Pen – my illustrious friend- you are mightier in the end

A lot can happen in a decade. Before September 11 and the War on Terror, “opening in an atmosphere of hope” the Birmingham-based but truly international group Writers Without Borders was formed, co-founded by the late Dr Roi Kwabena.

The initial vision of the Birmingham Poet Laureate, political activist and cultural anthropologist “To give writers in exile a voice” was embodied in the poetry and performances of his fellow members last night, celebrating their 10 year anniversary as part of the Birmingham Book Festival.

Currently standing at thirty members with their countries of origin spanning Rwanda, Iran, Kurdistan, Pakistan, South Africa, Croatia to name a few; for many westerners these countries often represent images and words of past or ongoing social unrest, civil war and political upheaval.

Objective journalistic reporting has sought to document the events over the years which eventually define a people and their culture from this detached perspective, however unfairly. The authoritative tone of a newspaper article or televised statement attempts to convince us that within their regurgitated facts lies the truth- when I look up these two words they are even considered direct synonyms for one another- but official figures of fatalities are no replacement for words motivated by personal experience and observation or truthful emotions.

To use a quote my sister drew me to from writer and journalist Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation, “it’s difficult to find a Lebanon that had not become shackled to a cliché, to a deadening form of words that killed off Beirut and its people more assuredly than any Lebanese militia leader or occupying army could destroy the country.”

While some poetry of the night had a clear political or ideological message, many more were honest reflections on the realities of the human existence that are common to all. As poet Vivian Yates put it “Speaking in harmony from our common humanity”.

Even between descriptions of a village in Kurdistan by Mardin Ibrahim or Patricia Sinzi Bamurangirwa’s poem interspersed with liberated dance that seemed so foreign and exotic to me, I found a personal connection in Martin Underwood’s Saving the Seeds. The poem was dedicated to the work of ICARDA, a company my mother worked for during its inception in Syria over thirty years ago and whose centre I visited on a recent trip to Aleppo.

 So the words of the poems have the ability to tear down boundaries and build connections, to instil emotions and prompt action but as they are merely pen to paper- they will never be able relay objectively what the eyes can see or the ears can hear without having first been moulded by the thoughts of the writer- to deny the subjective voice of the writer is to only hear half the story.

*This title owes itself to a line from the poem Writers without Borders by Michael George, performed on the night

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What are you going to do with your life?

When the point of education becomes the production of credentials rather than the cultivation of knowledge, it forfeits the motive recognized by Aristotle: All human beings by nature desire to know.

Since I resigned my childhood fixation with being an actor after graduating from a performing arts college, I have never focused so intently on any one career path. I was not entitled to go to university in my home state of New South Wales because the combination of subjects I chose to study –although I did well in them – did not meet the entrance criteria. So for several years I was defiant in the idea that I didn’t need a degree to be successful or happy- or both. And in many ways I was: working various decently-paying-yet-stagnant jobs to save money so that I could spend it travelling, going out, buying nice things and generally building up a comfortable existence for myself.

It was only when the opportunity for further education presented itself upon moving to England several years ago that studying journalism, a subject I became increasingly interested in despite having never followed current events previously, that the idea of university became not a means to an end but a valid and enlightening experience in itself.

Combined with the new desire to achieve something that I was not even offered the option to try previously was the notion that I could pursue something that interested me and within this organic process (a term I am very fond of) I would be naturally led to projects and work that inspired me and that I could contribute to.

But I have joined university in the new age of austerity- a word my generationare recieving a blunt introduction to (having been mostly unfamiliar with the idea outside of it’s nostalgic use in wartime themed paraphernalia that ironically rose to great popularity in our previous years of prosperity). Tuition fees are on the rise and educational institutions constantly have to justify their relevance to the public and the government who fear this generation of school leavers attain qualifications that offer them limited career prospects- therefore little hope of them contributing back to society through their income tax. Sadly for a society that demands results that can be measured in financial terms, a degree is incorrectly looked upon as a guarantee to the good life with little consideration for the individual paths that students forge for themselves and to which they are accountable to.

