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volume 6, issue 1 Winter, 2010
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the zahir | volume 6 | issue 1 volume 6, issue 1 Winter, 2010
the university of york’s culture magazine
feature 3: Phil Mason defends our rights 4: Helena Davies on artful rights 5: Tim Lunn on the history of rights 7: Christian Drury on tentative rights
politics 9: Lizzie Dearden asks to be free from fees 10: Guy Wilson tries to pad out his CV 11: Isobel James has a Hull lot of love
18: Alexander J. Allison 29: Joe Walsh rails against the trend of provides some short commercialisation in prose the music industry 19: Catherine Bennett showcases three poems 21: Sania Sajid’s poems take us on a journey
arts 23: Michael Paraskos gives us an education in art 24: Josh Allen demolishes our campus
12: Nanki Chawla spies on an Orwellian state 13: Nikki Markides protests
literature 14: Harriet Evans: on a literary trip To The Lighthouse 15: Sophie Rundel on accurate depiction 17: Isobel Cowper-Coles has proverbs on the palate
film 25: David Wylot on the serious side to war games 27: Lucy Barnett looks at the power of film on secretive Burma 28: Percy Hallow on viewer responsibility
We are always looking for new writers. If there is something you would like to write about please do get in touch at: firstname.lastname@example.org Our archives can be found online at: zahir.org.uk Search for ‘The Zahir’ in facebook Editor Siobhan Hurley Deputy Editor Guy Wilson Section Editors Sarah Dean, Politics Holly Phillips, Literature Emma Unwin, Arts Daniel Moody, Film Joe Walsh, Music
the zahir | volume 6 | issue 1
Also in this section: 4 Helena Davies traverses the nexus between rights and arts, 5 Tim Lunn talks Kafka , 7 Christian Drury on how far we have to fight for rights around the world
Whose right? Phil Mason speaks (freely, and without censorship or limitation)
n a country like ours, it seems that human rights are taken for granted. Should I wish to bad mouth the Prime Minister I have any number of electronic, written and oral opportunities to do so. So engrained is the notion of ‘it’s my right to…’ in the structure of this nation, that we seem to have lost touch with the history of our rights. After all, it is a national history of violence and persecution which has granted us the pleasure of freedom of speech at all. If I am asked why I should be able to say what I want of anyone, no matter their social or political standing, I may simply reply that it is my right to vocalise what I want. In saying this, I commit a gross assumption about what my rights actually are. It seems that in many corners of the world inhabited by the more fortunate we treat our rights as foundational, and we build upon our foundational assumption to rights a great number of our actions, beliefs and opinions. So, what sort of ontological status am I attributing to such rights? I would argue that my assumption relies on my rights being external, objective and immutable. But this cannot be true! If my rights afford such a concrete nature, then why not the rights of others? We certainly know of many for whom such rights barely register as a concept. The very reason many of us enjoy the luxury of such rights is wholly dependent on the suffering of others throughout the ages whom have found such rights withheld. I must wonder what might have been for me without such historical events as the peasant’s revolt of 1381. My origins undoubtedly rest with the
serfs as opposed to the lords of the time, and I wonder if I would be so brave as to risk everything for rights of my community. But these events have occurred, it might be argued, and therefore I now have my rights even if those in other lands do not. Perhaps then, we need simply to accept our rights as culturally relative. Maybe one
day all countries will have experienced similar events and our rights will be universally accepted. It is, however,
I must hold that each person has equal rights and I must oppose the encroachment of others on any of mine a rather smug conclusion and seems to do no justice to my newly acquired scepticism. I propose that perhaps we view our rights in this country as an institution;
an institution that took great labour and suffering to instil in our society, laws and attitudes. Like all institutions human rights require continued attention, continued effort and continued commitment to maintain. It is not enough to concern myself with my own rights but I must concern myself with the rights of each person. Clearly this entails a number of things: whilst exercising my rights I cannot encroach on yours, I must hold that each person has equal rights and I must actively oppose the encroachment of others on any person’s rights. Thus it appears, on this view, that my rights depend upon two things: my ethical interest in the rights of all and the ethical interests of all in my rights. What I have attempted to produce is not a normative world view. I aim, instead, to highlight the fragility and insecurity of the rights that so many of us take for granted. We do not have to travel far to find places where such institutions do not exist, whether this be because of social and religious norms or because of brutal leadership that does not recognise the equal humanity of others. What then of the ontological status of rights now? I personally find it very difficult to see beyond the delicate human construct. Others may disagree on this, but I would hope we can at the very least agree that ‘human rights’ deserve our attention, respect and continued commitment. If there is anything I would wish a reader to take away from this, it is perhaps best captured in the essence and spirit of Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s words: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
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Freedom of Expression Helena Davies explores the relationship between art and rights
© Corbin Ball
uman rights and art are inextricably linked. Indeed, freedom of expression in art is itself a form of free speech. Art can sometimes be a protest, or a depiction of the lack of human rights. A photograph of a Burmese monk lying dead in the water portrays an obvious infringement on human rights, although sometimes the artwork is not that obvious. It is often what it fails to portray that is significant and this could be considered a violation of human rights in itself. When considering the topic of human rights in Art, my mind is immediately cast to images of pain and desperation where the viewer is aligned with the artist, almost embarrassed and ashamed to be catching a glimpse of another person’s suffering. Yet the most emotional images, which I have seen, were produced by the victims themselves. Jewish children incarcerated in the Terezin ghetto between 1942 and 1944 were encouraged to draw by former Bauhaus student Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who was also deported to Terezin. The individuality of the 4500 drawings created is striking. The medium of Art acted as an escape for the children back to their old lives and memories, to a world of fantasy. I am not sure what is more upsetting, the fact that most of these dreams were unfulfilled, as many of the children were transported to Auschwitz, or the horror and violence depicted in the drawings of everyday life. They are a reminder of the realities that they lived with. Sometimes Art questions how rigid the structures of human rights are. If Art can be considered a form of free speech and expression, is there a point where an artist’s right to express themselves compromises another person’s human rights? And at this point should
the artist’s right be taken away? Zhu Yu certainly challenged this right in 2000, when a series of photographs entitled ‘Eating People’ allegedly showed him cooking and eating a foetus, which he claimed he had stolen from a medical school. Yu defended his Art stating “no religion forbids cannibalism.” Instead he “took advantage of the space between morality and the law and based my work on it.” His work, not only challenges morality, but on a wider scale, uncovers the debate of the rights of the artist versus the rights of those depicted. It is impossible to talk about Art as a representation of human rights, and the possible political control over this, without mentioning Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. His constant criticism of the authoritarian regime in China has often caused friction between himself and the government. In early November this year his Shanghai studio was declared illegal and he was placed under house arrest to prevent him attending a protest at his studio along with his many supporters. You cannot help thinking that demolishing his studio is the result of his public disapproval of the authorities. Possibly, it is an attempt to prevent him from producing works that are as equally outspoken such as the infamous photograph of him giving the finger to the Forbidden City. However, Ai Weiwei is not alone in his condemnation of China’s human rights record. This criticism was collectively brought together in the exhibition ‘Half Life of a Dream’, which portrayed artists’ reactions to the government’s repression and dictatorship. Most notable was Sui Jianguo’s ‘The Sleep of Reason’, an installation piece involving a giant fibreglass sculpture of deceased leader Mao Zedong sleeping,
whilst surrounded by twenty thousand toy dinosaurs positioned in the shape of Asia. The work, referencing Goya, symbolises the creativity of China as well as the political control over its people. The exhibition demonstrates how Art is increasingly becoming an effective method of protest and creates awareness on China’s violation of human rights. Yet this is a different situation in comparison to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). For the first time this year artwork from the country was allowed to be exhibited in the West. Despite the DPRK being notorious for its breach of human rights, the works displayed in ‘Flowers for Kim Il Sung’ all celebrate the Juche ideology, the revolution, the country’s leaders and some works are criticising Western modernism. They portray the people from DPRK as devoted happy citizens not as a repressed mass of people potentially facing execution, torture, forced abortions, science experiments or imprisonment in a labour camp. However the portraits of the “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jung II, often surrounded by factory workers and peasants implore us to believe that governmental control has influenced the works included in the exhibition. The Art can be interpreted as propaganda and is a smokescreen covering the repression of its people. Consequently the medium of Art will always be extremely significant within the subject of human rights. Not only is it a right of expression in itself, but the subject matter that it depicts can create awareness about the infringement of human rights. Arguably its importance derives from the fact that it acts as a record of these violations.
