Another iconic photograph from the 20c

Photograph by Don McPhee.

When I started this blog, I decided it would not be political in nature. But I couldn’t leave 2019 without looking back at what I call “the off-set 20th century,” the period from the Great War to this year. It is the century that saw the rise and fall of the working class. Even now I can hear the objections that I, as a lower-middle-class person, am bourgeoisplaining because I pretend to speak for the working class. As we look forward to 2020, I reply that someone bloody well has to, as they have just voted for their own extinction.

During the off-set 20c we have seen movements that were supposed to liberate the working class degenerate into oligarchies. Mikhail Bakunin said “If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Tsar himself,” and he wasn’t far wrong. On the other side we have seen trans-national corporations exert, retain, and consolidate their grip on our minds and pockets. Under Xi, China now enjoys (?) the worst of both worlds.

In the early-mid-1980s, Margaret Thatcher set about her programme of dismantling British pluralism. Her telos was that power should reside in the hands of large business, facilitated by a light-touch, laissez faire government. All other influences – public corporations, the civil service, the trades unions – were to be abolished or neutered. By proxy, she took on the most powerful trades union in the land, the NUM, and defeated it. The miners were on a hiding to nothing from the start, the strike ruined them financially and the media ruined their reputation. The country did not realise what they were witnessing.

Leaving aside – hard though it might be – the dreariness of the subject, let me turn to yet another iconic photo of the 20c. Don McPhee happened to be in the right place at the right time, to take a picture of an almost friendly face-off between a young policeman and a striking miner. It carries with it just one ray of hope – that people can find a spark of humour at the worst of times. That is a message I would like to broadcast for 2020.

There’s not going to be much to laugh about. So have a good holiday season, enjoy that the longest night is behind us, light a Hanukkah candle, haul in a Yule log, remember the birth of Christ, raise a glass on Hogmanay and toast double-visaged Janus. Or just keep yourselves warm and wait for the snowdrops and crocuses. See you next year.

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Playing with (my?) gender: a phenomenological view

People like simple explanations. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Nothing works like that except for the inevitability that this life will end. What comes between birth and death is uncertainty in all its glorious dynamism, and maddening complexity. In vain do we try to set up, in our imagination, an unassailable dais from which we, as gods, can look down and analyse what we see. Try as we may, what we think we are looking down on tantalises us by being annoyingly different from the sum of its parts. And try as we may, we cannot forget – if it is little more than a niggling for the most ‘rational’ amongst us – that we have put our imagination into play, that most irrational of psychic playthings.

To create that dais, we have tried to divorce ourselves from the very experience of being human, our head-on collision with a million-million-million instantaneous phenomena each waking day, and the consequences of each collision – what Gaston Bachelard calls “the phenomenological doublet of resonances and repercussions” (7). Each encounter with a phenomenon evokes something born of memory; it associates with something we already know or, rather, with an array of things we know, and even with images that we can’t see any connection to. Some of these associations dissipate and disappear immediately, others brighten even to the point of being eidetic; those that last beyond the instant blend, to extents we cannot measure, with the next phenomenon. Or they die as suddenly as they came, despite their brilliance. Memories, even those of eidetic brilliance, are never pure recordings of the past, however, but are fleshed out with the imagination, that “major power of human nature” as Bachelard calls it (18). And this cannot in any way be analysed: “[…] the poetic act itself, the sudden image, the flare-up of being in the imagination, are inaccessible” to investigation (2).

Nothing about us, nothing in us, can be static, even that which we ‘know’ to be the most static. Each of these experiences changes us, and because a change no matter how small it is alters the relationships between those inaccessible, analysis-resistant components of our whole, each moment we are alive brings a metanoia – a change in the state of being – which may be only slight but, even if we do not realise it, can be as radical as that of Saul on the Damascus road.

I have looked at my own gender ever since I was a child. Sometimes the issues this introspection has thrown up have been profoundly disturbing, distressing, and puzzling. Feeling that one has to ask not “who am I?” but “what am I?” is a dysphoric, chaotic thing. It is only since I have approached the philosophy of human experience that I have had the courage to regard this chaos as a ride!

