Do we ever grow out of our childhood fears? And can fear ever be a good thing? Stephanie Milsom takes a long, hard look at the trouble of being scared.
When I was a child, I pulled up a fallen branch in the garden and was swarmed by Killer Bugs (woodlice); I had a dream that a skeleton popped up at my window in the middle of the night; and I convinced myself that Transformers were horrific creatures that controlled your nightmares. I’m still wary of them today. I’m not sure what’s so formidable about hairdryers and hand-dryers, but the sound still makes me uneasy. Even compiling some of the short stories for this term’s edition was tough going.
Essentially, I’m plagued by an active imagination and an annoying knack of being scared – a dangerous combination, if ever there was one. I’ve also probably seen too many horror films. I’m often slightly worried that my childhood fears haven’t – for want of a better word – stopped; I don’t think my dad’s scared of anything, and he’s a perfectly normal adult. But then, I don’t think dads are supposed to be scared of anything.
I’m sure if I spoke to a ‘professional’ they’d tie it all back to some deep-seated emotional trauma/need to be loved/mental instability (delete as appropriate), but I wonder whether it’s just … well, me. It might sound far-fetched, but my fears, just like the old ‘likes and dislikes’ subsection of the questionnaire, make me who I am. I’m not too keen on the dark, so I’m light and bright and bubbly in the day, and annoyingly clingy at night. My fear of seeing something behind me in the mirror’s reflection means I don’t go the bathroom at night, so my bladder has almost super-human strength. Maybe I shouldn’t look for a ‘cure’ for my ridiculous fears and just accept that that’s me. And I’m ridiculous.
I’m also scared of normal things too, like spiders and having to clean behind the fridge. Granted, most of my ‘adult’ fears are less fantastical, but they’re just as valid. A credit card bill won’t scuttle up my arm and eat my face, or jump up behind me in the dark, all white eyes and giant fangs, but I came terribly close to destroying my credit rating last week and it was truly harrowing. After fifteen minutes of frantic googling and trying all manner of ways to work out HSBC’s online banking repayment system, I finally managed it, and sighed a not too dramatic sigh of relief. Late payments = extra surcharges = poor credit rating = no mortgage/loans/anything for me.
Okay, perhaps ‘anything’ is a little extreme, but the fact remains that the responsibility of paying your way and keeping on top of things can be just as scary as the giant arachnid/zombie hyrbid under the bed. I’m not even certain that they stop being scary as we get older, unlike said monster. Our parents and surrounding adults are only good at life (some of them, at least) because they’ve made a habit, where possible, of avoiding scary, grown-up stuff. So maybe being scared is a good thing; it stops us making stupid mistakes (ahem) and helps us to stay on track. It also gives us incredible wonder-bladders.
Active contribution or passive consumption? Anisha Wilmink reviews the uncomfortable issue of the modern tourist, following her recent trip to Kenya.
To be a traveller was, in times past, to possess a lauded title. Historians, philosophers, and explorers, sustained by wealthy patrons, returned from their travels with exotic tales and theories about foreign civilisations. Only rich men could afford the luxury of desiring such knowledge, and it was the bravest and cleverest men they chose to seek it out. To be a traveller was to be a guest at banquets, to be honoured by the Queen, and to be the hero of children’s dreams. Yet the title ‘traveller’, as ascribed to Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and David Livingstone, has morphed into a word laden with negative connotations: tourist.
I had never felt ashamed of my desire to travel until I travelled with eleven of my school mates to Kenya. I think I have always felt so comfortable with my desire to explore other countries because I identify most strongly with a culture and country that none of my family call home. They, like me, have always had “itchy feet”, never desiring to be in one place for too long. I’ve always been a ‘foreigner’ in both the country in which I reside, and in the native homes of my parents; it simply depends on who is asking. People are prone to pity this fact, but I love that it allows me to derive pleasure from secretly calling myself a “citizen of the world”. My proverbial itchy feet mean that the moment the doors of an airplane hiss open my heart skips. It’s the lively local air forcing its way into a stale cabin that is first real clue that the whole world has changed around you. Everything about the air is different; its weight, its smell, and its texture, and within this intoxicating mixture lies coiled that first twinge of excitement: the awareness that the adventure has begun. While I savour that moment, for some people it harbours an unnatural sense of fear, the fear of stepping out of that airplane door and becoming a tourist.