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Human rights ideally would exist under all conditions
The Penal Colony Tim Lunn talks Kafka
t’s a remarkable piece of apparatus’. In Franz Kafka’s short story, ‘The Penal Colony’, a machine has been designed to punish the prisoners. Once strapped in, the machine starts to rotate, turning their body in the process. The punishment is inscribed into their flesh over a period of 12 hours. However, the machine has been largely forgotten with the death of the old Commandment and the arrival of a new, ‘humane’ Commandment. I wish to use Kafka’s work to elucidate three aspects of human rights that are easily forgotten: the history of human rights as the history of the exploitation of the body; the spaces in which human rights are affirmed, denied, and blurred; and the changing times which circulate differing notions of human rights. The ‘apparatus’ operates upon the body, cutting the words of the punishment into the skin: ‘HONOR THY SUPERIORS’. The body becomes a space through which the law is exercised: the word is quite literally made flesh. So what of human rights? It is easy to associate human rights with immaterial, abstract ideas. After all, they are not ‘things’ in the way an arm or a leg is. Yet it is with the body that human rights began. And so it is with the body that our discussion of human rights must begin. Human rights arise out of an exploitation, abuse, or imprisonment of the body. The
exploitation of the proletariat was the exploitation of their bodies, through labour, for the products of their labour. The exploitation of slaves was the exploitation of their bodies, through labour, for the products of their labour. The exploitation of the earth was the exploitation of her body, through labour, for the products of her labour. Again, we find it was with the body that women had been exploited, through rape, childbirth, and even the hypotheses of ‘modern’ science. If a woman got pregnant, it was generally
It was with exploitation, political opposition, and tensions that human rights began... during certain times, human rights do not even exist thought it was because she had enjoyed herself during the rape even up until the 18th century. Additionally, it was also only until the 18th century that rape became a violation of a person, where previously it had been a violation of (the father’s, the husband’s) property. So we begin with the body, but also with exploitation. It is easy to associate human rights
not just with ideas, but with the optimistic, progressive force of liberal democracy. Yet it was with exploitation, political opposition, and tensions that human rights began. Moving back to ‘The Penal Colony’ we encounter a shift in punishment. The machine is labelled as inhumane, and the old custodian, shamed by such an act, straps himself inside the machine. It malfunctions, and executes him violently. The new Commandment’s interest in forms of punishment are those of which are (arguably) more humane. This marks a shift in human rights in a space that history had previously denied them: the space of imprisonment, discipline and punishment. My focus is not on the shift in how punishment was exercised, but rather on the spaces in which human rights are excluded. After all, like anything, human rights occupy a specific time and space. Thus under what conditions, in what spaces, at what times, are human rights suspended? Human rights ideally would exist under all conditions. Yet we know from our use of water-boarding, and from the war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, that during certain times, human rights do not exist. If the time is war, then the space is conflict zones. By conflict zones, I mean not merely the jungles and the mountains, but government offices, airports and the streets observed by CCTV. This is not
the zahir | volume 6 | issue 1 to say that human rights are naive, ideal, and impossible. It is to say they are permitted to exist only under certain conditions, at certain times, in certain places. A related issue arises concerning the securing of human rights in legislation. Laws are good guarantees to ensure a course of action is followed under normal conditions. However, laws dissolve in the grey times and spaces detailed above. Thus we must not see human rights as secured by law, especially when our own government breaks these laws. Furthermore, the history of human rights demonstrates clearly that human rights and legislation have not gone hand in hand. Laws in the past have been established to prevent human rights, as opposed to endorse them. The laws concerning the rape of a woman, detailed above, are one such example. Therefore laws are sometimes wholly inadequate ways of ensuring that rights are secured. Rather, if we wish to guarantee the rights of human beings, there are ways outside of legislation to establish this. Reli-
gious morality has served this function in the past through an ideological mechanism, as opposed to a legislative one. Thus in the future there may be other means to ensure that human rights are maintained. Green technology, fair trade food and free range food are three such examples, all a fusion of technological,
It is only by understanding the history of human rights as arising from periods of great tension that we can understand their present form today economic and moral mechanisms, securing the rights of the Earth, workers and animals respectively. These innovative ‘apparatus’ are far more ‘remarkable’ than that of simple legislation. Kafka’s short story ends with
feature a gravestone hidden under a table. The gravestone marks the grave of the old Commandment. This Commandment was the overseer of the camp under the old regime of punishment through material means: the ‘apparatus’. If the old regime was dead and buried, its place is still marked, however hidden, by a gravestone. This serves as a spectral reminder of the past. It is only by understanding the history of human rights as arising from an exploitation of the body, during periods of great tension, that we can understand their present form today. But likewise, the times and spaces of human rights, as of yet, are still vulnerable, still exposed to periods of war and conflict; places of instability and tension. If we are to truly work towards establishing human rights, we must understand how imperfect our current, legislative guarantees are. Hopefully by establishing new mechanisms outside the sphere of legislation, the future will look back upon our present, as past: a second gravestone.
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What does every individual deserve? Christian Drury weighs the cost of rights
hat does every individual deserve? What is every person worth? The idea of fundamental “human rights” is one that invites much debate. Human rights can be seen as essential values that are a basic entitlement for all or a luxury for a privileged few in stable democracies that are able to enshrine them. A useful definition comes from the United Nations, whose Universal Declaration of Human Rights perhaps provides the most concise but
significantly improve the lives of an oppressed minority, can we justify the use of force, and therefore the contradiction of the non-violent texture of human rights, to do so? This is the crux of the matter. The current conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a classic case of this humanitarian dilemma: if
complete overview. They cover most potential sources of conflict and oppression, from the prevention of slavery to the right to free education at an elementary level. We shall take these as our definition, and propose that they should be respected and implemented globally. However, questions are raised: can the use of violence to bring about greater equality and freedom be justified? Is this morally preferable than a peaceful protest that has only symbolic significance and has little impact on the status quo? These are questions we must ask ourselves, and attempt to answer, before we attempt to proselytise our liberal secularism and all the securities it brings. Whilst we recognise the importance of rights and freedoms, we must also guard against using them as justifications for more base actions and ignoring abuses for our own convenience. The question of violence only arises when there is a significant, hostile threat to an attempt to introduce liberty. Ultimately, a regime or group who are abusing freedoms are likely to hold little regard for those attempting to protect the abused. It is difficult to introduce what we regard as basic rights into a region that may see these ideas as alien or dangerously permissive. But if we believe such rights will
winning the war is crucial to improve the rights of women and others oppressed under Islamic law, can the deaths of civilians – the callous “collateral damage” - be justified? There are historical parallels in other conflicts with similar ambiguous results. The war in Iraq released the country from the dictatorial grip of Saddam Hussein, but resulted in devastating sectarian violence. There were numerous cases in the Cold War, such as the Vietnam or Korean wars, where America prevented socialist governments or guerrillas from taking control, theoretically preventing dictatorship, but at a huge cost to the nations involve. Ultimately it comes down to nations’ and ideologies’ perceptions of themselves. If America views itself as the “world’s policeman”, it will consider military intervention in undemocratic states to be justified. It believes in a fundamental responsibility to encourage human rights around the world. For a state that sees itself in such a role, the ends justify the means and
the introduction of liberties is worth bloodshed. Here we begin to drift into dogma – the idea of human rights as ideology. This is dangerous, discrediting the notions of fairness and damaging attempts to help the vulnerable. An unsympathetic group is far more likely to accept change to their system if is presented as a practical alternative, rather than as an extension of the neo-liberal “End of History”. A sense of perspective is necessary for
effective progress to be made. Ideas that are preached are discredited, and human rights must be suggested rather than forced upon people with significant differences to ourselves. Similarly, those who claim to be encouraging liberty often use of noble ideas to camouflage more base motives. Numerous recent conflicts have been fought in recent years masquerading as fights for rights. The war in Iraq was allegedly to remove Saddam and liberate the Iraqi people; others have claimed it was about oil, the Bush family’s unfinished business and a frustration about failure to defeat al-Qaida. Similarly, in Afghanistan, it was claimed that invasion was necessary to improve rights by overthrowing the Taliban, whereas it was more likely that the Bush administration felt they needed to be seen to act in retaliation to the September 11th attacks, as well as a personal desire to do so. Claiming to be defeating those who committed such atrocities gave them an excuse for gaining control of a strategically important nation and progress in the so-called “war against drugs”. But this is not simply a military phenomenon – economic organisations such as the IMF also claim to be spreading rights and democracy, whilst in reality forcing extreme free market ideology on countries
the zahir | volume 6 | issue 1 that are often too desperate to resist. Equally dubious is the convenient hypocrisy of those who espouse freedoms. The abuses of many governments can be overlooked by those who attempt to prevent them in other regions. A good example would be Israelâ€™s continual disregard for international law regarding settlements in the West Bank, as well as alleged war crimes in a number of conflicts, most recently during the invasion of Gaza in January 2009. If any other country in the region were to behave in such a way, the demand for intervention by Western forces would be huge. However, the complex politics of the region ensure that Israel is not accountable and not equal before the law of the world policeman. Economic interests play a part as well: William Hague recently sought a trade agreement with Sudan, a country whose leader, Omar al-Bashir, is an indicted war criminal, but controls plentiful supplies of untapped natural resources. Such duplicity by those who claim to support liberties only acts to discredit the ideas themselves. However, there would appear to be another way. Aid agencies, charities and pressure groups such as Amnesty International all seek to improve the lives of millions of people around the world, without the compromises in-
Is charitable action the way forward? evitably made by nations and MNCs. There are popular protests â€“ strikes, marches, boycotts - across the globe every day. Perhaps popular and charitable action is the way forward? Whilst it appears virtuous, there are a number of issues we must address. Firstly, there is a limit to what can be achieved by simple protest. Groups such as Amnesty work through moral pressure, but this rarely means much to an oppressive regime. Few actual gains can be made through this tech-
Human rights must be suggested rather than forced upon people
feature nique â€“ whilst there is not the damage of an invasion, there is also little change. To reform a totalitarian regime without active intervention requires reform from. In the late 1980s, Gorbachev was able to use his power to change the Soviet Union and release the Eastern Bloc, but such incidences cannot be relied upon. Therefore protest and charity often fail to secure the material and social improvements required. Furthermore, they can be criticised as simple vanity projects, as those who are secure and protected attempt to salve their consciences without genuinely helping. I personally find the idea that charity is a selfish act to be a repugnant myth, generated to help those too cruel to contribute find some consolation. The issue of human rights is a hugely difficult one to tackle: we must recognise their importance without drifting into dogmatic ideology; we must actively tackle the issues facing millions of people without creating misery for others in doing so; we must we must recognise the ends do not always justify the means. We must find a balance, recognising we cannot always hope for a perfect world, but striving to achieve as much as we can through legitimate methods.