For as many proactive, engaged and ambitious students that exist, there still persists a culture of entitlement whereby most students view the academic experience with the kind of apathy that arises from either being spoon-fed your opportunities or simply pursuing a course because it was is expected of you.

Hence this student mentality is approached by the staff with constant reminders of goals to be set and plans to be implemented. From the moment one of our Journalism lecturers introduced us to his mantra “Portfolio, portfolio, portfolio” in first year, it has been clear that university can no longer offer a postponement from the exhausting criteria the outside world uses to measure our success.

As we must prepare for the realities of life post-graduation, we receive an induction into our Professional Experience Module that can either take shape in the form of a personally created project or a professional placement in the industry.

I have read a lot of negative public perceptions debating the actual usefulness of an internship for the individual student, viewing them more for their importance as part of carefully regimented program geared towards career initiation.

Understandably, for someone like myself who already has a part time job to pay the bills, being sold the idea of working for free to “gain experience” when I have been in employment for the last eight years is a frustrating concept to appreciate. However, since it is a necessary requirement of our degree I am not inclined to think – like students in courses where it is merely an advantage might – that it is a practice that unfairly discriminates against people who cannot afford to take the time off or whose “social situation” does not provide them with the all-important contacts to wriggle into that top advertising firm or publishing house. While I am sceptical about the emphasis placed on this module in terms of future prospects, I do appreciate their encouragement of students to “think big” and be limitless in our aspirations. And if anything, university is the ideal time to spend learning in your desired profession; when you are still enthusiastic about the possibilities that lie ahead and have numerous opportunities literally handed to you through organised programs and well connected lecturers.

The alternative being that you will be forced to take unpaid work as a graduate anyway when you find that your chosen industry is oversubscribed and you are jobless and penniless, student loan having dried up months ago.

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David vs Goliath continues

It began- or rather it ended- with a phone call. Taken at work, a representative from the travel insurance company I used for a trip to South Africa in January called to inform me that a cheque they had sent me to my old address had been returned to them. I wasn’t willing to appreciate the Erin Brockovich moment for what it was as I offered my new address, until I saw the evidence for myself in the post this afternoon.

The simplicity of this exchange belies the extremely complex and drawn-out nature of this complaint; lodged with the financial ombudsman at the beginning of the year after reimbursement for my hospital fees were rejected due to an apparent failure on my part to disclose all my medical history at the time of risk assessment.

My previous decision not to take medication for my diagnosed epilepsy is a choice I have had to defend on numerous occasions: to GP’s and specialists ranging from the well-intentioned to the dogmatic, family and friends, employers, witnesses and now my insurance company.

When I first lodged the refund, I received my first phone call from the claims department enquiring into the events that lead me to hospital – no doubt looking for any background information which could then be used against me. I’m sure if I were to put myself in their position I would be a cynical office worker, under great pressure to meet “rejection targets” and expose liars; only too aware of the existence of false insurance claims that undermine what is theoretically the good and necessary work they do. Or that’s how I would justify it.

Just as for every one of David Cameron’s “Benefit Thieves” making their living off the welfare system, there are many more genuine people who rely on a safety net such as insurance –state or private – as an assurance that they will looked after till they get back on their feet. Yet the responsibility fell to me to prove my innocence.

Without indulging too much the frustration this recent dispute has caused me, the fact that I had answered truthfully to all questions asked of me when requesting the cover was a greater motivation to seeking justice than the reality that I could not have afforded to pay the medical bills on my own.

When it arrived, the amount on the cheque was surprisingly smaller than what I had been expecting but perhaps my sense of entitlement to the payment inflated the value of it in my memory. As clichéd as it is to refer to it as a symbolic victory after a year punctuated at many points with exasperated phone calls and letters pleading my case, the final positive result felt overall anticlimactic.  

The letter I also received today from the adjudicator of the Financial Ombudsman Service managed to summarise the entire history of the dispute in two well researched and balanced pages as she came to the logical conclusion to uphold my complaint and make the insurance company responsible for my fees. I know she was simply doing her job, but I somehow feel indebted to her for these simple words represented the validation of my decision that I was so desperate to receive yet am often denied.