On that Kenya trip, even whilst we were still allowing our lungs to acclimatise to the new, humid air, a friend of mine confessed to a swelling mixture of uncomfortable feelings inside her stomach: she was ashamed of being a tourist. As she watched the unfamiliar landscape lurching past, she was uncomfortably aware of her ‘Western’ status and of her alien presence in this foreign country. At that point in time I couldn’t understand her feelings. I wondered how a visitor could be ashamed to enjoy why people are proud of their country. If you speak to someone about their homeland, more often than not they persuade you to promise to visit and share their culture, food, and hospitality. Yet, somehow, Rosie had hit on a prominent tension so often ignored, or at least shamefully swallowed.
When travelling to Europe or North America, a tourist is at worst an annoyance; they have come to marvel at the history, culture, and sights of a developed country and they’ll leave their money in exchange. There, tourism industries are well-developed, profitable, and geared towards funnelling money into the economy. In developing countries, however, the methods are often exploitative of the locals, lucrative mainly for foreign investors, and present a dishonest – or, at best, pre-packaged – view of the country. This dichotomy between the romanticised view of safaris and ‘ethnic culture’ and the harsh realities of life is starkly evident in so many countries in Africa. English-speaking countries with a coastline and national parks such as Kenya are well versed in this narrative of double standards.
Much later on that trip, zoning out the sounds of my card playing friends and the South African MTV watched ceaselessly by the Kenyan girls who occupied the hostel, I felt similar discomfort to that my friend had confessed to earlier. I was not ashamed of being a tourist – we were not oblivious foreigners in five star hotels or isolated resorts, nor the expats in their Land Rovers and gated communities; we walked the streets and took public transport, ate in local establishments, and shopped in local markets in Nairobi. In fact, it was my brush with the volunteer sector that made me ashamed of my possessions, foreign passport, and money. I was becoming aware that to combat the potential discomfort of educated foreigners visiting Kenya, a new and uglier brand of tourism was taking root: a merger between the volunteer sector and the tourism sector.
Thousands of students, families, and couples are engaging in ‘altruistic tourism’. In my mind this is far worse than enjoying a Kenyan coastline without ever venturing out of the resort. It is far more exploitative to pay thousands of dollars to spend a week painting a school, or playing with children at a nursery for AIDS orphans, or teaching a disjointed English course. That money could be far better spent employing a local contractor to paint the school, or funding the salary of a social worker or teacher for a year. Instead, the money goes to a middle-man: somebody getting rich off the warped conscience of the Western tourist. The tourists seem to desire staged photos cradling the ‘famous’ African babies to show their friends at home what an amazing and life-changing experience they had in ‘Africah’. Taking into account the inordinate cost of the trips, these digital images equate to hundreds of dollars. The name of the country does not matter; neither does its whereabouts in the vast continent, and what happens to the child after those pictures are taken is irrelevant. For one week or ten days, the fortunate Westerner gets to realise how ‘privileged’ they are and the feeling of satisfaction will last a lifetime. All this happens at the cost of the human dignity and respect for the condition of the lives the local people are leading.
My initial joy had turned suddenly murky. My multi-national group and I had come to Kenya, just after graduating from an esteemed international school, to build pit latrines for a Maasai tribe in the Ngong hills outside Nairobi. My camera was already full of pictures of cheerful, paint-splattered students and laughing children. I did not want to return home and proudly profess that I had been in Kenya on a ‘humanitarian mission’, or that we, the privileged students, had briefly brought ‘peace and love’ to the world by building four pit latrines. The trip was led by a Kenyan student whose mother’s hostel we had stayed at, and perhaps it would have been better simply to fundraise and give her the money to spend locally. She could have hired a contractor and sent us pictures of the Maasai tribe with the finished product of the sanitation project.
A few days after my uncomfortable realisation, I sat with the other members of my group excitedly rehashing the events of the day. I smiled at a night guard who waved back at me and I realised my feelings of discomfort and guilt had entirely disappeared. I understood that I wasn’t there to assuage my feelings of Western guilt, or to provide help to ‘the poor of Africa;’ my being there to travel was what mattered.
For most people it is never possible to have the experiences we had spending each day with a Maasai tribe. I don’t know how many people can say they drank goat’s blood from a chipped tin cup or pushed a minibus from the Ngong hills to Nairobi in a rainstorm. I still laugh and treasure the memory of how a one and a half hour journey back to Nairobi turned into a four hour exercise in determination and spirit, where eleven students soaked to bone and singing camp songs pushed their minibus through quickly-forming rivers of viscous mud. Admittedly, we could have fundraised from the safety of our college, but what good would it have done us? I learned so much, I experienced adventures that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I came into contact with people whose day I was lucky enough to share. There was a complete exchange: we were able to help support a basic need of a community, and they were able to share with us culture, reality, and adventure. I didn’t walk away from the trip feeling noble; I felt excited, lucky, and eager to share my stories.