Is violence justified?
the zahir | volume 6 | issue 1 Also in this section: 11 Isabelle James on engagment, 12 Nanki Chawla on intrusion & 13 Nicki Markides on unrest
Rights Deficit Lizzie Dearden asks if our human rights will be cut along with the budget
he Universal Declaration of Human rights was made by the United Nations in 1948 in the wake of the atrocities committed during the Second World War. It aimed to form an international standard to encourage countries to ensure basic rights and freedoms for their citizens. It was adopted by the UK immediately and has since underpinned much of our legislation and welfare provision. But more than sixty years on, the Con-Dem coalition’s proposed budget cuts threaten to undermine the rights and freedoms defended by the declaration. Some of the largest cuts are being made in the Work and Pensions department, which handles most of the country’s welfare provision. £18 billion of savings will be made over the coming years by cutting several core initiatives. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that; ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.’ But how will this security be assured with time limits on Employment Support Allowance, which maintains disabled or incapacitated individuals who are unable to work? How can all men and women be expected to be fit and able to work until the new retirement age of 65? How can local councils ensure the wellbeing of vulnerable residents when their benefit budgets are being cut by 10%? The cuts and limits being implemented across the board, from housing benefit to working tax credits and child benefit, will reduce the standard of living of not just the most vulnerable members of society, but all of us. The right to access higher education was also defended by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article
26 states that ‘everyone has the right to education…higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.’ If the raise in tuition fees to £9,000 a year and the scrapping of Education Maintenance Allowance goes ahead, it looks like more a case of ‘higher education shall be equally accessible to all who can afford it.” Promising students from Just For Men targets only the grey, low income families will in 5 easy minutes be cut out from further education with the slashing of EMA. Those who key rights defended by The Universal manage to complete A levels and apply Declaration of Human Rights is that to university may be prevented from of living in a democracy. Crucially, arcompleting their degree because of the ticle 21 states that ‘the will of the peoextortionate fees. All graduates will be ple shall be the basis of the authority faced with crippling debts. The govern- of government’. As citizens of the Unitment’s claim that students from low- ed Kingdom, we live under a system income households will be protected of representative democracy, where by their reformed grant systems is fu- Members of Parliament are elected in tile. Even with the addition of the new free elections to act as representatives National Scholarships Programme, the of their constituency. Recent debates support for poorer students will still be over voting reform have already highfar less than what is currently available. lighted the flaws of our current voting All this, combined with the reduction system. First Past the Post creates a of university funding by £449 million, frighteningly disproportionate ratio paints a bleak picture of the future of between votes cast and seats won. In higher education. The United Nations’ the 2010 General Election, the Liberal ‘basis of merit’ will be sacrificed to fill Democrats, for example, won 23% of the gaping void of the budget deficit. the vote, but less than 9% of seats. All The Arts Council is also facing severe the votes for losing candidates were cuts in its budget. £19 million of fund- discounted, amounting to 15.7 million ing will be withdrawn, affecting educa- wasted votes. With a relation between tional, local and national groups such the electorate’s vote and the formation as The Royal Shakespeare Company of government this poor, how can it and York Theatre Royal. The impact of claim to be based on the will of the peothese cuts may seem insignificant com- ple? The current coalition government pared to those in other departments, has an even more questionable manbut access to the arts is another area date, having been formed without even protected by the Declaration: “Every- a referendum to gauge public opinion. one has the right freely to participate The Universal Declaration of Human in the cultural life of the community, to Rights might be dated, but it still forms enjoy the arts…” (Article 27). The cuts a vital benchmark to judge progress in will reduce opportunities to participate, welfare and standards of living. And if as well as raising the cost to attend lo- the United Kingdom is facing the incal and national theatre performances. fringement of the basic human rights People will still have the right to enjoy laid down over sixty years ago, we must ‘the cultural life of the community’, but question why this is and if it is necesaffording it is another matter. sary. Our rights and freedoms are beJustification of the cuts is usually ing impinged by a government that based on the assertion that they are was formed without our consent. The needed to counteract the UK’s huge budget cuts are not only damaging in deficit, or that we voted this govern- themselves, but represent the failure of ment into power and must accept their democracy in this country. They must actions. But is this the case? One of the be fought.
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‘NUS Said? Guy Wilson stands up for The Man
aking inspiration from our Student Activities officer, Business Secretary Vince Cable has been taking on the power of the media. Over the past fifteen years, the Lib Dems have strongly criticised the cosy nature of Labour’s relationship with the business elite, such as media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Attempts by Murdoch’s News Corp to buy a controlling stake in Sky, and potentially threaten competition in UK media has been challenged by Cable, who has referred them to Ofcom. This is minor test of our new political experiment. Challenging big business, fighting for civil liberties and promoting green issues are issues the Liberal Democrats are keen to hold up as areas in which they’ve successfully fought to bring a splash of yellow to the coalition. Unfortunately it seems any attempts to claim liberal victories in government are set to be overshadowed in the minds of students by the explosion of anger concerning higher education (HE) reform. While the 50,000 ‘Demolition’ protesters are only a small proportion of the 1.5 million student population, they claim to represent the deep sense of betrayal felt by students. Most of this anger has been directed towards the headline grabbing potential £9000 a year fees. There has been irresponsible political manipulation to try and blind future students with this headline figure, conjuring fear of a mountain of debt. In reality, this is ‘good debt,’ with a highly progressive repayment system, which would see graduates on £25,000 repaying just £30 a month, and those on under £21,000 paying nothing. It is simply misguided to try and present tuition fee debt as an unfair physical barrier to university entry or as reducing access for those from low-income backgrounds. Tuition fees are objectively the fairest way for students to pay for their university education. Since forming, the Lib Dems have been criticised for their left-field policies and for offering us the moon. Its certainly naïve to be surprised when it turns out they’re actually selling it to
us in overpriced acre lots. That isn’t to say students, and the wider population, shouldn’t be angry, or that the Liberal Democrats haven’t let them down. Its just that the current criticism of HE reform misses the point.
© Steve Punter Business Secretary Monty Burns
All three major parties are in agreement over the principal, talked about extensively in the Browne Report, of making university education more ‘sustainable.’ This is a euphemism for cutting public funding for university education, something started by the last government and continuing under the coalition. The Comprehensive Spending Review’s section on education gives figures for extra spending on scientific research and other projects but cheekily avoids spelling out cuts for higher education. In truth as much as £5 billion of the roughly £13 billion of higher education funding is likely to be cut, with the remaining money targeted at those degrees with the greatest public good, such as medicine and the sciences. This, along with talk of consumer choice, and a competitive university sector is part of worrying shift towards regarding HE as simply being a marketplace. The Browne Report is quite right to point out that the economic benefit of higher education is greater for the individual than the public.
The benefits of a degree to society, and the individual, go far beyond the economic. HE is a luxury, but one which is an essential part of building a fairer, more democratic society. Whether students study John Rawls, Henri Poincaré or Bret Easton Ellis they collectively contribute to a more creative, conscientious and freer society. Reducing a degree into simply being an investment for students is also likely to mean that worthwhile but stigmatised courses such as sociology will struggle to attract candidates. I’m a card-carrying Lib Dem. I really want to believe that this coalition will work, and deliver a fairer society. We should of course realise the Lib Dems are the junior partner and have to be pragmatic. Manifesto commitments have inevitably had to be compromised on by the Lib Dems more than the Conservatives. Yet, six months into government, the Lib Dems have fallen far short of their guiding liberal principles. Nick Clegg’s never been a true believer in free higher education and it was clearly dishonest of him to sign the pre-election pledge to scrap fees, given that he knew it was something he would likely have to drop, if in coalition with either Labour or the Tories. Clegg’s argument that the deficit problem means HE spending must be cut doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. We currently spend about 0.7% of GDP on HE, less than the US does. The changes proposed by the Browne Review wont even come into effect until after the deficit reduction plan has been realised. The amount that the new system will save has also been reported as having been overestimated. It’s not just education. The cuts to housing support, an inequitable budget, watered down electoral reform and limited action on the environment are all major failures to deliver fairness and realise liberal policy. Compromise is important, but these all seem to be a compromise too far. God knows we all hate the Tories, and Labour certainly can’t claim the moral high-ground, but right now, I’m not sure even Nick agrees with Nick.
the zahir | volume 6 | issue 1
“I don’t care about Burma”
n our modern ‘Broken Britain’ do we really have time to think about the worries of countries that don’t affect us? On the Amnesty International Burma protest in Hull, this seemed to be the exact feeling of a large number of passersby. When asking, “Do you want to save the people of Burma?” protesters were met with hostility and apathy, do we really care this little? From January to March of this year, according to <communities.gov.uk> there were 9,590 people in need of homelessness benefit, less than the year before yet still a huge figure. With new cuts announced this season, the figure of unemployment is set to rise; benefits will be cut and people able to find less support, so surely our responsibilities lie in our home region. Britain is in a huge amount of debt, so how can we lend? The real issue, however, for me is that: sure, we are in debt, many people in the UK are not able to enjoy the same levels of rights and opportunities, yet we still have freedom of speech and we still elected this government. In Burma, the people live under severe military oppression, cannot vote to change it and cannot even discuss their position with others as meetings are banned. In fact, most of the freedoms we accept as our right are banned. Youth activists are imprisoned; for example Khun Bedu, only 26 years old, has been sentenced to 37 years in Taungoo prison for his membership of KGNY – an opposition group. We live, especially at University in the UK, with great privileges of knowledge that these people in Burma will never have access to under their present control. Everyone should have the right to education, everyone should have the right to express their opinions. Yet in Burma, thousands of books on the state of other countries are banned, as are books on politics. It is crazy to think that people still live in this state when we feel so far from
Isabelle James stands up for the disaffected youth that in the world we live in now. On the protest, students handed out information in Hull city centre and marched on the Humber Bridge, trying to spread knowledge of the Burma situation and gain names for
Everyone should have the right to education, everyone should have the right to express their opinions
a petition. Surprisingly, most signatures came from young people, where the older generations snubbed protesters, teenagers came up, were interested, pledged their support, yet it is often seen in the media of our day that the youth are the inactive and the selfish. The main problem, for me, is our consumerism culture. When people approach you in the street, we have all done it, smiled politely, walked off – because we think we are being sold something. Fair enough, something needs to change. However, when asking people if they wanted to free unjustly imprisoned people and receiving the answer “I don’t care about Burma” or “We’ve got enough of our own problems in Britain” from people in the street, something needs to be done. Are those out there dismissing other countries’ problems in favour of ours at home even helping the British situation? And do most young people have a chance to hear about the states of affairs further afield? Something needs to change, awareness needs to be spread so that this younger generation that we are a part of can realise the problems faced by others everyday that we see only as history. Schools and Universities are the perfect places for this. In PSHE – a subject being cut more from schools every year – why can children not learn about the state of countries such as Burma? If more people knew, and could simply scribble their signature on a petition, the lives of thousands could be changed. We need to look beyond our own lives and think of what is to come in the next generation. We need more education and enthusiasm in order to cease suffering. Stand up and support Burma, by visiting the Amnesty International website, you can do your part by sending radios to Burma. Help the people feel supported, help them find their freedom.
