26 Sep 2016

The Art of Photography: Alex’s Perspective

So: is photography an art? And why is Alex, your (I hope) favourite writer of all things fantastic, romantic, and political, suddenly talking about it?

Perhaps a little introduction is in order. Recently—as of a few months—yours truly has been interested in photography. He has scoured the web for photography advice, detailed technical explanations, reviews of various photography gear (they are remarkably informative), and read critiques of fine photography. He has almost developed an obsession; but then, for Alex, hobby has always bordered dangerously close to obsession. He would not have been a published writer at 16 otherwise.

Anyway, the content of this post will be concerned with answering two questions. What are the fundamental characteristics of art? (This is a question Alex has explored before, albeit in less detail.) And secondly, to what extent can photography be considered art? Finally, Alex will also share some of his own experiences with photography; the photos he’s taken, and what it felt to be taking them.

What Defines Art?

As it happens, this is a philosophical question. Aristotle, in his Poetics, addressed this. And what did he think, you ask? Well; to Aristotle, art is a representation of the real world. This is similar to Plato’s position (his master) but distinct from it in one important way: whereas Plato thought art worthless—a mere shadow of the real thing—Aristotle believed that art, through imitation, could reveal facets of our life otherwise hidden.

What’s my take on this? As you might expect, I don’t buy into either theory. Art is not an imitation of something—that’s a crucial mistake. It may seem so, ostensibly; but this is a superficial analysis. Allow me to peruse some examples.

Fantasy is the most obvious counter-example. It is difficult to see how demons, vampires, werewolves, mages, and the Fae can be classed as ‘an imitation of reality’. Certainly—they may possess some of the qualities of humans. That is what makes them so powerful; they are uncanny. Like us, but not.

But of course, in fantasy, faeries and mages are not elaborate metaphors for people in real life. In fantasy, faeries are faeries and mages are mages. (Yes, I am guilty of abusing the tautology.)

But even in other genres, I feel the classification is inaccurate. What I see in art is not imitation; it is creation. The beauty and power of art lies in the fact that is born of an artist’s imagination—that ideas which seem too crazy in the real world, or which have no precedent elsewhere, can actually be explored through the medium of art.

RELATED: The poems Objet D’Art and Essence explore some of these ideas in poetic form

Anyway, what does my theory of aesthetics mean in practice? The essential elements of art, I believe, are the following:

  1. It is something that the artist creates through the use of their imagination. Be it music, art, or fantasy worlds ;)
  2. It contains emotion; this is part of what makes art so powerful.
  3. It has a peculiar abstract quality.

You may wonder at the third condition. Why, do you wonder, is art abstract? I believe answering this question in totality (if that is indeed possible) would require extensive philosophical digression—and is thus beyond the purlieu of this post. Instead, I will answer the question in descriptive, rather than normative terms; what art is rather than what it should be.

A cursory examination of art immediately reveals what I mean. There’s something intangible about art—it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to say why a particular melody seems to resonate with our psyche, while another falls flat in dissonance. It is hard to say why some art is beautiful, and moves us, while other art leaves us bored. Why do some books become huge bestsellers, while others flounder?

Once more; this is a difficult question requiring extensive discussion. Personally, I believe art has an objective and a subjective element. Some art resonates with us on a deeply personal level—it appeals to something inherent in our personality. But there is also a general status of art. Technique, be it in writing, composing songs or drawing, does noticeably improve art.

In any case, I have presented the 3 key elements of art. The second question of this post is, of course, whether photography can classify as art. My answer is yes; photography is art in much the same way painting is. But it may not be immediately obvious why this should be so...

Photography as Art

‘Isn’t photography just snapping a picture? How is that art?’ Without doubt, this is the most common question asked by non-photographers. Answering it requires some familiarity with photography.

You see, photography as an art form is a very different beast from the ugly snapshots your average Joe takes in their average family holiday. The latter is indeed not art—it’s just pointing the camera and hitting a button. But the former; that is quite another matter.