I still take issue with altruistic tourism and sometimes I prefer not to share those ‘Africa’ photos I have. They are a great memory for me and I don’t want them misunderstood. When people ask me if I have visited Africa, I will never tell them that I went on a volunteer trip to Africa; I will tell them that I travelled in Kenya. My time with the Maasai was part of my Kenyan travels, and I have Kenya to thank for some of my best anecdotes and memories.
Jen Ward draws some surprising medieval parallels to the question of women bishops in the Church of England.
We live in an age in which the fast pace of progress is celebrated; technology is updated almost incessantly and social networking sites allow us minute by minute updates on the lives of others. International developments reach us almost instantaneously via 24-hour news channels. Change is, in many respects, now presented as a healthy and positive thing. However, on 20 November 2012, the General Synod of the Church of England voted against allowing women to become ordained as bishops. To me, this seems entirely incompatible with an age which professes to promote equal opportunities employment and is desperate to ensure it is as up-to-date as it possibly can be.
On that day, 20 November, I was frantically reading The Boke of Margery Kempe, in preparation for my ‘Late Medieval Literature’ seminar the following day. For those who haven’t come into contact with this obscure and utterly eccentric text, it follows the life of a fourteenth century female visionary who roamed the country trying to tell the word of God (which she heard from Jesus in her head) to priests and laity alike. Margery Kempe was, for many English Literature students, the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to trying to access the Medieval period. However, when reading it, I couldn’t help but be forcibly reminded of the discussions going on in the Church of England at the moment, a mere eight centuries later.
As a practising member of the Church of England myself, I am in no hurry to condemn it. Both churches which I attend have several female members of the clergy. However, I find it alarming that Margery’s struggle to be heard amongst the patriarchy of the fourteenth-century church has such a resonance with our situation today. One of the arguments cited against the installation of female bishops is a passage of scripture in which St Paul says “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man – she must be silent” (1 Timothy 2:12). St Paul is also cited in Margery Kempe, where (in York in fact) a “great cleric quickly produced a book and quoted St Paul for his part against her, that no woman should preach”. Here they are referring to 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35, which objects to a woman speaking in a church; ever-resourceful Margery evades this by spreading the word outside the realm of church and pulpit. Perhaps this is what the women of today should do.
To me, it seems that the more the voice of a woman is denied in a church, or anywhere, the more power is attributed to it, ironically. Given that in many other walks of life women now do ‘teach or have authority over men’, it comes across as backwards, even archaic, that women’s career prospects are still limited in this way by such a large institution as the Church. However, because it is a religious institution, it is not required to follow ‘equalities and employment’ legislation.
To give the Church of England its due, the measure only failed by a narrow margin, needing a mere six more votes to get it passed. Let us hope that at the next General Synod they find those all-important votes. Did I mention this will be in 2015? What’s three years after eight-hundred?
Exemption from external control or support; freedom from subjection, or from the influence of others; individual liberty of thought or action. Rarely in a bad sense: Want of subjection to rightful authority, insubordination.
Rarely in a bad sense.
Rarely in a bad sense.
Rarely in a bad sense.
As children we are forever breaking boundaries, doing the complete opposite of what our parents say and do, promising ourselves that we will never turn into them. My particular childhood, spent travelling between parents locked in the bitterness of divorce, demonstrated the multitude of ways a person can exert control over another. A lot of ‘independence’ is about realising that you’re better than the situation you’re placed in – Marx would be proud. For many people, it’s a gruelling marathon of injustice; for others, it’s simply a light bulb over the head. But there are so many different types of independence, swarming around like leaves on the wind. The concept – the idea of breaking out – becomes ‘freedom’ and ‘openness’. There a simple freedoms, ones that I’ve fought for in my life; the freedom to run to the shops with my friends, the freedom to paint my room whatever colour I want (I went for magnolia …), the freedom to choose my life path and take myself to university. The small ‘independences’, which of course quake in the face of such enormous campaigns as black rights or a nation’s sovereignty, are still important to our lives.