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Orwell that ends well? Nanki Chawla considers whether the surveillance state has gone too far
eorge Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, depicting a British society that is controlled closely by the government under 24-hour surveillance and is in a state of perpetual warfare. He coined the concepts of “newspeak”, where language has no nuances, “thoughtcrime”, where even certain thoughts are illegal, and “Big Brother” which has been popularised by the eponymous TV show. Most people who have read Nineteen Eighty-Four consider it dystopian fiction, a far cry from real world society, and an exaggerated metaphor to remind the world of totalitarianism. Its satirical look at British society is in Orwell’s own words a reminder “that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”1 The UK, along with the European Union, the United States, Australia and Canada, are considered paragons of democracy. They are the countries that make up the “Western World” that other countries aspire to and model themselves on. As citizens of one of these countries, we are free. In opposition to the world’s “free” countries, we have a new “Eastern bloc” which is considered to repress and restrict their populations. The freedom to express yourself is paramount and the internet has changed the way we do so. It has become possible to share our thoughts in an inordinate number of ways, receive commentary and still be able to defend them. The internet is a literal debating ground. But, is this enough? The Wikileaks revealing the true nature of the war in Iraq seems to be proof enough of what has and always will be hidden to the general public. The release of “detainees” (not “inmates” or “prisoners”) from Guantanamo Bay doesn’t nullify the torture of “detainees” in those prison
camps in the heart of Afghanistan that haven’t yet been discovered by the media. Recent acts of repression in the UK post the NUS protest such as the closure of the Fitwatch website and an anti-police blog are without question a violation of basic human rights. The way that information is now shared means that it is difficult to keep track on everything posted on the internet; information is not always correctly sourced and often factually incorrect, however, the citizens of any free country still have a right to their say, on the internet or otherwise. This freedom of expression is however consistently undermined through our way of life in a country that captures every individual on CCTV as many as three hundred times a day. 10% (2.5m) of the world’s CCTV cameras are in the UK; this is as many as 1 for every 14 people. The lack of uniformity in the density of cameras around the UK clearly makes this statistic questionable, however, in a country which hosts 61 million, a mere 0.8% of the world’s population, this is still troubling. Although CCTV hasn’t yet extended to the private sphere, it seems this move is not far off. The advent of nanny and spy cameras, readily available, and made use of in reality TV (even those as seemingly harmless as What Not to Wear) seems to be a move in the wrong direction. Google maps’ “street view” is already causing concern in parts of the world, and the FCC is investigating Google for a major breach of privacy. A pervasive, 360° camera allows people access to much of Europe, Northern America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Several countries have refused street view, constricting Google’s ability to show residents homes. The convenience of street view is not in question, however the breach of privacy that it perpetuates as normal is worrying. According to Article 8 of the European convention on Human Rights, a public body’s interference in private life must be explicitly explained and in the interests of the vast majority. A well-educated and informed public should not be comfortable
with 24-hour surveillance. If the UK has spent £500m of the public’s money on CCTV cameras and fewer than 1 in 1000 cameras has helped prevent crime, their argument falls flat. We are patronisingly told: CCTV is merely “for your own good”, a failsafe method of preventing crime and yet the difficulty for the public to gain access to CCTV footage and the lack of real statistics proving its effectiveness make it seem like a voyeuristic social exercise, designed to slowly leech away the freedom that makes the UK a democratic country. The lack of regulation imposed upon this footage is also troubling. Although new legislation has been recommended, it has yet to be formalised, meaning that those monitoring CCTV footage work largely unmonitored: Authorities such as local councils are free to install CCTV systems in town centres and other public places (such as residential estates) without prior approval from central government or the permission of residents. Although new legislation is coming into being, the public should be aware of the current state of affairs allowing unchecked monitoring of vast expanses of the UK. This article does not deny the many countries around the world where human rights violations are rampant, where the public does not have a say and the phrase “Orwellian state” may be better suited. However, the technology and resources at the UK’s disposal means that the beginnings of a police state are not just a possibility, but a distinct reality. The references to Nineteen Eighty-Four are frequent in this context but are they finally justified? 61 years after Orwell’s conceptualisation of a British police state, mass surveillance is in place. Big Brother is now CCTV, Guantanamo Bay replaces the “Ministry of Love” and the notion of ‘national security’ has resulted in the materialisation of an Electronic Police State. 1 - 1. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Volume 4 - In Front of Your Nose 1945–1950. p.546 (Penguin)
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Demolition: Disappointment or Triumph? Nicki Markides offers her thoughts on the tuition fees protest
s most of you will know on the 10th of November 52,000 students demonstrated in London over the proposed cuts to university funding. This is the biggest student demonstration in decades, a clear sign that the apathy students have so frequently been accused of is finally lifting and we are willing to stand up and fight for causes that we believe in. This is something that the country should be proud of, we have finally got back, in part, the power of youth and idealism that previous generations took for granted. Yet, sadly, the main thing that the media had to say about these protesters is to comment on the fact that out of those thousands, a few hundred protesters stormed Millbank, the Conservative Headquarters, destroying the lobby, and then holding fort on the roof of the building. These protesters were undeniably, violent and unnecessarily destructive in their actions, with one nearly killing police officers by throwing a fire extinguisher off the roof. Yet surely the fact that so few people took part suggests that the media is wrong to pay such attention to their actions, almost to the exclusion of the rest of the protest. The violent protesters definitely make
better news, and I do not deny that their actions need to be reported, but by focusing so heavily on the destruction that they caused the media completely overlooks the tens of thousands of people who protested peacefully about a cause that they believed in. I will say here that I consider myself a liberal in political terms, and so you will have to excuse any bias, but I expected tabloids and more right wing papers to make the most of the violence to try and undermine what would otherwise have been a vast amount of student pressure to stop the proposed cuts to funding. It was much more disappointing to see other, supposedly more liberal papers, follow suit and similarly focus on the violent actions of a few. It seems to me very sad that the media is now more interested in the more ‘exciting and controversial’ stories then relaying to the general populace the fact that 52,000 people showed up to a demonstration. Nevertheless, it does seem that the branding of the demonstration as ‘Demolition’ was unfortunate. It could be said that it was inevitable that the demonstration was to end in violence. After all the branding could well have incited the kind of violence which occurred, particularly after protesters had
been riled up by chants and by being within a crowd of so many similarly like minded and angry people. Perhaps the yellow and black colours and chants of ‘demolition’ could have been better thought out. Though, even if NUS had been more wary of such angry branding, can they really be blamed for the actions of a few hundred anarchists who helped to undermine the power of the protests almost as much as the media’s portrayal of it as the mindless, drunken violence of angry students? Despite all of these problems with the demonstration I do feel that taking part in it is one of my proudest achievements as a student. I have stood up for what I believe in and registered my disapproval and disillusionment with the government along with thousands of others, and have tried in even the smallest way to make life fairer for future generations. Whether anything comes from these demonstrations is something that I prefer not to think about, yet the fact that English students, an apathetic lot for the most part, (and as I am one I feel that it is fair for me to say that) have finally taken the opportunity to make their opinions heard and I can only hope that they continue to do so in the future.
Angry students burn their own signs for some reason
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Also in this section: 15 Sophie Rundel on accurate reflection, 17 Isobel Cowper-Coles on proverbial delectability
Harriet Evans sheds light on a change of opinion
remember opening my reading list last year and not being happy. It was the summer before I was due to start at York and I was intrigued to see which books I would have to read for my first module. I remember reading the name: Virginia Woolf, there in black and white. I remember the sinking feeling. You see, I always had a thing against Virginia Woolf. I don’t know why: maybe I thought she’d be boring. Maybe I thought her feminism would annoy me – for, of course, what ill-informed eighteen yearold doesn’t know Virginia Woolf is a stuffy uber-feminist who writes boring novels about dinner parties? For whatever reason, I had vowed never to read a novel written by Virginia Woolf. I’m going to be blunt. When I read Mrs Dalloway last year, I hated it. It was everything I had feared it would be – and worse, it was hideously inaccessible. I thought some of Woolf’s ideas were clever, even interesting, but they were overwhelmed by the suffocating swamp of her style. Each time I thought I had found something really intriguing, I could only hold onto it for a short moment before it was tugged out of my grasp and replaced by something about
London traffic or table settings. Yet between first term and third term, something changed. This term, I had to read Virginia Woolf again. This term, I like it! I started my Woolf this year by reading her essay on women and fiction, ‘A Room of One’s Own’. I’m not going to say I loved it because I’m a woman. I’m not even going to say I loved it because I am a female writer – there is nothing in Woolf’s text that is, in my opinion, highly surprising or overly original. It’s her way of writing – her style that so annoyed me in Mrs Dalloway – that has won me over. Her phrasing was beautiful; her wit charming: and I was lost. But why the sudden change? How could I go from hating Woolf to loving her? To The Lighthouse is now a work of art that I just can’t get enough of. It can’t be the change of texts; it can’t be that Mrs Dalloway is hard and To The Lighthouse isn’t, because I read To The Lighthouse a few years ago in Lower School and absolutely detested it. Why was I being made to read this, I had asked, when there were so many better “classic” works out there (like Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo – I was a cool child)? So, I must have changed, and thinking about it, I have. I am no longer the girl I was last year and I’m cer-
tainly not the narrow-minded fourteen year-old I had been. I’m a fairly seasoned student of English Literature – I’ve read things I never thought I would: my eyes have been opened to aspects of literature that I never would have considered before. But I’ve also lived a year since my last encounter with Woolf. Back in my first year I was a fresh-faced secondary school graduate coming straight from a sheltered upbringing to the big wide(r) world of university. I’d worked myself hard to get here and was consequently rather in the red when it came to the “bank” of life experience. All this changed when I got to university. I was able to do what I liked, when I liked: I was young and free and loving it. But I also gathered increasing amounts of responsibilities. I had commitments other than work deadlines and I had no one to make excuses for me. I had to juggle degree work with looking after myself; society meetings with seizing every opportunity to make new friends. I had to carve out a life and identity for myself. And I think this has impacted my reading of Woolf. I have matured; I am stronger; and most importantly I have begun to live. And Woolf writes about life. Or maybe, after Ulysses, anything is easy to read!