The reason for this has to do with photographic input. Artistic photographs require something from its creator; they are a product of deliberate artistic intent. To take a beautiful photograph, the photographer has to think about where to take the shot; what elements she wishes to include and what elements she wishes to crop; and she needs to consider how colour, contrast, and depth of field combine to make a beautiful photo.

These ideas can be illustrated with the help of some photos:

See what I mean? The latter photo has no focus; it just is, so to speak. It does not tell a particular artistic or aesthetic story; it does not contain emotion; it is not particularly abstract; and it requires no great input on my part.

Whereas the former photo, taken by Soner B., exemplifies the opposite. It tells an aesthetic story; it makes you feel a particular way. (For me, warmth, and the wildness of nature.) And it of course it took some effort on the part of its creator in order to stage it.

For an even more dramatic example, consider the iconic photo by Yousuf Karsh:

Yousuf Karsh Churchill photo

Alex’s Interest in Photographic Art

So what is about photography that tugs at our darling writer’s heart? Transience, would be one answer. Photography captures a fleeting moment of real life: the particular vermilion shade of a sunset; the dimpled smile in a moment of joy; the neon hues of a city at night.

Another explanation would be... perspective. In taking photography to a higher level, I have found that I need to think, intimately, about how perspective can change the appearance of a scene. This skill is one that has—to some degree at least—carried over to my writing. I have found myself thinking about how a scene would be different if it were written from his point of view instead of hers; how would a plot carry with this scene instead of that; what do two characters see in the same situation?

So there you have it. Alex—writer extraordinaire, and photographer?

Below you will find some of Alex’s best photos so far. Naturally, Alex is working on improving his technique (and on buying proper equipment, once suitable funds have been drawn up).

Feedback, as usual, is appreciated.

20 Sep 2016

On Free Speech

Hello readers!

You may be wondering what Alex has been doing these past couple of days. He has already spoken on his experience thus far at university; but what, you wonder, of his writing? Has the Ark been assiduously extended and revised?

The answer to this question is of course: I have been busy writing the first chapter of part three, and have made changes regarding the tense for the prologue. If you wish to discover more, however, I will repeat what I have said previously. Signup to the mailing list and you will be able to actually read some of what I am writing, as well as get access to exclusive content.

Anyway, the topic of this post is of course not the Ark. Rather, it is about an age old issue recently inflamed into passion: free speech.

The articles that spurred me to write this are, in particular, the piece over at the LRB by David Bromwich, along with this piece in the Guardian. (And yes, I read the Guardian and the LRB almost exclusively. Quality media is a rare thing these days.)

I will begin by addressing the key arguments these authors propose, and complete this (hopefully succinct) essay by elaborating on my own position. So, without further ado, let us turn our attention to the business at hand.

Social Media and the Prophet Muhammad

I believe there are two key points that Bromwich makes in his piece on the LRB: the first is that social media is an ‘echo chamber’ (to use that popular political terminology). On social media, unlike real life, you interact only with people you agree with. Your ideas are met only with acquiescence; and so, gradually, you begin to go a little mad. Your ideas grow more and more extreme, ever further out of touch with ordinary people.

Or at least that’s the narrative Bromwich buys into. However, I am far from convinced, and question Bromwich’s experience with social media. From what I can see, there are two issues with this narrative. Firstly—in real life, as much as anywhere, one can live in a bubble.

People tend to prefer interactions with others like them. Be it in terms of class, education, or even political leanings, bubbles exist throughout the real world. Accusations of politicians ‘being out of touch’ would lack their rhetorical power were it not for this.

Secondly, while I agree that social media can act as an echo chamber, the opposite also holds true. The Internet allows us to interact with people who are very different from us—indeed, its capability to do so is unprecedented: nowhere else can one hold a conversation with someone from the other side of the world.