And it’s not just about knowing that the world is your oyster. There’s a small and quite perfect pleasure in knowing that you can read what you want, eat what you want, throw your clothes where you want; in short – you can be who you want. For the first few weeks, you feel like you’re finally being you. The you away from midnight curfews and responsible behaviour and all things grown up. The you where university is the best thing that’s happened to you.
Normally, quite soon after this realisation, comes the maddening awareness that ‘independence’ is basically a posh word for ‘alone’. Yes, you’re surrounded by friends, housemates, course-mates, but sometimes you realise, whilst struggling against boundaries and rules all your life, that this structure is what keeps you together. And I complain and I tell myself that things will change when I live alone – and then you’re placed in a house with ten others who all feel exactly the same. There’s no one but ourselves to make us do the dishes, to wash our clothes, to cook our food. But this is independence. This is ‘finding our own way’. A small freedom, it would seem, but monumental in that this process will make us who we are. I myself rarely miss anyone, whether family member or otherwise, but the looming, empty vacuum before me is terrifying. We nurture the utopian ideal that once out of our parent’s houses, we can live our own lives free of arbitrary rules and curfews: we can watch what we want on television, we can eat Pot Noodles until we double in size, we can live our own lives.
This sudden removal of the proverbial rug from under our feet, however, can leave us feeling lost. For all my talk of wanting to live my own life and be my own person, I’m even desperate to be told I can’t do something, purely because as an adult living away from home, I can technically do anything – and the idea scares me. It’s almost as if, as humans, we need some walls to bash our heads against, otherwise we simply stagnate. We need something to engage our brains and emotions, to enrage us, to make us passionate, even violent. We need to feel like something is stopping us from where we want to be, otherwise we will realise that we are not there for a reason. We need something to fight for, and someone to fight against, otherwise we’re lost.
“Ever closer union.” With that phrase from the Treaty of Rome, the European Union set out its terms. Within living memory Europe had endured two wars, the rise of Communism, fascism and the Cold War, and the deaths and maiming of millions of its soldiers and civilians. Some greater step had to be taken to ensure prosperity and affluence for the people of Europe, whom America’s Marshall Plan had given aid only ten years before to prevent France and Italy electing Communist governments. And it worked. Bar the ugly tribal massacres in the Balkans in the 1990s – who have never been part of the European Union – Western Europe has enjoyed its longest period of peace in history. Overall the EU has the biggest economy in the world, many of the wealthiest nations within it.
Yet this expansion is under threat with the sovereign debt crisis. Countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain have huge debt problems, exacerbated by stagnating economies and the shaky worldwide recovery. Unable to borrow money from the market place without punitive levels of interest, they are close – especially Greece – to running out of money. In previous times this was no issue; the countries would debase their currency, meaning it was worth less, as Italy has done many times before with the lira, and as the UK is doing with quantitative easing. However, with the euro that is not possible. Many people have labelled the euro a step too far: though the current interest rates are beneficial for Germany’s booming exports, they are less so for the struggling southern economies. Such inequality cannot work. And if Greece – which, constituting 2% of the EU’s economy, is, ultimately, vestigial to the grand European project – can upset the markets so, is it not proof that the EU is built on a house of sand?
Well, yes and no. Greece defaulting on its loans and being kicked out of the euro and being forced to re-adopt the drachma is not the big concern, it’s the precedent that it would set – in particular, Italy. With ten years of a stagnant economy, endemic political corruption exemplified by the farcical buffoonery of Berlusconi, markets do not trust the current Italian government to enact severe enough austerity measures. If Italy, the eighth largest economy in the world exporting nearly half a trillion dollars of goods a year, defaults, then banks that have taken on Italy’s debt would suffer a liquidity crisis equal to or worse than the crisis of 2008. And this touches on the main problems of the EU: a general trading agreement has become a monolithic monstrosity. Its aim to speak for the people of Europe, though laudable, cannot trump the nationalistic identity, to the extent that the USA and China note with increasing exasperation their frustration in the reticence of European officials. For the EU is in a quandary. It lacks the power of a supranational organisation to run its affairs, because what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander.