the zahir | volume 6 | issue 1
The Workroom Sophie Rundel on honest depiction
his September, at RADA, they told us our first third year show would be a play called ‘The Workroom’ - set in post-Second World War Paris about a group of seamstresses trying to get on with their lives in the aftermath of the war. Cue the silent groans and rolling eyes. It sounded exactly the kind of thing a drama school would put on. Surely, there would be tea dresses, hammy accents, survivor spirit and somewhere along the line we’d probably either forget to deal with what happened in France in WW2, or we’d over compensate for it in a moment of forced poignancy at the end. Surely? I was suffering from my own prejudices about ‘Second World War Plays’. Of course some of the most beautiful writing has tackled this subject matter in the theatre – Sebastian Faulks’s novel ‘Birdsong’ has recently transferred to the West End to much critical acclaim. No one can deny how moving Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Warhorse’ on Drury Lane has proved or the lasting appeal of Peter
Whelan’s ‘Accrington Pals’. When done properly, we are reminded why the theatre has endured for thousands of years - to help us communicate, explore and understand our own actions. But when done cheaply and unintelligently, the most extraordinary stories or passages of history can be undermined and turned in to easy entertainment fodder. This play deals with the holocaust, and that was not something we were prepared to whis-
The women rarely even acknowledge the loudening whispers of what actually happened to the deported Jews. They simply carry on, as so many did
per ashamedly from upstage right. ‘The Workroom’ was originally written by Jean Claude Grumberg in the early 1960s but lay dormant (other than a few half hearted revivals) in the British Library until our director Richard Beecham pulled it out and gave it a new lease of life with a translation by the brilliant Amy Rosenthal. The play centres around a small workshop producing hand stitched jackets in a far flung arrondissement of Paris between 1945 and 1952. The owner, Leon, a French Jew, had survived the occupation in hiding. His trauma at his self confinement slowly eats away at him and his wife over the course of the play. The seamstresses that he employs are a group of French women – some older and some younger, including my character, Mimi. Her young adolescent years had been spent in a time of occupation, restrictions and uncertainty and so, unlike the older generation, she is to be found making up for lost time by delightedly chasing the American soldiers through the dance halls of newly liberated Paris. So while
Women survivors in the barracks at Birkenau
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their common ground is only in their work, the years go by and Grumberg weaves a delicate story where banter and teasing only really betray a deep friendship. The women rarely even acknowledge the loudening whispers of what actually happened to the deported Jews. They simply carry on, as so many did, unaware through ignorance or choice of what had become of these millions of missing people. I often find it difficult to really grasp a script when I’m reading it silently on a busy tube or a packed bus, so I prefer to get it on its feet as soon as possible. Most good playwrights are so, because their observation of the intricacies of conversation only makes sense when you lift it off the page (and hurrah! So the need for actors came about!). Particularly in Amy Rosenthal’s adaptation, the individual speech patterns, interruptions and continually shifting subject matters made absolute sense when we spoke it aloud. Rosenthal and Grumberg had landed upon something very true and recognisable in their natural prose and dialogue. Indeed as we rehearsed, I found that the bonds of our characters were strengthening as the bonds of us as actors strengthened. There was one wonderful moment about 3 weeks in to the rehearsal process where we had taken it upon ourselves to go for a few Friday night drinks together (research, naturally) and had found ourselves in a row of toilet cubicles continuing our loud and giggly conversation from the bar. We were five women on a normal night out but in that moment I realised we could have been our five characters or any other five women in any country.
‘Why are they lying? Why not put the truth? Why not put ‘thrown alive into the flames?’ There is something intangible about a female friendship that doesn’t differ whether you are in one corner of the world or another. It’s these bonds that see us through our day to day, our good and bad times. It became clear that Grumberg, who had watched his own mother and her friends in workrooms throughout Paris, had hit upon something very recognisable when he wrote down their seemingly inconsequential daily interactions. It was only after we realised quite how accurate the banter between these five characters was, that we realised how Grumberg had meant to deal with the painful subject of the Holocaust. Leon’s wife, Helene, becomes increasingly obsessed with the truth of what happened to the deportees (in the play her own sister was sent to Dachau in 1943). Her mounting hysteria over the course of the play is painfully uninformed. She makes wild guesses and recites figures and statistics, but, as an audience member with the terrible burden of hindsight, we can only watch as the monstrosity of what happened becomes
clear. Her frustration at everybody’s willingness to forget is paramount when she screams at her husband: ‘No one will acknowledge it with their official stamps and signatures! But if no one went there, no one got on all those trains, no one was gassed, if they all just happened to die – who’s going to remember them Leon? Why are they lying? Why not put the truth? Why not put ‘thrown alive in to the flames’? Why not?!’ Ultimately this play was saved from being ‘just another holocaust piece’ by the humanity that it shows so well. The scenes with the women are interspersed by Helene and Leon’s crumbling marriage so that neither storyline becomes too much. What we realise is that as a twenty first century audience, the statistics and figures and images of war are so fundamental to our knowledge of the Holocaust that it is easy to forget the confusion, fear and shame that took so long to come to any resolution at all. These were ordinary people living in the aftermath of an extraordinary time in human history. So in our play there were no flashy effects, no stirring waves of music, no sombre lighting or theatrical tricks. We did a simple job - we told an honest story about real people. What we discovered is that the horrors of war didn’t need a spotlight, because they already seeped through subtly but powerfully into the everyday of everyone. I now realise even more the importance of intelligent, highly skilled theatre – to help us remember the consequences of our actions. In other more eloquent words - Lest we forget.
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Delicious proverbs Isobel Cowper-Coles samples some proverbial delights
f it weren’t for Henry V, we would all be speaking French. Well, that’s not strictly true, but we do have him to thank for making English our official language, after a couple of centuries of a bilingual England. Yet it was still an unregulated, unstandardised language, where two different spellings of the same word on the same page was not uncommon. Due to the efforts of the central administrative powers and various dictionaries we now speak a roughly similar language in all parts of the country. But our language has not simply evolved, it’s been pushed and pulled around, and had French and Danes exert their influence upon it. Today, its most serious threat is Facebook and Twitter, whose users seem determined not to use any sort of Standard English. However, there is one element of English which is becoming increasingly forgotten in our modern society, yet has survived many centuries pretty much intact. Proverbs. For me, they conjure up a picture of my grandmother sitting in her rocking chair saying ‘it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good’. They are becoming increasingly rare in an everyday speech that is dominated by lingo to accommodate the many new technological advances. Yet when examined, these ancient sayings tell us much about our
A goose ancestors and how they lived. David Sutton of the University of Reading has made a study of British food proverbs, and found that they often reflect the medieval tastes of the poor. For example, there is a deep suspicion of wine in our proverbs which may go back to the Norman conquest of 1066, wine being associated with our French invaders. Hence: ‘Wine is a turncoat- first a friend and then an enemy’. We can also find sayings which downplay the pleasures of red meat, as it was an expensive commodity and so rarely eaten by the poor. ‘Whoso eats dry bread with pleasure needs no meat’, or ‘It is better to want meat than guests or company’, implying
that it is no hardship to go without red meat. Instead herring, goose and flounder were an integral part of their diet, with many now forgotten sayings such as ‘it is a sorry goose that will not baste itself’ or ‘to steal a goose and give the giblets in alms’ showing this. But of course English is not the only language with proverbs. They exist in many other languages and are able to tell us much of their culture and history. In Iran, for example, they have numerous sayings about yogurt. If something is scary you say ‘The yogurt went white’, implying a terror so great that even the yogurt turns paler. The equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack is ‘removing a hair from a bowl of yogurt’. What one can deduce from this is that yogurt has been part of the nations’ diet for hundreds of years. For us British, it is butter that emerges as the most beloved food of our proverbs. It was obviously a great everyday treat for all classes - ‘Fine words butter no parsnips’. ‘Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth’. ‘Bread never falls but on the buttered side’. And some forgotten ones such as ‘Like butter in a black dog’s throat’ and ‘Butter is gold in the morning, silver at noon and lead at night’. Our many butter proverbs are reminiscent of a time when a dab of sweet butter thickly spread on a slice of bread might be as good as it got.
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Creative Deftly welded into a worn crevasse around the centre of the sofa, David began an almost sinisterly rehearsed litany of neglect and self-deprecation to his latest conquest. She posed attentively, legs crossed in a protective, post-coital manner, using unmistakably feminine, flawless hands to iron out his work-creased jeans with a series of unconsciously repeated clammy upward strokes. Behind the rain-stained windowpanes, London sang her lullaby: planes wrestling with gravity from a distant Heathrow. Vague sighs of the motorway sept through Davidâ€™s monologue like a chorus, harmonising his conceited attempts to deliver the speech with at least a few varying degrees of conviction. Devoting the majority of his conscious attention to an examination of the ascent of bubbles behind the malachite glass of his bottle, David interspersed the confession with long, sensual drags on his
Also in this section: 19 poetry by Catherine Bennett and 21 Sania Sajid
Alexander Alison: a short piece of flash fiction
cigarette, allowing the subject to contrapuntally interject an impressive scope of platitudes and euphemism. She was currently devoted to a careful examination of Davidâ€™s arm, fingering the spaces between teenage tattoos and disquietingly impressive worn wounds. David was able to balance the bottle on the flattened base of his abdomen, demonstrating a practice that he imagined would seemingly indicate alcoholism, as opposed to his aspired yogic like state of self control, a talent founded upon years of taking beatings for his mother. David had the scars to prove his past. Memories did not so much sting as throb, he explained. The habit of deny-
ing oneself the reflex to make the standard, spastic motions of self defense (motions which reminded him of almost comically futile attempts at batting out clothes on fire), this was the clearest evidence of an emotionally disrupted youth. David swilled warm beer around his cheeks and teeth, soaking his tongue with a smell he elaborately explained had been the conclusion to almost every night of his youth. With distinct dramatic prowess, he stared into an unmapped middle distance, attempting to look into the air rather than through it. The subject pawed and cooed softly up against him, wrapping herself foetally about his slouched posture. Flicking his butt onto the table top, coated by a tattered, sprawling deck of cards, David surrendered to rest, letting her dominate his less damaged as his eyes glaze over with a sore, aching sleep, drifting between each side of nowhere.