I am used to being on the defence in these epic battles; against credit card companies who don’t inform you when you have gone over the limit and then charge you exorbitant overdraft fees, late payment charges from banks, the library, utility companies and government institutions. I have written letters and made phone calls to them all, attempting to appeal to their sense of ethics and asking for pity in light of the situation (whatever that may be). Institutions and companies must by law review your case upon appeal but more often than not their initial decision is maintained and perhaps a carefully worded but absolute letter is sent with a feeble apology for the inconvenience, reaffirming that that is all they will accept responsibility for. I reluctantly fall back in line after the momentary dissent, mildly more content in the knowledge that “I tried” and certain battles are not worth pursuing further.

On any level it is good to receive this result now, even after such a lengthy and exhausting refusal – a reminder that rights are worth fighting for when you are motivated by that belief and not the money.

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A little to the left…

Is this the beginning of the end for Great Britain? The Keyboard warriors over at The Guardian seem to think so. The go-to news resource for the theoretical left-wingers has been working overtime since their long-time enemy The Conservative Party was elected into power in May.
For the individual citizen, the frustrating defeat of a preferred political party after a general election can be felt in so many devastatingly direct ways, once policies are implemented and the realities of new laws become apparent in every day life.
But for newspapers in the UK, whose editorial rhetoric is built on a foundation of adversarial politics, it is a goldmine of opportunities for infantile “I told you so” mud-slinging and doomsday predictions. Whether this approach is simply responsive to – or has actively formed – the nation’s obsession with its own social division I as an outsider cannot comment, but it is sadly reflective of a culture that can only categorise opinions in binary oppositions.

Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg highlighted this issue in his first address to his disgruntled party and betrayed voters over the Conservative coalition -or his “pact with the devil” as many saw it.

 ‘He insisted that he would not manufacture synthetic rows with the Conservatives simply to raise his party’s progressive identity. – He also admitted he was under constant pressure from friends and colleagues to pick a fight with the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and to show the extent to which his party was distinct from the Conservatives.’

I sympathise with his predicament. As a party that has become so comfortable holding opposition in parliament, it is a major shift in attitude to suddenly accept an ideological compromise, and that consequently you will have to accept some responsibility for your part in any decisions arising from that compromise.

While the Guardian did Support the Liberal Democrats in the election campaign, they have now taken up their usual antagonistic position to distance themselves from the party’s actions.

They are relishing the chance to rally readers into a passionate frenzy by constantly spouting not-to-subtle references to the “Thatcher Era” and the ominous future a revival of those polices would lead to.

Right on cue was Theo Hobson’s article that came out with this analogy of the two families (Schlegel and Wilcox) of the EM Forster novel Howards End and his explanation for society’s political division. It is as one commenter put it, self-congratulatory in its defence of liberal ideals and painfully simple in its depiction of any opinion other than his own… “If you’re not with us, then your AGAINST us” shouts the angry mob.

 Sneer ye not. Liberal guilt is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s really just the political expression of that rather old-fashioned thing, conscience.

If this little parade of privileged anxiety fills you with derision, then you are a Tory. Rejection of liberal guilt is the very cornerstone of the Tory soul, the unofficial definition of Tory. “Look how relaxed I am about my place at the feast,” says the Tory. “Regard my sense of entitlement. Inequality and privilege are nothing to be ashamed of; they are part of life, and life is good, n’est-ce pas?

Beware the “socialist” puritans, they say, who want the world to be radically different, who dream dreams and scheme schemes, and worry that someone somewhere is having fun. Don’t be anxious about your status as a comfy bourgeoisie, but blumming well rejoice in it, you chump!”

Now I couldn’t claim to be a socialist in any traditional sense of the word- I’m sure this is more than directly related to my consumerist leanings – but then I have no illusions that anyone over at The Guardian is either.

Yet still another day, another guardian article: even mildly suggestible readers such as myself- although aware of their scaremongering tactics – find it hard to resist the temptation to wade through the days headlines as they fill up my inbox:
“Poor in the UK dying 10 years earlier than rich, despite government action”

“Graduates warned of record 70 applicants for every job”

“The emergency budget: Taking from the poor”

As well as reporting/commenting/propagandising on a huge number of issues relating to Broken Britain’s failing society via prison system reforms, decriminalising drugs, veganism and whether it is ever acceptable to wear nude coloured tights. (Shiny or matt I ask?)