The outcome of the financial crisis will have a striking result for sovereign independence within the EU. If the bailouts are sufficient, and Greece and the other Southern European countries recover, it will have come at a cost of independence. France and Germany hold the purse strings and will have made clear that bailouts are done on their terms. However, if Greece totally defaults and takes other countries with it, that great conciliatory spirit of the Treaty of Rome will be lost. The EU will become a broken entity, far less politically powerful domestically and internationally, unable to stop countries pursuing destructive policies, whether in diplomacy, militarily or environmentally. For those of us in Britain, watching smugly from the sidelines as growth forecasts for our economy are cut and cut again, going ‘I told you so’, now is not the time to be complacent. Our banks, our manufacturers, our tourisms, are too finely intertwined with Europe to think of saying goodbye now. It’s the way we eat, what we watch, even how we think, that is influenced by Europe. Our viable independence as a nation, paradoxically, is tied to our continuing involvement with our allies across the channel.
“FEMINISM IS NOT SIMPLY A STRUGGLE TO END MALE CHAUVANISM, OR A MOVEMENT TO ENSURE WOMEN HAVE EQUAL RIGHTS WITH MEN; IT IS A COMMITMENT TO ERADICATING THE IDEOLOGY OF DOMINATION THAT PERMEATES WESTERN CULTURE ON VARIOUS LEVELS”
If I am a woman, I am seen as irrelevant and aggravating. I am peddling an agenda out of touch with life and the needs of the modern woman, compromising the current position of women everywhere by maintaining a radical stance that damages the relationship they and I have with men. I am undermining all the successes of women who do not agree with me by suggesting that they still suffer from oppression. Because of this, I exist outside of the reasonable discourse between the genders and occupy a space of segregation that is simultaneously forced upon me and self-created. I am a man-hater and men-and- women-hated.
If I am a man, I am seen as paralysed by a shallow liberal guilt from acting as a member of my gender. I am trying to atone for the mistakes made by men in the past to make myself feel better. I am selfish and insincere. I am the kind of man that feminists love to enter their discussions because I legitimise their debate. Other women are uncomfortable with my views and feel patronised that I am telling them that they are oppressed when, really, this oppression doesn’t actually exist. But I can’t really be a (pro)feminist because those women hate men. If I disagree, I’m trying to sleep with somebody.
If I acknowledge that I am one gender or the other, I know that some people will see me in a particular way. Cliché affects understanding. So I refuse to be seen. I am without sex. My gender isn’t important to you, but it is to me, as both genders’ interpretations of feminism are valid, but differ. This discussion is informed by my position within the wider discourse, and as a consequence there will be gaps. My denial of gender isn’t an admission of failure or disavowal of my position; it is an exploration of my relationship and understanding of feminism without necessarily revealing it to you. However, what I write won’t necessarily be true for other people, man or woman; this is a personal understanding of feminism, as all are. Question everything I say.
Perhaps increasingly, if a woman is a feminist, she absents herself from a patriarchal society by refusing to take her place within it. In such a society, feminism is a kind of non-identity, a disavowal of cultural enforced views on womanhood and femininity. By refusing your femininity, you are essentially giving up your voice within a society that will only accept you if you accept its view of you. This is why so many women are reticent to talk about feminism, let alone adopt it as a cause. Rather than allow a discussion to exist that may be damaging to the male-driven society that women have to engage with to retain their identity, many women are complicit with their male counterparts in rejecting and undermining feminism and its advocates, and push them into a hinterland where they lose legitimacy and relevance. Feminism isn’t inherently irrelevant or flawed, but has been made to be so by members of a society that still values “wearing the trousers” as a symbol of power, that still pays women, on average, 10% less than men in full time jobs paid by the hour, and still uses confused, but ultimately subservient language in women’s magazines (“How To Make Him Want You!”). As a woman, it has been accepted that one must sacrifice some power and independence in their lives and accept a place within an unfair society in order to have any say over what happens in their lives at all due to a dismissal of feminism from both sides of the gender divide.
The idea of power within society can affect those supposedly in control as well as the oppressed. Men can feel trapped and powerless by the position that the gender/power binary dictates for them. Men are under pressure to be men, and exist in just as much a predetermined way as women, sans the surrendering of power. This can be deeply affecting for men, whose identities, much like women, are created through an engagement with the society that they occupy. A disconnection from this society results in a rupture from identity, from history, from other men. This is what the power binary based on gender does; perpetuates a powerful man and a subservient woman.
This supposition, in my opinion, is the key to the emancipatory qualities of feminism. The man/woman divide is based on an understanding of a symbiotic relationship between power and weakness. One needs the other to exist. If man no longer has subservience, you no longer have power. This frees members of both genders from the shackles of their enforced positions and allows a more flexible discourse between the two. The idea of feminism being in opposition to a white, male patriarchy also implicates issues of class and race within the male/female divide which are part of an iceberg of societal conflicts that this position alludes to. Women’s rights alludes to men’s rights (but does not equivocate the two very different beasts) and allows a meaningful and relevant discussion of many different ideas pertaining to freedom and oppression.