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Catherine Bennett showcases her poetry
The Hoarfrost In memory of Sam Griffiths. The trees were gloved in that wedding-dress white, like Floury fingers after baking. And I had one hand dipped in my scrying bowl, and one Eye on the looking-glass. And I missed the City, and what it used to do, The way it would sigh and lean round distant corners, and sparkle With the glamorous light of New Year’s Eve, and The people with their black gloves and scarves, and their laughter And sideways-conversations, and stepping into the gutter and then, You, steadying my arm. It was as though the whole wide world was steeped In an epic black and white movie sequence, and it was Sacrilege to be moving. The world tipped back in its chair lazily, and looked meanly at us all. The people in the City sighed a little, and sipped their champagne, And teetered off the pavements. I stood immobile in the hoarfrost – I had no right, I had no right to cry. It was June when everything thawed. We became unfrozen, It was like New Year’s Eve again – the people in the City put up again Their lights and danced asymmetrically in the alleys. I put up a sign. I was moving away. I did not want, anymore, to be subject to Casual freezings, or faced with the guilt of motion. So I packed and went To the City, where the only thing cold was the cocktails, and the cat did not mew, Loudly, in the starlight at 11 o’clock. I also did not wake up to the sound of Sheep and their plaintive sonnets of Baa in the mornings. I wanted to find another you in the hot equator of the City roads. To do so, I needed to learn to dance lopsidedly, to learn to talk noisily with my friends, To cover the sounds of the cat. While I was there, I learnt to make other sounds, sounds that were as mournful as The poetry of the farm animals. These sounds happened when all good Sounds should happen – when your frosty breaths are retreating out of your body And into the dark night. Eventually, the City realised that its warmth could not touch my old, hawthorn heart. So I went again, back to the frigid bridleways and the greeting of the animals Every morning, and I learnt that there’s something painful in silence and not moving, Especially when the hoarfrost lies down, tentatively, on Something relatively new, like a gravestone, or a bed-sheet turning stiffly in the Wintry air.
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Talking Hear it, the shout Of love, echoing through my hollow bones that smell of metal, Singing along my bloody passageways. Once, you mentioned the futility of it, Like staring into the sun. I disagreed; It is like climbing a stone wall into a sheep meadow, Like fishing for brown trout and like counting the stars: There is a foreseeable end, a purpose. You brought me back. In this ribbon of a universe, there is no one Who could talk like we talked back then. We jumped over stiles, holding with one hand thin dandelions, Time-clocks. Crumpling flaming-orange leaves in our fat Spider hands in that destructive way that only humans know how. The air was gossamer, so patently transparent it hurt Us to walk through it. Everything had a gilt edge, even your red nose. We were treading paper, talking. Le Lac She curdles there, droplets of pinkish fat and water, wailing upwards. Her milk-white hair looks misplaced on her head, an accidental protrusion, like an injury to a strawdoll. The other one is very quiet. If he could walk, he would pace, would mutter blessings and amens. They feel themselves swaddled by the air, their breath puffing into the corners of the world; screaming that they are wanted.
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creative Sania Sajid A City A city, Lit by fireflies. Adorned by the sky-high billboards And the gushing River Ravi. Freckled with rickshaws on the go, Yet her sanctity remains within the Walls of Badshahi Mosque or the Mausoleum of the saints. Inside Where on the beat of the drums, Body and soul mesh into one. Her shoes festooned with the endless Fields of wheat crops. Bejewelled, by the ambiance Created by the savoury local cuisine. Her flirtatious buses, decked With the finery of ghazal and art. Her comic donkey-driven carts swollen With hay and out-of-tune riders. Her road-side barbers oozing bawdy lyrics And false compliments for the Moustached customers.
Red-light area, the conniving temptress Museum, the historian and the Cinemas, the drama queen, Nurtured by her for decades. Money-salivating franchises her form of rebellion. Kite-makers or the carpenters her Saving grace. Amputated beggars and Dervishes pumps cynicism, yet Schools and colleges exudes wisps of spicy corn And unearthed dreams, Tea shops And cafes injects gaiety to the drama of life Inside of her. Buxom curves of her roads, The elegant gait of her clubs And high society. The Delusions of grandeur her Facade, tradition and culture Her identity. Her love for the Newcomers and adoration for the Age-old amours. She demands Attention and admiration. Once visited, one will fall yet into another Love affair with the city, Lahore.
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A Rickshaw From Home Unblinking, wide eyes, silently observing the idiosyncrasies of the foreign land. Pierced, patrician nose begging to smell the dusty humid air of home once again. The alien cold causing perpetual black snot to whir out against all odds. Freckled, square chin and minuscule ears craning to hear the sweet melodious pitter- patter of Monsoon. The heavily henna tattooed face, busy with intricate floral patterns amalgam of swirling vines and beautifully written ghazals. Gaudily adorned bosom hungry for the explosively spiced cuisine. Heavy set figure boasting the transparency of a hearty appetite, craving the summer fruits taken away by the haggling buyers like a newly acquired concubine. Straight, curtained hair flapping madly in the action, fantasising of heaving another wooden case of exploding tamarind yellow mangoes on the rickety roof waiting to grease the palms of greedy government officials. Blindingly speeding under a sky much Too pale from scant bursts of Sunshine. Embellished with nuances of elegant gait painted in hues of conformity and discipline. Hopelessly failing to blend in with the racy red curves. The leashed pulse throbbing under the false promise of revelling once again underneath the sun drenched merriment of home.
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Also in this section: 24 Josh Allen has Hes opinions
The Writing on the Wall?
here is no doubt we are seeing a ratcheting up of the campaign to save art education in England in the wake of massive cuts in funding announced by the government. Paul Thompson, Rector of London’s Royal College of Art described the cuts as a “sledgehammer”. He is not alone in his views. Other institutions are waking up to the fact that art education in its existing form is likely to be killed off by these cuts. This is not hyperbole. All state subsidy for degree level art in England is being withdrawn. Art is not alone in this predicament, as subsidy will go from all humanities subjects too. But while it is relatively cheap to teach an English or history course, where students can be packed into classrooms, art is space hungry and an art studio is of little use for anything other than teaching art. That alone makes it expensive. To gain a sense of the difference in scale, a room suitable to teach 10 or 15 art students might instead be suitable for 1,000 humanities students across a range of subjects. Two things are likely in the short term. First, we will see many art departments close down. Second, the nature of art education will change. Both of these will be painful adjustments, and they bring us up against an uncomfortable truth, that has to be faced by the art education es-
Michael Paraskos asks if this is the end of art education as we know it tablishment, that on the whole art education in England is not very good. This is not my personal judgment; it is shown repeatedly by the National Student Survey, with some of London’s most prestigious art institutions consistently placed at the bottom of league tables by their own students. Complaints include poor studio space, absent tutors and inadequate curricula. An unsubsidized business run on these lines could only survive by adopting the budget airline model, by being very cheap. But the education cuts will lead to the opposite happening, with a no-frills service at high prices. That is unsustainable, and in these circumstances it might be preferable to close down departments. But by jettisoning the myth that art education in England is any good there is an alternative involving the raising of quality to a point where people are willing to pay for it. That means not leaving
art students to teach themselves, but instead defining art as a discipline with essential elements that can be taught. Of course you cannot teach the hoped for “X” factor that results in a modern day Picasso, but you can teach drawing, colour and form theory, and a host of other basic skills that are missing in most art departments. The problem now, however, is that many universities are staffed by art tutors who themselves lack these basic skills. Inevitably they have a vested interest in maintaining what a former Rector of the RCA, Chris Frayling, called the “post skill” age of art, because they are incapable of teaching the reskilling of art. Ironically art students are already clamoring for real skills, but cushioned by state funding the art education establishment has been able to ignore this demand. As a result the Prince’s Drawing School finds its classes oversubscribed by students from other London art departments desperate to learn how to draw. That alone is a damning indictment of an art education system we are supposed to want to keep. Whatever art education system emerges from these cuts there is no doubt it will be smaller and more expensive. The question is, will it be more responsive to the needs of art students?
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Peering Between the Cracks Josh Allen puts Hes East in its place
rchitecture is of vital importance to our civilisation, it is through architecture that our values and the prevailing ideology take on physical form and are projected onto the landscapes which we can shape but never create from scratch for we are always building upon that which came before us. York is as good a place as any to see this. In the city centre a house may be modern, however, it is invariably squashed onto a plot of land divided up in the Middle Ages if not earlier. To see former factories, as in so many towns, reincarnated as flats, is of course a significant statement about economic and social change in its own right. Buildings therefore tell us a lot about those who constructed or altered them. For instance we can read the buildings on campus and they will tell us as much about the people who commissioned them as any report or memo. On first impression people often recoil at the greying concrete “brutalism” of Heslington West. It is true that at times the original buildings look crumbling, uniform and bleak. Although, does that not suit the climate up here, especially around the lake? Grey, wet weather leads to grey, wet buildings. If in the ‘60s they had chosen pastel colours, by now, even with multiple patching, they would look wind swept, cracked and faded, in short: miserable. There is great ideological significance latent in the campus architecture. The buildings are unpretentious and uniform, typical British scrimping on cost you may say, however, the goal of universities like York was to be egalitarian and open. The perception was that older universities like Oxford, Ed-
inburgh and Durham with their ornate decoration were exclusive, elitist and reactionary, their staff and students stifled and hemmed in by baubles celebrating state, church and old wealth. By contrast York, whilst retaining the basic structure (colleges included) of earlier institutions, is deliberately devoid of ornamentation, although by providing spacious lobbies, great expanses of water and greenery, commodious bars and at times claustrophobic living quarters, the university, despite being rought from concrete and steel, retains a human scale. The lack of ornamentation and the strict equality between buildings and thus academic disciplines and living blocks, is supposed to inculcate in us the values of clear thought, open mindedness and meritocracy needed to build the brave new social democratic,
post-scarcity future longed for by the university’s founders in the mid-’60s. It is no wonder that Central Hall looks like a spaceship, our university was founded to churn out the leaders and visionaries who would plan our way towards a bright future of gleaming white plastics, 2001: A Space Odyssey style. Returning to planet Earth, contrast the drab buildings but shinning vision of Heslington West with what is on show at Heslington East. What does HesEast tell us about our society? It is well worth following the red brick road past the weirdly illuminated and utterly redundant roundabouts to HesEast just to gawp. As you approach you think: what is it that they make here? Micro-chips? Wind-turbines? Advertising? Parcel Dispatch? Atomic power?