While newspapers have in some ways kept their initial purpose of providing commentary on daily events to the public, it is not the content of their articles that provide the best insight into shifts of public opinion and socio-political trends.

As a testament to the strength of their social opinion engineering, I find myself eagerly lapping up hours to-ing and fro-ing between the respective arguments that inevitably populate the comments section below any of their articles. Focusing hard to ignore all the shameless stereotyping that becomes the default retort to any statement a reader disagrees with, I try to take in all perspectives and form a balanced opinion. Yet as soon as I think I have found the definitive solution to one of society’s ills, another responder comes up with an equally convincing argument to derail the previous statement. How does anyone manage to be so zealous and resolute in their entire outlook on life, when I cannot even decide if minimum pricing on alcohol is a path to reduced consumption?

I used to worry that I couldn’t understand British politics- and how it intertwined with their social structure- enough to write authoritatively on the subject. Now I realise that that is the case with most of the British public, including the journalists, whose job it was to educate them.

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Is this the beginning of the end?

Perhaps a little unjustly, I do judge a workplace on the strength of their kitchen supplies.

In the world of temporary employment with non existent company-employee loyalty, any given jobs’ fringe benefits -and occasional fridge benefits- are often the only motivation (outside of sheer financial desperation) to not only justify the insultingly low basic rates, but also increase them, if only superficially.

In my current job, noticing the steady decline in tea bag quality available and the various inter-office correspondences regarding this issue only spells trouble to me when compared to the halcyon days from a few months ago of PG tips and freshly delivered milk for a coffee or cereal.

According to HR, our office has seen a spade of “unexplained disappearances” in our drinking supplies which has now warranted storing them at reception, requiring a signature to procure an allocated amount for your area.

No doubt the assumption in management is that employees influenced by the current recession (as has become the default scapegoat for any conveniently timed office cutbacks) are stockpiling these valuable commodities in their homes for when this currently office-based rationing goes national.

So instead, we have reverted back to the antiquated 2-dimensional squares, no string-and-tag or even a label so you know what you’re getting- and that’s only if you’re lucky enough to even snag one of the limited supplies before the pre-lunch rush.

What should the public think of a national institution that fails to see the value in the far superior brewing ability of the pyramid shaped bags? I should think they would be more concerned with waiting times in hospitals or fears of death under anaesthesia, but from my limited vision as a lowly admin clerk, the two problems are of equal weight.

As any dedicated anglophile will know, Tea (with capital letters to emphasise its importance) is not simply a hot drink you keep at your desk for the intermittent sip. It is the staple of any happy and productive workforce and a signifier of the “health” (pardon the pun, if you know me well enough to recognise it) of a company/organisation’s future.  

I recall one such multi-billion pound international bank’s head office in Canary Wharf that I temped for had the nerve to charge people for tea and coffee, and even hot water from the cafeteria. I am currently in the process of closing my bank account with them (with many frustrating attempts) after this proved only the beginnings of their stingy, exploitative corporate mantra.

So could it be no coincidence now that my manager has announced his resignation?

Has he gone on to greener pastures; the mythical utopian office where Twinings sit aplenty on the communal kitchen bench top- with all palates and caffeine requirements catered for? “No, I wanted more money” – was his candid response- although in fairness I didn’t refer to this situation when querying his decision to leave. I guess we all have different priorities.

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Yeah, but IS IT ART?

It is surprising and disheartening to see how such a topic as contemporary art could illicit such emotionally charged responses within media reporting or informal conversation- or how these two outlets of opinion would converge in synchronicity in the past week, bringing my own experiences as an art gallery volunteer to relevance just as it has come to an end.

The Herbert Art Gallery exhibition From Here to There was devised around works held in The Arts council collection with a loosely connected theme of journeys and transitions in all the art. The curator deliberately chose the work of artists “living in Britain” that people with minimal art background will recognise and there was a mix of painting, photography, installation, sculpture and illustration.