I’ll come back to that ride shortly. Meanwhile…

Studying gender in literature – studying gender in any context, let’s face it – brings one hard up against the fact that language governs thought. By and large we are not developing the language we speak and write, we have developed it (discuss!). Usage and argot are tinkered with, so that odd things change here and there, and things slip a little over time; but by and large we do not express what we directly experience, rather we speak in pre-existing metaphors replete with pre-existing meaning, a process which makes us interpret those experiences according to those meanings. Our expectations are informed and governed, our behaviour is informed and governed, our physical actions are informed and governed, our sense of who we are or who we ought to be is informed and governed, all these and more things in our lives are informed and governed by these pre-existing meanings. We use this to shore up our pitiful defences against the onslaught of psyche-altering phenomena, as we cling on desperately to what we hope is ‘reality’.

In my research, which looks at, inter alia, the way gender attaches to bodies within specific texts, I have noticed that despite attempts to disassociate one from the other, one of the factors that keeps pulling us back is the etymology of the language we use. One of the ways in which people who examine their own gender approach this problem is to experiment with the use of pronouns, to make them the subject of their choice rather than labels hung round their neck by custom and usage. They recognise no societal control over their appropriation of “he” or “she.” Or they take “they” and make an epicene singular of it, and fair dos to them.

What they can’t shake off, however, is the etymology of the words “he” and “she.” The etymology, the common usage, the semiotics of these words, all attach to sex-gender (I use the term “sex-gender” to convey the general understanding out there of linked body and behaviour) whether we like it or not. Users seeking an expression of their own identity actually import and appropriate an existing identity, which they then allow to define them, and if that identity is governed by a sex-gender vocabulary, then they run into the danger of taxonomising themselves by that terrible ‘either/or’. And taxonomy is a system not of gathering together likes, but of rejecting supposed unlikes.

All this contributes to the reasoning behind my playing around with new epicene words, starting with the pronoun “choy,” which is a substitute for the masculine pronoun, and enables me to conceive of applying it outside of sex-gender, and from this point I can avoid further use of the m-word. A caveat here: I am not proposing yet another pronoun to join the alphabet soup of epicene alternatives to he/she/they that already exist and are deployed out there, I am simply using my own as an experimental tool for the purposes of this article; if you have a better word yourself, then use it. The ‘other’ to “choy” in my arsenal of pronouns would be “zhai” (analogous to the f side of sex-gender, but etymologically and therefore conceptually detached from it).

Having dreamt up (if you like!) these terms I can begin to play, to enjoy the ride, to recognise in the way I react to the myriad phenomena, my residual choy-ness and/or my wonderful zhai-ness, to choose to deploy one more than the other or to acknowledge that one is operating more than the other in me, and to accept the counter-dance that happens when the next phenomenon and/or the next memory challenges my choice. All this seems to take me away from Judith Butler’s notion of “performative” gender, or gender as performance (24), and turns it into a matter of play. A fairground ride, but one where the track is being continuously built, and where the performative statements “I am choy-ish” or “I am zhai-ish” have meanings which remake themselves, or are remade, with every utterance silent or spoken.

To many people this topic can never be a matter of play, however, and I recognise only too well the privilege I am exercising by suggesting that, for me, it can be. To those people it is a struggle, and mainly a struggle not of their own making. To other people, including at least one regular reader of this blog, it is a puzzle and an irritation as to why people can’t simply align, and acknowledge the alignment of, their bodies and their gender – it would make life a lot simpler. But that’s where we return to my original point – there is no simplicity, the god’s-eye-view dais has fallen under our feet, and with it analysis fails, simplicity fails. Much as we want the world to stand still for us eppur si muove!

And don’t forget it’s not simply gender that is constantly on the move in us, but everything else about us. (Discuss!)

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Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Marie Jolas,

Penguin Classics, 2014.

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Inside/Out:

Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss, Routledge,

1991, pp13-31.

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Only a pawn in their game

Medgar Evers. Legacy.com

In a recent tweet, pithy and to the point, Dr. Oni Blackstock reminded us that: “Intersectionality is not just the concept of intersecting identities. Intersectionality is specifically about the intersection of marginalized identities and how intersecting systems of oppression serve to further marginalize and disempower.”