The answer of course is graduates, that and information, grabbing grants from the research councils. HesEast, despite its funky styling, could be any business park, any retail centre, any Travelodge, from anywhere between Seattle and Shanghai. It brings new meaning to the first half of that old New-Left slogan ‘the university is a factory’. In this the Post Modern Zeitgeist our institutions of learning and inquiry, like all of our palaces of culture, are now just that; places of manufacture. It is kind of comforting to know that everywhere in the UK (if not the world) you may wish to venture now has exactly the same buildings built for exactly the same reasons. Every town has its “impact building” usually made of glass, a celebrity building, by a celebrity architect, for a celebrity culture. The Bullring or Brindly Place in Birmingham, Salford Keys and the Lowry Centre in Manchester, the Spinica in Portsmouth, Bristol’s Water Front, all daringly modern in the exact same way, all ringed with empty investment flats and stagnant, polluted water, all soulless all steadily falling into disrepair. Cracked paint, boarded up shops, walls running damp. They tell us all that we need to know about our society and our culture. We are watching the glories of the past on repeat, popping the occasional cover version or remix with heavy bass. In the past when people built they imposed a clear world view, today underneath the wood and plastic panelling lies only one motivator, money. A rent seeking desire to push up land prices and use the revenues to impose further homogenisation in pursuit of yet more rent to pay back the debt built up planting the last lot of evergreen shrubs, car parks, metallic framed sheds and one bedroom flats. Invariably where once there lay the ramshackle constructions we call communities. A culture is as solid as its buildings and at the moment ours is boring and peeling, resting on sand.
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Also in this section: 27 Lucy Barnett talks cinematic subversion in Burma VJ, 28 Percy Hallow champions viewer responsibility with Hotel Rwanda
The Problem with Virtual War Zones
he average video game controversy runs a little like this: game is previewed/released, game is attacked by newspaper, game is accused of encouraging violence/addiction/ counter-cultural behaviour, game is mentioned in parliament, game is forgotten. There have been a few interesting deviations, such as the BBFC’s refusal to allow Manhunt 2 commercial release, but most issues are often resolved quietly. Yet there is something unset-
they found only one instance where “‘excessive’ killing of civilians was punished” tling about a recent controversy in the gaming world, one involving a research project by two Swiss human rights organisations, Pro Juventute and TRIA; a controversy centred on the research the two have conducted on the place of human rights in video games. The two organisations looked at nineteen contemporary war games to see “whether and to which extent international humanitarian law is respected in computer and video games”. The answer was a disillusioning ‘no’. Virtual warzones are relentlessly advancing in verisimilitude, with sharper graphics, deeper sound, and realer populations, but they still do not reconstruct “the rules that apply in international and national law to such operations”. They “send
David Wylot outlines the state of first-person politics in war games the erroneous message that there are no limits in conflicts and in other extreme situations”. In these digitised conflicts, common legal violations ranged from “extensive destruction of civilian property and/or injury or deaths of civilians, not justified by military necessity” to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of torture”. In one game “attacking a church ended in mission over, but the same did not happen when attacking other buildings dedicated to religion, namely mosques”; they found only one instance where “‘excessive’ killing of civilians was punished”. The recommendations the research prompts are pragmatic: it “underlines that [...] there are means of incorporating rules that encourage the gamer to respect human rights
and international humanitarian law”. Game developers need to avoid situations which may “easily lead to violations of the rules regulating armed conflicts”. The published report makes for fascinating reading. Apparently innocent tropes, such as the ticking time-bomb scenario (you have 3 minutes to achieve x), are transformed into situations liable to encourage violations of international law. Player agency is consistently, the project shows, separated from legal constraints, and the research criticises situations in which “it is up to the player to decide what is right and what is wrong”. It’s a difficult project to answer. Many games websites made no mention of it, and the few responses from video games journalists trivialise, rather than clarify, the issue. On being asked by the BBC what he made of the project, Jim Rossignol, author of My Gaming Life, said that there was plenty of evidence to show that video game violence
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was fully processed as fantasy by players. Illegal scenes in games did not desensitise the gamer. John Walker comments along similar lines, saying “for all those who mowed down citizens in Modern Warfare 2’s controversial airport level, I have the sneaking suspicion that not a great deal of them think this is lawful, nor appropriate, behaviour”. On the terms that they argue, I’m happy to agree. But the way they understand the question is problematic. Their response is unsatisfying because it relegates the discussion to that of video game violence. By saying ‘games don’t affect people, it’s proven’, the commentators risk ignoring the potential of the research. The Swiss project’s intention is that he/she cannot refer only to
morality narratives, pushed their own emotional response in ten rely on simplistic good/ by big releases such as Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2 would have their term fruitfully complicated by a referral to international laws not to form a method of legally policing games, nor to imply that gamers are liable to commit war crimes. It, rather, argues for a more sophisticated engagement with ethics and legality in video games. If a virtual war environment makes the player aware
the dealing of any situation, then the game complicates general ethical engagement, and enlivens the medium. This does not turn games into a didactic tool. The possibilities extending from the project should be investigated both for the advancement of the human rights movements, and for the video games industry. For the former, an educationally motivated game co- developed alongside a human-rights organisation would mean reaching a new audience. But this research also has major advantages for the average gamer, too. For instance, the above responses from journalists ignore the application of human rights to a growing, and marketable, trend for ‘decisions’ in games, in which the player is required to make a personal choice on how a particular aspect of a game plays out. These latter morality narratives, pushed by big releases such as Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2, would have their terms fruitfully complicated by a referral to international laws. It would trouble the ‘decisions’ in
evil binaries. International law could challenge the ethical boundaries of gamers, especially in warzone environments. Whatever the application of human rights, be it making a game more marketable or educating the gamer, these developments certainly seem more desirable than the romanticised absence of them in contemporary war games. Perhaps, also, games journalists need to engage with the situation as much as the game developers do. The real controversy surrounding this research project is that it hasn’t been seriously engaged with. There has been no thought as to how international law could enrich the medium. For, as the research project concludes, crassly but effectively, taking notice of the project “would surely render games more interesting”.
For more information on Pro Juventate and TRIAL’s research, visit: http://www.trial-ch.org/ games.html
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Opening The Eyes Of The World Lucy Barnett listens to the Democratic Voice of Burma
ollowing the recent release of Burma’s leading democratic dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, the question begs, what influence, if any, do a dissident group of Burmese video journalists within the DVB (Democratic Voice of Burma, a non-profit Burmese media organisation that traffic material out of Burma and broadcasts in film, radio and news) have over the USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party, the military junta who just won the election)? And why was the film Burma VJ so successful in capturing the attention of the world? The closed country of Burma is off limits to foreign television crews, so it falls to the dissident Burmese video journalists to make the world aware of the injustices. So, after successfully being smuggled out of the country, Burma VJ exploded onto UK screens on the 14th July 2009 in one mass simultaneous screening broadcast by satellite, from London to independent cinemas across the nation (brand sponsorship from the Co-operative supermarket enabled it to reach huge audiences). It was then broadcast back into Burma from Denmark via satellite. Directed by the acclaimed Danish film maker Anders Østergaard, the collation of material shot by Burmese video journalists in Rangoon (commencing September 2007, the time of the Burmese uprising, with the famous footage of the monks marching), displays the unseen brutality of the military junta’s oppressive regime. Harrowing as it is, Burma VJ is unique only in terms of its unparalleled exposure for a film of its kind. The DVB have made many films
that are controversial in Burma, though Burma VJ has been the sole recipient of sponsorship from Cooperative, and heavy promotion by NGOs such as People and Planet and Amnesty International. The Burmese dissident’s films do not demonstrate technical ability, nor do they attempt to compete with the 3D films saturating the Western film enterprise, the content of which seems to have become a minor sideline (i.e Jackass 3D, Street Dance 3D and Saw 3D).
the government is still holding over 2,100 political prisoners, with many serving incredible prison sentences Burma VJ is about the bravery and courage needed in the face of adversity, and challenging the apathetic face that journalism has gained in recent years. Using hand-held cameras (not as an artistic choice, but as their only choice) to subvert the oppressive nature of the junta, whether subliminally or consciously, Burma VJ’s success potentially influenced the USDP’s decision to keep their promise, and release Aung San Suu Kyi. Though this is impossible to confirm, the regime is likely to be aware that Burma VJ had received immense exposure, and that human rights groups were watching closely. The power of video journalism and non-violent protest is often more threatening to military regimes, because they have no justification to retaliate with brute force. This has been evident in the backlash at Israeli forces following operations in and surrounding Palestine. In Burma, releasing Aung San Suu Kyi
was a token, public gesture, and is only the very first step towards the power of the junta ending. Though the advent of new media and the internet have opened up more avenues of opportunity for Burmese dissidents, whether the USDP are feeling the pressure from video journalists such as DVB or not is still unclear. What is clear is the fact that the government is still holding over 2,100 political prisoners, with many serving incredible prison sentences for astounding reasons. Until all of these prisoners are released, there is no evidence to suggest that Burma is undergoing permanent change. To recapitulate, other films and material by the DVB have not experienced the same success, because they lack financial support Burma VJ gained through brand sponsorship. This makes them increasingly difficult to get hold of, and the otherwise inalienable task of deconstructing the USDPs information embargo in Burma seems unlikely, and tantamount to not watching them. The Cooperative should fully support all of the DVB’s films, and not just one as a token gesture, a fleeting glance. The trajectory which Burma will take to undergo change will not be through any more sham elections, but through organisations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Co-operative, promoting the work of the Burmese video journalists. In an age when true journalism, living investigation and honest reporting is becoming increasingly saturated in celebrity culture and petty political scandal, Burma VJ comes as a relief. If brands like the Co-operative continue to promote films like Burma VJ, then the impact of documentaries and the stories of people’s plights under oppressive regimes will undergo an enormous paradigm shift towards opening the eyes of the world. Burma VJ is available to watch on Google Video.
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SHELLEY: Yes, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred.
INTERVIEWER: How many “acts of genocide” does it take to make “genocide”?
SHELLEY: That’s just not a question I’m in a position to answer.