The second point Bromwich makes is exemplified by this paragraph:

Here is a thought experiment. What would be the Western reaction to a cartoonist who leaned heavily on the most flagrant anti-Catholic or anti-Jewish clich├ęs – Jesuits in cowl and robe conspiring to set a Catholic king on the English throne, or Jews drinking the blood of a Christian child? The anti-Catholic swipe would be looked on as a bizarre eccentricity, of no controversial interest at all; the anti-Jewish one might prompt alarm as a symptom of cultural regression; but in either case, ascription of moral courage and artistic merit would be out of the question. This may suggest why the defence of Charlie Hebdo as an equal-opportunity offender was misjudged. The cartoons were published at a time when a few Muslims were known to be terrorists and many others were outsiders in European society, exposed to prejudice of a kind no longer suffered by Christians or Jews. Complacency was a recurrent flaw in the European and North American praise of the cartoons. There is, after all, a difference between ridicule of the established and mockery of the unestablished. Though the difference can never rightly be reflected in laws, since laws must apply to everyone in the same way, Charlie Hebdo might have served to bring the matter to consciousness. [sic]

I am, once more, skeptical. Comparing anti-Catholic, or even anti-Jewish satire with the kind of satire that Charlie Hebdo published is, frankly, a stretch. Catholics have not conspired to treason in Western countries for centuries. And anti-Semitic tropes—such as of the aforementioned drinking of babies’ blood, or of the international cabal, the usurious banker—all share one crucial property. They’re false.

But tropes about Muslims are not false. That’s where the line between Islamophobia and genuine liberal criticism needs to be drawn. Jews don’t run the world; but Muslims do issues fatwas (death threats based on heresy) to Danish cartoonists. Muslims do try to butcher said cartoonist with a hatchet, and they do kill certain cartoonists with AK-47s and RPGs. (Cough cough.)

This I believe is the crucial, and unfortunate misunderstanding about Charlie Hebdo. One may argue that sometimes they go too far. One may argue that they can be crude, or stereotype lazily. But at the end of the day, they have a point: Islam can’t tolerate criticism, no matter how justified.

Anyway, although I disagree with the author on these two counts, I do fundamentally agree with the broad stroke of his argument: that free speech is a political good to be valued. I will clarify this further by considering the arguments of Garton Ash in the Guardian.

Safe Spaces, or Free Speech?

Ostensibly it seems absurd that the fear of being offended—of trying to hide under the language of intellectual cowardice—should trump the political right to speak one’s mind. And this is indeed the thrust of Garton Ash’s argument.

But I feel the issue is not quite so clear cut. As Garton Ash puts it, how can someone giving a speech on the other side of campus possibly affect you? And yet that’s naive. Consider the example of transgender people. If someone of an anti-trans persuasion were to deliver a hateful speech against transgender people, there would be those who would be inspired by it. These bigots would in turn bully—and this is a light word for a serious issue—trans people, and we would see trans people killing themselves in even greater numbers than they already do. (Suicide is not a joke. This article is one of many showing disturbing statistics.)

The same could apply for any other persecuted minority you care to name. Should a radical Imam, for example, be allowed to foment hatred against gay people? Should he be allowed to suggest that women deserve rape? Should they, indeed, be allowed to promote terrorism?

Of course I am not talking about all Muslims here, let that be known. But the liberal left—who, ironically enough, are the ones calling for safe spaces—are in denial about terrorism. There exists a dangerous minority of radical Muslims in this country and around the world; and throwing petrol to their fire is nothing to joke about. Nor, indeed, is pretending that extremely disturbing attitudes (such as on homosexuality, the rights of women, and Shariah) aren’t prevalent in Muslim communities.

Anyway, I’m digressing.The point here is that the line between speech and action is sometimes very fine. It is why I support incitement-type laws (incitement to racial hated, incitement to violence, that sort of thing), and more broadly the principle that an institution—such as a university—has a responsibility towards its students to indeed keep them safe from violence or verbal abuse.

But: this is not to say that a university has a responsibility to protect its students from ideas that are merely controversial, offensive, or intellectually discomforting. The line is a fine one, and I believe it fair to say a difficult one, but it is a line nevertheless.

That is the prime topic of this little essay. However, there are one or two other things related to the issue that I wish to address.