The concept behind the volunteering initiative had been noble enough to entice many creative students and local artistic enthusiasts to offer up their time to promoting the exhibition and its message through “public engagement” with the works themselves. From the onset, we had been prepared for the challenge faced of a local family-friendly gallery in the English Midlands with breaking down the barriers that visitors have towards contemporary art, especially when presented with it in an atypical setting.

The reality meant that -akin to a sales assistant hovering cautiously over a potential buyer for the right moment to sell- our friendly smiles and innocent conversation-starters were quickly rebuffed  with a cynical  “I’m just looking” attitude.

Sometimes grown adults with supposed autonomy appear oddly resentful of even being there, as if coerced by social expectations towards cultural appreciation, despite their instinctual tendencies to the contrary.

As I approach, the visitors makes it clear that they don’t want to be disturbed and offering them an unsolicited explanation can be interpreted as an insinuation that they don’t (or couldn’t) understand the work -that being the reason they don’t like it.

Often the excuse is the well-worn phrase, “Well I could do that” and I think to myself: YES- and why shouldn’t it be like that? Art is not some exclusive, sacred talent bestowed from on high upon a select group of lofty geniuses. Their work does not have to be the unattainable aspiration of us lowly peasants who could only hope to master two-point perspective; if this was the only way we could justify paying for something, could we never appreciate the work of another?

Some people seem to yearn for what I see as the old boys club that was classical artists- tightly controlled work commissioned by religious institutions and royalty that was technically deft but leaves me a emotionally indifferent when I pass by the grand scale paintings of historical events and biblical stories.

So I liked being in gallery three the most; a more intimate space at the end of the exhibition I sat amongst the decaying red gerberas of Anya Gallacio’s Can love remember the question and the answer, Mark Quinn’s eternally preserved Garden² and of course, Tracey Emin’s looped video Why I never became a dancer, where she narrates the story of her adolescence in the go-nowhere British seaside town of Margate. Despite its frank sexual references that threaten the delicate sensibilities of local gallery visitors, it is usually the one I take people to see first or one which I observe with great interest peoples reactions as a sit passively on my invigilators chair. It is sad that many people have lost the ability to interact with another’s journey for more than two minutes (for which Emin’s video was over 6) and many walk away before the triumphant dance finale to Sylvesters You make me feel.

I, like many others had my initial reservations about the members of the Young British Artists super hype to emerge in early 1990’s Britain without having really experienced it first-hand. So when I encountered Emin’s softly-spoken yet commanding voice slicing through the silence for the first time in the gallery, as she chants SLAG, SLAG, SLAG I felt part of an exclusive conversation with the artist and my previous assumptions were dispelled.

I am either too eager to connect with the experiences of strangers or am a naïve, highly suggestible appreciator of vulgar tat, mindlessly following trendy creative and social movements that I am blinded to the lack of artistic merit in most of contemporary art. Or so it would seem after reading Charles Saatchi donates 200 art works to the nation, the article that was published on The Guardian website on Thursday the 1st of July. Within the 24 allocated hours of public input, the comment free-for-all had racked up 177 comments of highly contrasting opinion. 

Much mud-slinging was reserved for Saatchi himself and his dubious past in the commercial art sector but there was the typical scorn for the bourgeois values of the assumed middle-class Guardian demographic.

Emin was held up for ritual sacrifice for the atrocities that the Young British Artist community had imposed on the traditional art loving nation and despite some well-intentioned support for both Emin and Saatchi, comments that emphasised their ability to also create/appreciate/collect art in the “traditional sense” – “Do you know Tracey Emin can also paint?” – only seeks to further this perception that contemporary art must continually justify its existence as an imposter on work that is more uniformly valued.

Many of the positive comments on the Charles Saatchi saga touched on the preservation of these works as artefacts of their time and place and their historical relevance, rather than focusing on whether the works were attractive, appealing or particularly skilful demonstrations of their medium.

The works to make up the collection at his Chelsea Gallery -to eventually be renamed The Museum of Contemporary Art, London when the building itself becomes state-owned, yet privately financed- represent £25m worth of contemporary art from across Britain and Europe.