State Department Spokeswoman Christine Shelley, interviewed about the Rwanda Genocide on 28 April 1994
...Are Africans “Human”? sis, who were supposedly slightly paler and taller than the dominant Hutus). At the time of crisis, the United Nations (composed of 192 countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and America) stood by and watched, in a deafening silence. In its profound portrayal of this horrific crime against humanity, director Terry George not only manages to
A good film isn’t hard to come by; we regularly part with our cash for an hour and a half of pure immersion, hoping, and to a certain extent expecting, to enkindle our emotion of choice, be it side-splitting humour, the gentle warmth of a romance, or the pensive frown of high-brow “intelligent cinema”. The effects of a good film can linger long after the
Percy Hallow questions viewer responsibility with Hotel Rwanda credits roll. However, when films attempt to capture and address large-scale historical tragedy, even the finest repertoire of cast and crew doesn’t guarantee a genuinely engaging narrative. Look at, for example, the flippancy with which one can discuss Titanic, or the mediocre reception of World Trade Center – despite featuring the talents of directors such as James Cameron (Avatar) and Oliver Stone (Platoon),andofperformersincluding Leonardo di Caprio (Inception), Kathy Bates (Misery) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary), to name but a few. The message of these all-tooreal disasters still doesn’t manage to really move the audience or stir an ap-
[viewers] are satisfied reaping sufficient gratification from their decision to simply take an interest propriate or proportionate reaction. Perhaps we can cite the rapid desensitisation of a culture grown accustomed to images of human suffering broadcast daily in the news, to the extent that “scenes of a graphic nature” just aren’t shocking any more. But perhaps this apology for the ineffectual nature of tragic cinema is an excuse, a rationalisation that allows the viewer to remain comfortable in their seat, munching popcorn in a detached, distant manner. They become uncritical, unaffected voyeurs, content in the knowledge
that the diluted events depicted don’t really concern them. They are satisfied reaping sufficient gratification from their decision to simply take an interest. Effectively, the amount of emotion we can expect from this position is the same as the level of fear when facing a snake, from the right side of a thick sheet of plexiglass: it’s scary, fascinating, and you may feel proud for looking danger straight in the eye, but you know you’re safe. The animal has been tamed by its environment, and concordantly film has demonstrated a similar affect; diffusing any sense of urgency from the subject matter. Hotel Rwanda is the kind of film that removes the perspex, and sternly maintains focus on the event behind the story, (the 1994 Rwandan Genocide), in a relentless, riveting depiction. Made ten years after the massacre, Hotel Rwanda tells the true story of the hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), a man whose humanity, not heroism, turns him into an unwitting saviour, desperately sheltering over 1,200 refugees in the hotel Des Milles Collines. The Rwandan Genocide stands out as a harrowing event in global history. In the space of 100 days, 800,000 men, women and children were hacked to death with machetes by their friends and neighbours. The reason for this mass-slaughter was to eradicate a racial minority (called Tut-
provide a comprehensive account of events, but also raises some hard-toswallow questions about our concept of humanity and its relation to race. One of the concepts the film questions so beautifully is the notion of human rights, and, through moments of savage self-consciousness, what we, the audience, actually class as “human”. The film doesn’t itself offer an answer, but it does challenge what we may think of our own perceptions of “humanity”, hinting that perhaps our definition is far more warped than we would like to believe. Far more damning than an outright accusation of racism, director George allows us to see that the actions of those that represent our morality on a global scale (the UN) condemn us as not even seeing Africans as sufficiently human to necessitate “human rights”. If you look closely, you may notice, in a scene depicting the UN’s evacuation of all foreign nationals from Rwanda, a woman carrying her dog onto the coach which soldiers are preventing any Africans from boarding; its insignificance, as a passing moment, shows how ingrained, George believes, our ability to dehumanise Africa is – a powerful, painful realisation. Hotel Rwanda is filled with a compassion-inducing shame, placing its audience in the uncomfortable position of “the bad guy”, and ironically criticising passive voyeurism of atrocities such as these. Hotel Rwanda is a masterpiece in the self-reflexive art of humanity, and as such, it is impossible to resent it for the uncomfortable position it places us in. I ensure you that placing yourself in this position of critical responsibility will mark itself as one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences of your life.
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A Major Problem with Music
ast August, Arcade Fire released their third album, “The Suburbs”, to critical acclaim. With reviewers praising it at every turn, opening week sales of over 150,000, and two shows in New York City’s largest music venue, Madison Square Garden, sold out within hours, the band have well and truly hit the big time. What makes this all the more impressive is that they are one of only two bands under an independent record label to have performed in MSG, let alone fill the 20,000 plus seat venue (the other having been Dispatch). Merge Records, a label completely unattached to any of the major companies, must be very proud of itself – and it has every right to be. Arcade Fire is not its only claim to what a success it can call itself: Spoon, Caribou, She & Him and The Magnetic Fields, all established and prized acts on the indie circuit, have given Merge a name rivalling that of the major labels in just twenty years. Naturally, Arcade Fire’s success has been used as an argument against majors and for independents, fuelling the belief in the independent
labels’ work ethos – one far less detached, money-obsessed and brutal than that of the majors. If asked to name a record label, the general population will, and I am by no means condemning this, refer to one of the big four: Warner Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group or EMI. Thesecompanies have existed for years, having represented such artists as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and The Ramones. As demonstrated by this wealth of talent, I am not trying to argue that the majors didn’t ever have musical integrity. It is just that in the commercial society of recent years, these labels have abandoned a genuine interest in the music itself. They are more concerned with overheads and profits than producing definitive music with the same longevity, prolificness and cultural significance as those mentioned above. Perhaps overused as a new weapon in the major-versus-independent debate, Arcade Fire is nevertheless a prime example of a band as successful as those of the majors, without ever
Joe Walsh takes a look a what has become of the commercial record having compromised any of its principles. In an interview on pitchfork. com, the band do not angrily condemn major labels, but rather lament their having “lost a sense of the fundamentals”. Of course, as is natural with the smaller businesses that are independent labels, there have had to be sacrifices. The band haven’t, for example, been able to produce grandiose music videos, as they would have been able to on a label with a lot of money to spend. Even so, acclaimed director Spike Jonze created a costefficient music video-cum-short film for the first single, “The Suburbs”, a moving directorial masterpiece (and well worth a watch). The band must also share expenses with Merge, ultimately meaning that both band and record label find themselves temporarily in debt – losses that they recoup by touring and selling discs. The benefits, however, far outweigh negatives – if, indeed, an excess of necessary touring can be seen as a negative for as ambitious a band as Arcade Fire – because they are able to record their albums in their own studios, to their own personal specifications, and still retain ownership of the music. For them, as with many other bands, this is the central principle around which
the zahir | volume 6 | issue 1 their music must orbit. There are exceptions to the adage that all majors are drains on talent and good music, of course. Some of my favourite modern artists like The Cure, The Flaming Lips and Fleet Foxes are under major corporations or their offshoots (despite Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold vehemently telling his fans that they would never in any way be associated with majors). Other credible bands, such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, were successful under EMI and Universal Music Group respectively. Of course, this was the same Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails that have since thrown off the shackles imposed by major record companies, the former offering with its new freedom ‘In Rainbows’ at whatever price the buyer chose (which was an average of a fiver, nothing short of impressive considering the amount of people that would have downloaded it for free), and the latter, a month before its departure from Interscope Records (offshoot of UMG), encouraging its live audience at a Sydney show to “steal” music from the corrupt corporations via online downloads. Despite their 80% share of the global record sales, major labels cannot prevent the fact that music sales are in a state of regression. The moneymaking music industry has suffered so much due to the ease with which one can now download à l’internet, and no one suffers more from this than the major labels. A 2007 report by Jupiter Research UK came to the conclusion that online music piracy would cost the UK music industry alone around £1.6 billion between 2001 and 2012. The year the report was released alone, music piracy hit a level of £159.2 million, and it is estimated that illegal downloads now constitute about a tenth of all music “sales”. Since those who are into popular music are driven more by what is the current trend, the desire to possess a hard-copy of the music, whether CD or vinyl, is minimal. The majors’ audiences have no reason not to download music, because as soon as the next big thing emerges, the replaced is too generic to warrant another listen a few months down the line, let alone years. Artists like Beyonce, Rihanna and The Saturdays must keep people in-
terested by producing music rapidly, in order to justify the only things they can now sell: tour tickets, merchandise, ring-tones, club rights etc. The music, frustratingly, is of the lowest priority. This is why when bands such as Arcade Fire achieve what they have achieved, those who genuinely care for the music love it. But it is not just a lack of CD sales that mean major labels are in decline. More and more artists are aware of the perils of the major labels, and the growing possibility of success with the independents. While still a business, it involves far fewer people and focuses on the music itself, not its byproducts. Large independent labels such as Transgressive, Domino and Rough Trade have enjoyed numerous successes without compromising a band’s musical integrity, while smaller labels still can focus on bringing niche bands to the attention of specific areas and demographics. There is no threat, as there is with majors, of being dropped if you are not making enough money: as with Arcade Fire, the label’s loss is the band’s loss and vice versa. It is in each other’s best interests to work well for each other – and not, as in the case of major labels, to simply be at the mercy of the corporate bigwigs whose interest is not the creation of musical integrity. Okay, so this may be a generalisation: The Flaming Lips have sat pretty with Warner Bros. since 1990 and are still producing quality music (if you ig-
music nore their recent collaborative cover of Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and glance back to their solo Embryonic). But it seems that more often than not major labels do not encourage this kind of creative excellence. And it is lamentable, too, that while popular artists such as Cheryl Cole and Rihanna claim to care about their music, they are just as desperate as their labels to churn out track after track, album after album, tour after tour. To them, as to those who are in charge of their labels, it is more a matter of income than it is of producing records of which to actually be proud, because they are fuelled so much by the musical culture of which they are a part. This is not to say that I think Cheryl and Rihanna could produce decent music if they were on an independent label. But it makes saddens me that, as Arcade Fire put it, “all of these people who despise music end up being in charge”. As far as I’m concerned, music should never be a money-making enterprise to be forgotten a few months later. It should be treasured and remembered, in exactly the way that The Beatles, The Stones and Ray Charles have been. Ultimately, if we look back in fifty years’ time at the music of our era, it will be the music of integrity, the majority of which – 80% perhaps – which will be independent music. It is this solace that gets me through a night of terrible music in Tokyo, Revs or Ziggy’s.
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