I wouldn’t disagree with a word of that, except perhaps to say that marginalisation is more indiscriminate than we imagine, and sometimes mocks the categories and identities that we set up.

On the 12th of June 1963, WW2 veteran and Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered outside his own home in Jackson, Mississippi. He was buried with full military honours in Arlington Cemetery, on the 19th of June. His murderer, white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, evaded punishment until 1994, when he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment; he died in prison in 2001.

Bob Dylan commemorated the murder of Medgar Evers in his song ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’. In order to make it a piece of social commentary, however, he fictionalised and anonymised his murderer. He did so to remind us that systems of oppression do not simply exert oppression, they also contain it. The ‘poor white’ of Dylan’s ballad is at the bottom of the social heap, but his marginalisation within the system means that he can be easily recruited as a foot soldier in the exertion of that external oppression – the familiar concept of victim becoming victimiser.

Though the message of the song was specific to the era of Civil Rights protests, it has new resonances now. The concept amongst the resurgent nationalist and supremacist right, that they have been forgotten and pushed to the back of the queue, may be more tenuous than it was back in the days of “poverty shacks,” but the rhetoric of the powerful – the billionaire and Eton-bred politicians – has been tailored to incite them to push back at the advances that the likes of Medgar Evers died in the struggle for. This is something we need to keep in mind.

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J is for Jawlensky

Alexei von Jawlensky did a series of very similar ‘Abstract Head’ paintings, of which this is one. Like many early 20c European artists, Jawlensky was fascinated by face masks that came out of the cultures of Africa. Like many such artists, he probably misinterpreted them, failing to see their sophistication; but what that misinterpretation went on to produce was very bold and striking art in its own right. African culture had given something unexpected to European art.

In this painting, a series of simple lines and patches of colour suggest an impassive face, the eyes hidden by shade, the head possible topped by a hat or simple headdress, or perhaps just by a flick of hair. The colours in this painting are less garish than in some others in the series, and as Jawlensky believed that colour spoke directly to the viewer’s emotions, this may be why the face seems impassive to me. Other paintings in this series use different colours to different effect, in what is essentially the same composition.

[Note: The paintings in this series are all over the internet. It is hardly worth attempting to give a citation!]

One of the most iconic photographs of the 20c

Photograph Bob Jackson/AP

It is very seldom that the very moment of a murder is caught on camera, and caught so vividly. This one, taken by photographer Bob Jackson, showing the fatal shooting by Jack Ruby of Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy, won a Pulitzer Prize. The perfection of the shot has led to many conspiracy theories; the angle is just right, Oswald is crumpling inwards instead of being thrown back by the force of the shot, the posture of Detective James R. Leavelle – the large man wearing a light-coloured suit and hat, to whom Oswald is handcuffed – is straight out of the silent movies, and the photo seems to have been taken from a single pace behind Ruby. It is even more remarkable when one considers that it was taken decades before cameras could take several exposures per second at the press of a button.

However, the fact that this famous image is cropped from a larger photograph, shown below, means that the story begins to fill out. Jackson’s vantage point is further away, and in fact the shot was taken around the left shoulder of another man who was several feet away from the incident. It’s true that many of the other people in the shot seem to be simply standing there as though waiting for something to play out, but “simply standing there” was exactly what they were supposed to be doing, whatever their job was. Take the man with the microphone, possibly a radio reporter: his expression is impassive, but just at that moment he has not had time to react to what is happening, and his view of the incident is blocked. Detective Leavelle can be seen to have his hand on Oswald’s belt, trying to jerk him round behind his own body, to put himself between his prisoner and the shooter, so that might be what is pulling Oswald’s body inwards. Capturing what is almost banal about the larger scene is as much a feat of news photography as is the presentation of the cropped image – maybe even more so. There is so much vérité here, or rather actualité.