It is vital and necessary that women understand their position within a patriarchal society and inspire other women to do the same. Men, without claiming feminism as your own cause (the word pro-feminist is helpful here, suggesting that you support the cause without presuming yourself a member), should help create a climate of openness and acceptance of such ideas, perhaps allowing the existence of feminism within the confines of society. Women’s rights will not and should not come from men, but should be acknowledged as possible and welcome. We’d all be freer for it.
“Come on, mate, you do science…”
It seems to be general opinion that, because someone studies a science subject, they can calculate how much pain a squash ball to the arse would cause. Joking or otherwise, this is an example of that fabulous – and only a little bit ironic – general student opinion. That those studying humanities are well adjusted and normal, and those who wear lab coats are not to be approached; that science as a whole should be left in its cage. Do not feed the nerds.
But why does this ingrained image persist? Robert Boyle was referred to as the father of modern Chemistry, but held the title of a Natural Philosopher. There were no distinctions between philosophy and science back then. It seems that science and scientists are wrongly set apart from the rest of normal life. I think that blame instead falls in large part on one photograph: the iconic portrait of Albert Einstein with his tongue out. A quick Google image search of ‘scientist’ brings up a myriad of lookalikes, most of whom have white hair, glasses and lab coat, and generally don’t look like sociable chaps. It’s a shame that this is the enduring image that symbolises this prejudice, as it could so easily have been the rather well dressed Einstein at the age of twenty-six, when he published his really ground-breaking papers. Back then he was somewhat of a ladies’ man, so I’m told.
“The sciences don’t need more money…”
Science is big in Britain as well. Statistics that came out of the Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills in mid-October are being loud-speakered by UK science bodies, and show that Britain has 11% of the world’s global paper citations, and 14% of the world’s most highly cited papers. All this from a country with 1% of the world’s population, and 4% of its researchers. In the same way that York science is prominent in Britain, British science is distinguished among its international peers. But, unlike the other 60% of York students, un-scientific UK citizens can reap in the benefits. A £6 billion annual investment in research, which is 1.8% of the GDP, fundamentally supports around 30% of the country’s economy. This is clearly fantastic value for money. But the astonishing thing is the current government plans to cut the science budget. Would this obvious solution for a boost to the recovering economy be given the time it deserves if party politicians had more time with science?
“It can’t be argued that scientists would make better politicians…”
Margaret Thatcher is a chemistry graduate from Somerville College, Oxford. She, naturally, was on the research team that helped develop soft-scoop ice cream. Such transferable skills can come from an education that gives an analytical and logical mind to the same extent as from the multitude of barristers and humanitarians the House has. One can highlight a better grasp of issues such as research funding priorities, animal research moralities, and of course global environmental change, something that right-Thatcher was surprisingly very much on the ball with. And with environmental change and its humanitarian consequences being more and more taken up into the political sphere, wouldn’t a better grasp on the situation by scientifically minded decision makers make more sense?
“Science isn’t culture…”
Ideas thrown up by the development of science permeate culture, both at an inspirational and fundamental level. That is to say, George Lucas conquered popular culture in 1977 with his fantastical scientific-inspired ideas, while blowing viewers’ minds with special effects that were themselves a triumph for computer graphics. Quite the stereotype for a science student to reference Star Wars, but Mary Shelley, The Beatles and Van Gogh couldn’t have done without genetics, music technology and oil paints. The whole exhibition of modern culture – the Zahir’s website is a great example – has seen seismic shifts as regards to developments in science and technology. Here, culture is working with science, and this is an example that the rest of the world should be following.
Ever since the creation of the moving picture film, adaptation of literature has flooded the cultural marketplace, including everything from older classics to more modern and some not-yet popular works. This is even evident from one of the first pieces of Italian cinema – a silent movie adaptation of Dante’s Inferno which is still haunting even with today’s technological advancements. Certain writers and novels are constantly subjected to film and televised adaptations and remakes. From Hollywood versions of Shakespeare to the various recreations of the works of Austen and the Bronte’s, nearly everyone in civilised countries has seen at least one adaptation of a literary work. They are inescapable.