Yet as one reader saw it: 

“Do you really believe that in 100/200 years time people-who hopefully haven’t been brainwashed at art school by some failed, talentless, bitter drunkard-are going to believe most of this tat is really and truly great art? Though it does kind of represent a place and time. Brit Art, Brit pop and Nu labour with its Cool Britania rhetoric are all intrinsically linked. But they will all only be remembered on any level as fashion, bullshit, hype and fraud. None of which necessarily have any place in great art, really just some modern “art”. There are some great modern artists out there, but most of you middle class guardian reader types don’t have a clue who they are.”

Despite many comments not recognising the important distinction between the Contemporary Art that Saatchi collects and the generic term they refer to it as “Modern Art”, which technically covers a specific artistic period in history now finished, undoubtedly the issue of contempt for most of the critics of contemporary work stems from what people concede as an unjustifiably high monetary value placed on individual works or the works of a particular artist.

Without delving too much into the logic of the supply and demand economic principals that affect the art industry just as they do any commodity, I always refer back to an anecdote my high school art teacher once relayed to us; the time when the Gogh Whitlam government purchased Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles for the National Gallery of Australia in 1973. At US$ 2 million it was the highest price ever paid for a modern painting at the time and this inevitably lead to mass outcry at such reckless spending of public money.

The painting is now one of the most popular exhibits in the gallery, and now is thought to be worth as much as AU$180 million. Of course this last part is perhaps irrelevant; art has value that cannot be concluded in monetary terms- for the individual viewer, the owner, the state and for society as a whole.

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Open your mouth and say…

Something struck me as a little nonsensical about requesting an analytical piece of writing intended to reflect not only the process but the outcome of four pieces of group work created for our 122 MC Media and Cultural Fields module. In doing this, we were expected to relate these back to theories of Propp, Todorov, Barthes and several others, exploring narrative, genre and ideology- all within 1500 words.

I love to write; I obsessively analyse the minutiae of life and often attempt to extract meaning from what may actually be trivial occurrences. But I tend to favour a more organic writing style whereby I begin writing with my own idea and then research further on the topic to either reinforce, or possibly contradict what I have said. Often on my blog I will provide links to material I have discovered for the interest of readers or to give them a clearer picture of an idea I am trying to express. But this is not the case in academic writing.

Perhaps I am just failing to grasp the continued relevance of such an institution-wide mode of education assessment as the essay. Some of this resistance I freely admit stems from my own resentment towards what I perceive to be the elitist thinking of the academic community, an inferiority burden that delayed my desire to even attend university for several years.

This could also be the result of youthful arrogance interfering with my ability to humbly accept the wisdom of my predecessors and contemporaries, expecting majority credit for ideas that would surely have been inspired by previous thought, if not directly referencing it.

Referencing, while important to prevent attempted plagiarism, for me is the academic equivalent of name dropping in conversation, as in __(insert theorists name here)__; who you know is more important that what you know. You are fed theories that are considered fact by virtue of the majority’s agreement as you sit passively in a lecture before being sent away to regurgitate them on a paper. In the same way that school exam preparation trains you to quickly absorb and relate vast amounts of information- which years down the line you won’t recall- essays are another way that educational institutions must standardise their assessment methods by removing any possible subjectivity from the learning process.

Its not simply an ideological disagreement, this paint-by-numbers style of essay writing is also highly impractical for me due to its unnatural information-gathering process. Sure, I could express my own subjective commentary on the works we created, and those opinions would have been formed through my understanding of the media and cultural theories we have studied but none of these thoughts are valid (read: point-scoring) in an assessable paper if I cannot quote others who have said the same thing.

So, motivated by the need for a good mark, I gathered as many quotes as I could from all the required reading. I then attempted to shoehorn some original thoughts of my own in between the large expanses of ideas cordoned off in quotation marks.

What I was left in the end with an incoherent narration of ideas, paragraphs tenuously linked together with lazy -but importantly, brief – sentences that reflected my miscomprehension of the point of the whole exercise. But I delivered the requested product, on time and within word limit so it will more than likely meet the requirements for a passing grade. And even though I may regard it as a personal failure writing-wise, luckily for me, I can’t take credit for most of it.

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