Photograph Bob Jackson/AP

James R. Leavelle died yesterday, at the age of 99. By a strange quirk of synchronicity, his death was announced at about the same time that the stabbing in prison of Sirhan Bishaa Sirhan was reported. Sirhan was the man convicted of killing President Kennedy’s brother Robert in 1968. Forty years later the San Diego Union Tribune cited that assassination as the first major incident of political violence in the USA directly related to the situation in the Middle East*. Leavelle, Oswald, Ruby, and two Kennedy brothers are dead**, and it seems that only Sirhan remains as a relict and reminder of an extraordinary period in US history.

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*I believe the comment was made on the 8thof June 2008, but due to expired links I can’t verify the source. If I find a link in the future I shall amend this footnote.

**Four, in fact, as older brother Joseph died in 1944, and younger brother Edward in 2009. I believe Jean Ann is the only Kennedy sibling of that generation who is still alive.

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The Book Festival: Photo-mix 2019

Today is the last day of the 2019 Edinburgh International Book Festival, and as usual (though not usually on this blog until now) I have put together a collection of some of the snapshots I have taken during the fortnight-plus. I say “snapshots” deliberately. I use a second-hand Nikon D50, which is hardly cutting-edge. The pro photographers at the Festival rather look down on me, I guess. But I have simply been trying to capture some of the Festival atmosphere, starting with the inevitable picture of Prince Albert, who this year has a slightly unusual background while work is in progress on the dome of West Register House.

#CandidShots
You’ll see that tag as a caption to several of my pictures. The Festival Press Office has told me not to take pictures of the writers and performers other than at book-signings or at an organised photo-call. I try, I really do! But as I wander round, I take the equivalent of ‘street scenes’ in Charlotte Square Gardens, which I maintain are fair game, and they provide some welcome variety. Sometimes that means I snap interesting people by chance, sometimes it’s Jason Reynolds being interviewed on camera or Jackie Kay at an informal moment, and these are hard shots to resist. Other people are happily snapping away with their smartphones all the while! As it happens, I’ve included neither of those shots in the following mix, but some others are below simply because they represent the ambience of the Festival, and I make no apology for them.

It has been another wonderful Festival. I am very grateful for the Press Office for giving me a media pass once again, and I look forward to 2020. There is so much going on behind all the events and activities – for one thing there is a tireless contingent of staff assisting the festival-goers, selling books, conducting speakers, handling security, dealing with us pestiferous media folk, handling the technology, and so on. You all do a brilliant job. Congratulations!

Joanne Harris signing books in the Edinburgh Gin Company Tent.
#CandidShots. The main theatre has a new name this year.
Neil Oliver is always a very good subject on a photo-call. He takes the trouble to look straight at each camera lens in turn.
‘Blast Off’ was a session for children of all ages on the jobs that a person can be involved with in the field of space exploration. Astronomer Sheila Kanani was the draw for this event in the Spiegeltent.
#CandidShots. The space inside the main bookshop has widened since it was merged with the children’s bookshop in one single area. There’s still space to sit and enjoy traybakes and coffees.
The staff in sky blue work very hard, preparing venues, staffing information points, hosting customers and checking their tickets, so it’s nice to be able to take a break now and then. What better way to spend it than reading a book!
It doesn’t take the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency to track down Alexander McCall Smith.
One of the political figures visiting the Festival was leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, Ruth Davidson.
Scottish sporting hero Chris Hoy – the Golden Postbox Man himself – was a great draw…
… as were his books!
#CandidShots. This is Festival Director Nick Barley, who stopped for a couple of words with someone queueing for the Spiegeltent.
Veteran Labour politician Roy Hattersley…
… keeping the camera squad busy! #CandidShots
One of the reasons I was at the Festival this year was the James Tait Black Prize. I had been one of the postgraduate readers, and it was good to see the shortlisted books on the shelf in the main bookshop.
And the winners were, as previously reported, Lindsey Hilsum (biography) and Olivia Laing (fiction). This photo is reproduced courtesy of the University of Edinburgh and is ©Lesley Martin.
Sometimes it rained, but there was always a silver lining.
The resident photographer at the Festival is Chris Close. His work is hung around the walkways, and is one reason to keep coming back to the Festival during the whole of its run, to check on new hangings. Some of his work from this year is below, in montages I’ve put together.
Melanie Reid, Justin Davies, and Arundhati Roy, ©Chris Close.
Martin Rowson, Kei Miller, ©Chris Close.
Ian Rankin channeling Oor Wullie, complete with bucket, Jack Monroe, and a sinister shot of Dougie Irvine and Osvar Silva. ©Chris Close.
Journalist Peter Hitchens.
#CandidShots. The Ace of Spades, the Ace of Spades!
Juxtaposing two bits of signage stresses that it’s important to be able to read and write!
Exclamation marks signal what you mustn’t do and what you must do!
Val McDermid, Geetha Marcus, and Danny Dorling.
Jamie Susskind, who delved into the possible future of AI.
#CandidShots. A walkway scene.
Stefi Orazi, who was at the Festival promoting her fascinating book on 20c architectural design and contemporary living, ‘Modernist Estates – Europe: The Buildings and the People who Live in Them Today’.
#CandidShots. Seizing the opportunity to grab a selfie! (The Festival ‘blueshirt’ with the phone camera is off-shot.)
Nikesh Shukla stands firm in the face of lenses!
#CandidShots. Chilling out!
Sue Perkins is ready to rock!
Reflections in the window of the Spiegeltent – ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’?
#CandidShots. I’ll tell you this much – I was out of there before the start of the evening ritual!