This fascination began with the introduction of cinema, and remains prevalent today. It seems fit to last for the foreseeable future, so it must be asked: why are we constantly fascinated with seeing our favourite texts transposed onto screen? Ironically, an answer may be found in the 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel Matilda: ‘Why would you want to read when you got the television set right in front of you? There’s nothing you can get from a book that you can’t get from a television faster”. In a culture where everything must be available immediately from fast food to quicker broadband, it seems that all of our books be made readily available and digestible in two hours or less. Must we always sit and watch the story translated onto screen rather than envisage for ourselves what the characters and setting look like?
Of course, film adaptations do have their uses. Economically speaking they can create a franchise beyond the book. JK Rowling has benefitted greatly from the Harry Potter films, as has Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. The more recent I Am Number Four adaptation of the Pittacus Lore novel is another instance in which adaptation is beneficial, since prior to its release the novel had not fully reached the public awareness. In these cases adaptations have the plus side of bringing to public attention novels which were previously unheard of or underappreciated. Seeing the movie does inevitably increase book sales because more people are exposed to the existence of the story.
Adaptations, however, often fail to live up to the original text. Stephen King disliked Kubrick’s The Shining so much that he made his own televised version which stuck to the storyline. Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is intended to follow Carroll’s original text, whilst Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is less a remake of Willy Wonka than Burton’s own version of the tale. Rather than using motion picture to create new stories, directors and movie studies are fascinated with adapting already-existent works.
Cinema has lasted through the ages, and original black and whites have been subjected to colour, Hollywood, updates. Clearly production companies feel that audiences need to re-watch these films, in technicolour, with 3D technology, and the most current and popular A-list actors. Do scriptwriters find it so difficult to create their own story that this constant stream of adaptations and remakes is necessary? Film should be a means of escapism, but if it is always the same stories that are remade, is it losing its function? In ten years’ time Harry Potter and Twilight will probably go through their second adaptation. Comic books like Spider-man and Batman are already being subjected to it. The only real motivation for adaptation has to be economics. Movie adaptations not only cause a resurgence in the sales of the novel, play, or comic book, but also in purchases of the original versions. People want to see how it has changed, judge whether it was better before or whether the update has really nailed it this time. Can we not just let a novel be a novel, and an old classic film, just an old classic film? I doubt it, but it ensures production companies and publishers a definite money-maker, even if it is more for curiosity than for excellent film-making.
Fifty years ago, Latin and Greek learning was expected as part of a gentleman’s education. Harold Macmillan could claim that he played the Greece to America’s Rome and expect this to instantly resonate among the public. But as Britain’s imperial power declined, the Classics diminished too. They were seen as an outmoded relic, an embarrassing tool that had once been used to justify imperial conquer. Fast forward to the early twenty-first century, and while classical education has indeed diminished, there remains a stubborn core of Latin and Greek learning, though mostly confined to the well-to-do public schools. More to the point, classical literature and history is thriving. In the last decade, we’ve had the blockbusters Gladiator, Troy, 300 and Clash of The Titans. It speaks of a continuing public interest in the myths and legends of ancient civilisation, so much that pretty much any sporting match has someone yelling “Spartans! What is your profession?”
How have Classics survived then? How have they thrown off their stuffy straitjacket? The first, most obvious point is accessibility. Before the Second World War, no edition for the purpose of general reading existed. Anyone who’s ever used a literal translation to help with a set text will understand how a dry translation can utterly sap interest. E.V Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey, the first book published from the now-Juggernaut that is Penguin Classics, sold over three million copies. Since then, major translations of the Classics have placed readability and strong, direct language over literality. Impressive translations have been done following Rieu by Ted Hughes, Simon Armitage, Robert Fagles and Christopher Logue and have been awarded prestigious awards far and wide, finding themselves on the wish-lists of critics as well as the general public. When we hear Aphrodite insulting another goddess’ “gobstopper nipples” it’s a far cry from Homeric epithets and hexameters but it captures the capriciousness and pettiness of the Olympic Gods in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in Mean Girls. Perfect for our modern age.
Instead of Cicero’s law speeches of the Roman Republic, or Demosthenes’ rhetoric about the democratic Athenian state, what are most popular at the moment are the Greek myths of fighting and derring-do. They capture not only us, surrounded in a world that increasingly seems unsafe, but also, as the semi-divine hero, epitomise the people we wish we could be. It is no accident that Antigone, the Greek tragic play about the conflict of identity between family and the state, has been staged multiple times in a Northern Ireland riven by sectarianism.
