gradually builds. It adds a new dimension to her music and gives it layers to reflect her lyrics. The sixteen minute song ‘Only Skin’, a track from her album ‘Ys’, culminates in an orchestral crescendo, whilst ‘Emily’ ends with fifty seconds of quiet string music, leaving a profound sense of reflection after the intensity of her emotion. In her follow up album, ‘Have One On Me’, the orchestra is not depended upon so heavily, yet the introduction of drums, foreign instruments and jazz elements all contribute to the altered yet equally profound sound. The quietness of the melodies means that her words echo all the more when the final song plays, and it becomes clear that not only has she been painting a portrait, through her ever-changing melodies she has been talking to the listener, giving them reassurance without even realising it. Whilst it does depend upon opinion as to the artist you believe suits all these areas best, those that I mention are not only worth investigating, they also represent the need to consider what it is that defines music. Understanding what exactly it means to possess an unique sound, I promise, makes the experience of listening all the more fulfilling.

the zahir | volume 5 | issue 3


The Influence of a Genius Emily Chapman looks at the works of one of the most influential composers of the 20th century I have always been fascinated by one composer I consider to be the most dominant figure in twentieth century music – and culture as a whole – both through creative accomplishment and influence over others. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was a Russian composer who infamously followed three compositional styles: Nationalism, Neo-Classicism and Serialism. Stravinsky first became known through his three ballets, commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev and performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. The most famous of these three ballets, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), composed between 1912 and 1913, premiered in May 1913 in Paris. Stravinsky came up with the idea for Le Sacre du Printemps from a fantasy vision of pagan ritual, and the composition was influenced by primitivism – specifically West African tribal art. It begins with a bassoon solo playing in its highest register which creates a disquieting atmosphere. These eerie sounds continue throughout the whole composition in an attempt to imitate the strained noise of untrained village voices. The intensely rhythmic score was written for an unusually large orchestra, including extremely large woodwind and percussion sections, which allows for harmonically adventurous music with a big emphasis on the dissonance, giving the piece colour and energy. A number of the sections have a constantly changing time signature and unpredictable off-beat accents, which also contribute to the piece’s uncomfortable and sinister feel. Many of the melodies Stravinsky has used are based on folktale themes, so that the listener gets the feeling of songs passed down from

ancient times. These melodic fragments are then layered in the music to create complex intertwining melodies. When this piece of music was first performed, a riot broke out over Stravinsky’s use of discords and the harsh registers that Stravinsky composed in for each instrument. I think that because of the uproar created by this bold composition, Le Sacre du Printemps became one of the most

significant works of the 20th century. After the phase of Nationalism and the writing of the Russian Ballets, Stravinsky extended his compositional styles onto Neo-Classicism. For this neo-classical style, Stravinsky abandoned the large orchestras needed for the ballets and moved onto wind instruments, the piano, and choral and chamber works. Stravinsky’s first composition in his Neo-Classical period was Pulcinella (1920), based on early eighteenth-century music, thought to be composed by Giovanni Pergolesi.

Stravinsky rewrote this music in a more modern way by using and altering specific textures and introducing modern rhythms, cadences and harmonies. Pulcinella is scored for a modern chamber orchestra with soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists. In 1947, Stravinsky revised the piece and turned it into Pulcinella Suite, a piece derived from the Ballet with no singing parts. Equally, the original ballet score featured eighteen movements, whereas the Suite is comprised of eight. The first movement of the Suite, Sinforia, is the most famous. It is written in a ritornello structure and its short memorable motifs often reappear on a different set of instruments after each new section. Although Stravinsky has written this Suite in a Neo-Classical style, he still incorporated more modern instrumental techniques which really make this piece of music unique. For example, in Movement VII, Vivo, Stravinsky included glissandos into the trombone part which give it a more modern and playful feel. The Pulcinella Suite is very different to Le Sacre du Printemps because Stravinsky stopped using discords and strained registers of instruments. It was so popular because it was written in a style that people could recognise, as opposed to Stravinsky’s earlier works with strange harmonies and changing metres. After Stravinsky’s NeoClassical period, he started to write music in a more Serial style and he began to use the 12-tone technique originally used by Arnold Schoenberg. One of Stravinsky’s most famous pieces of work from his Serial period is Agon (1954-7). It is a ballet choreographed for twelve dancers. Some of the movements in Agon are tonal like most of Stravinsky’s earlier works, but some of the movements are written in an atonal style so can be very unpredictable, for example Bransle Gay. Stravinsky was a radical composer of his time, always exploring new styles and techniques. He had a large impact on the society of his time and his influences have had a big effect on the music of today. I believe that Stravinsky was one of the most influential people of the century and he deserves to be credited as such.


Zahir 5.3  

Summer 2010. Urbanisation.

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