The copyright of the photos in this post rests with myself, except where indicated otherwise. Please do not use them elsewhere without first getting permission from me.

The Politics of Prizes: Rightful Winners?

The Politics of Prizes: Rightful Winners?
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and Fiammetta Rocco; chaired by Heather Parry
Garden Theatre, Charlotte Sq. Gardens
Edinburgh International Book Festival
2.15pm. 25thAugust

Yet another fairly short report coming up, mainly because this was such an engrossing event so how could I possibly sit there taking notes or tweeting odd sound bites? To have a former Booker Prize judge who is now the Chair of the Caine Prize for African Writing, and the Administrator of the Man Booker International Prize for fiction on the same platform to discuss what drives literary prizes – their scope, their criteria for selection, their judging, their very raison d’être – is something for which one sits up and takes notice and doesn’t waste time with jottings.

One idea that was floated by a member of the audience and taken up by the panel, was that what we read colours what we expect literature to be – “We are all made by the books that are inside us.” Therefore judges of literary competitions, being human, can’t help but be shaped by the culture, in particular the culture of reading, that they were brought up with and live with. Fiammetta Rocco celebrates the fact that judges can’t really be expected to be objective, because books impact on the heart as much as on the head. Judging is a very subjective business.

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey made a distinction between offering a prize specifically to writers with an African heritage, and creating an imprint specifically for them. The former is a way of encouraging people to write, the latter is a way of segregating them – I am paraphrasing here and doing so in a very lean way. I have written in a previous post about the way that genre prizes, such as the Hugo or Nebula for Science Fiction, and the Eisner for graphic novels stimulate and encourage the particular brilliance of each. Genre-specialisation in publishing is accepted, as is gender-specialisation – one only has to think of Virago – so this is not an easy question to deal with. I think Ellah made a convincing argument; however, publishing houses are there to make money, and that will always be their prime motivation. If pressure from the likes of the Chair of the Caine Prize could persuade them that it is in their (vested) interest to offer a broader list, whether that is in terms of genre or authors’ heritage or any other consideration, then that might be for the better!

What of the future? The e-book has not yet obliterated hard copy, driving Waterstones from the High Street and WHSmith from the station concourse, but what impact will the affordances of the future have on literary prize-giving? Who has enough clairvoyance to say! If you have, then feel free to leave it in the comments section below.

EIBF 8
Photo of Fiammetta Rocco ©The Economist; photo of Ellah Wakatama Allfrey ©New African Woman.

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Many thanks to Ellah and Fiammetta for their insights, to Heather Parry for chairing the event, and to Festival Director Nick Barley for inviting members of the James Tait Black Prize postgraduate reading team to be in the audience. We were honoured to be included and fascinated by the discussion.

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