Far from being the one-dimensional symbols used in other mythologies, the characters articulate fully their despair of a world run seemingly by uncaring Gods. Oedipus finds out, horrifically, the limits of rational scientific enquiry can only extend so far. The Iliad shows the brutal inevitability of death in war; men do not die valiantly, shouting pithy one-liners, but screaming as their prestigious background and heroism is snuffed out, a feature more than relevant today as British soldiers die in wars they, like Homer’ s Thersites, question the value of.
Such is the breadth and depth of classical literature, a span of time that covers over a millennium, that many other problems faced by classical writers have their parallels in the modern age. Euripides’ Medea speaks of the problems of an immigrant, brought to a land by a husband who now disowns her, being alone. Petronius in the Satyricon shows the vacuous dinner party of the Roman noveau riche who’s bragging and insolence is a constant theme of satire even today (see Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party). Juvenal complains of a political class that has grown fat and corrupt; in a time where the expenses scandal still rumbles on, it is impossible not to feel some sort of similarity. Shorn of their imperial purposes, the classics still have much to offer a British culture, in their mix of hedonism, love, politics, satire, and above all, their versatility.
Religion’s place within media reflects its movement within our culture, and it has been a source of great debate. Once a pillar which supported society, faith has moved (or been forced) onto the periphery. Religion, which once created boundaries for artistic work, was actively pushed and criticised. The movement of religion from a universally-accepted truth to a set of values that only a minority share has placed it under the umbrella of “contemporary contentious issue” that is ripe for exploration. However, it seems that the tight-rope of political correctness is still in play, whether it is placing a restriction on creativity or acting as an enticement for it.
Such a statement is exemplified by James Frey’s recent work ‘The Last Testament of the Holy Bible’, a novel depicting Christ as a drug-dealing bisexual in his second coming. Frey’s decision to explore the topic clearly stems from a desire to court controversy rather than enter into an intellectual debate. Though the marketing policy is undoubtedly behind such sensationalism with regards to ‘The Last Testament’, it is evident that Frey chose to inspire controversy, and he was noted as saying ‘it was most audacious thing I could think of doing’. Though Frey’s actions are hardly novel, his work is still part of the repetitive liberal, modern model which aims to anger the evangelical Right. By following such a formulaic structure, actions are not about breaking the boundaries of political correctness, simply to give that illusion. They are, in fact, restricted by it, as no American would attempt a similar work based on Islamic teachings, du e to the hyper-sensitive relationship that is evident between the country and the faith.
British authors are hardly naive about the concept that religion has been marginalised to the extent that it can be seen as a social phenomenon, with contemporaries such as Monica Ali or Zadie Smith having established themselves in this field. Though neither of their works can be seen in any sense as an attack on the Muslim faith, whose followers represent 3.3% of the population of the United Kingdom, as a major part of society such works on Islam are all the more relevant and, by extension, tentative. Comparatively only 0.6% of the U.S. population class themselves as a Muslim, leaving Islam in the realm of the political taboo rather than an element of the cultural patchwork that is America.
As David Baddiel said: ‘Religion is a serious subject that has a lot of gravitas, which obviously makes it ripe for comic subversion.’ Britain’s relationship with popular culture and religion becomes controversial when targeted by comedy writers. The perfect example of this phenomenon is the film ‘Four Lions’, which follows the story of five suicide bombers. Half the comedy naturally comes from the inappropriateness of the subject matter. To say the British stance is to see religion as a cultural phenomenon rather than a revered institution with regards to the Islamic world would be incorrect, despite the media’s presentation of it as such. Even though unfamiliarity and depersonalization is still felt within the US towards Islam, comedy groups such as the “Allah Made Me Funny” troupe do exist in an attempt to subvert this. How acceptable they are for the wider viewing public, however, is limited, simply because there isn’t a market for it. Even within the tried-and-tested bonds of Christianity, the mix of religion and comedy is seen as a risky move.
Though this is a nod to the conservatism of the nation, it does highlight that the line between what is acceptable and what is not within a creative medium is dependent on national mood and on the ethnic composition of the nation. However, we live in a time of globalisation: in certain presentations, religion transcends national rules of conduct and becomes a matter of internationality, as Danish Cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose depiction of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban garnered worldwide offence, and Salman Rushdie will testify to. An issue that is swept under the carpet as taboo, however, it is almost as though we will turn into a pillar of salt if we look too far forward into where media’s depiction of religion can go from here.