The Crime of the Micro

The language employed by the liberal left, and more specifically (since the liberal left is itself a broad church) that of the Social Justice Warriors, is increasingly worrying. I am of course talking about such terms as the ‘microtrauma,’ the ‘microaggression,’ and the ‘trigger warnings’.

For those of you unacquainted, the basic definitions of the the terms is as following. A microtrauma is basically a social insult committed by a member of the Privileged Class (in the SJW hierarchy) to a member of the Oppressed Class. An example would be a white person not looking at a black person in a way that might be considered rude.

A microaggression is, similarly, an instance where a white person looks too closely at a black person, in such a way that it may be construed as offensive. And a trigger warning concerns sensitive subjects such as sexual assault, which may unduly distress the students.

If all of this is making you scratch your head, welcome to the club. To understand the kind of censorship the SJWs are proposing, and why it increasingly concerns academics, you need to understand this context. If an SJW sees oppression in the most trivial and harmless of social encounters, what do you think their reaction is to, say, a feminist icon arguing against trans women—let alone a hate preacher?

So yes: I will re-iterate my original point. We don’t need to give a platform to those who pose a real danger to the safety of our student body. But nor must we dream oppression where there is none; a balance must be struck.

But the Better Argument Will Win!

Finally, I will address the arguments that some of the more radical defenders of free speech provide.

The classic argument is, of course, the following. Provided that free speech is permitted, it is ineluctably the case that the weak arguments shall be dissected, discredited, and displaced by the more convincing arguments.

The theory is wonderful; the reality is not so rosy. The best historical example of this is of course the Holocaust. Hitler’s political narrative did, as historical fact shows, win out. He won two referendums—to extend his power and have Germany leave the League of Nations—with large majorities. His Nationalsozialistische partei was the largest in the Reichstag, having won the 1933 Federal election with 44% of the vote.

To defend themselves against this charge, proponents of the argument above engage in some creative intellectual gymnastics. The reason Hitler won, they say, is because there was no free speech!

Aside from being somewhat tautological, the key issue with this argument is its lack of historical veracity. It is true that Hitler engaged in censorship, but this was not true of the early years when Hitler was not in power. Remember: Hitler didn’t gain power through the means of a military coup. His power was democratic before it became autocratic.

I will therefore ask that one should not assume that good arguments will automatically displace poor arguments, as if by some natural process of osmosis. In the real world, people can be misinformed, stupid, ignorant and indoctrinated.

However...

At the same time, there is a valuable political good in free speech. On a first point of order, intellectual strength: any intellectual institution that censors the controversial is bound to end up decaying, its foundations undermined by dogma and unreason.

The second point of order is political—history may teach us that free speech is not an antidote to madness, but its lack often leads to political repression, and tends to be the purlieu of the autocratic regime.

At times, I would argue, it may make sense to limit some forms of free speech. Hate speech, as I have already mentioned; and indeed, in Germany as in many European countries, Holocaust denial continues to be illegal. Balance, as I say.

A Few More Distinctions

Often in debates about free speech, some important distinctions fail to be made.

Firstly, the oppression of free speech has a specific definition: it is committed by the state. An institution, like a university, ‘No-Platforming’ a speaker may sometimes be an act of intellectual cowardice, but it is not the repression of free speech. It is, as the name implies, about not giving someone a platform.

Even when the repression of speech does occur at the state level—such as when the German government bans Holocaust denial—it is not, by necessity, oppressive. Of course not! Unlike what the more radical defenders of absolute freedom of speech like to claim, jailing Neo-Nazis does not an authoritarian state make.

It is possible—emphasis on the word possible—that allowing Neo-Nazis and other such unsavoury figures to speak their mind can, indeed, lead to them being discredited: the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffiths, was so undermined when he was interviewed by the BBC.

But not always. As I say, there are no absolutes in free speech.

Conclusion

My essay has been somewhat long, I’m sorry to say, but I hope it has made clear my thoughts on free speech—and, hopefully, inspired you to think through your attitude to free speech.

Any disagreement (and I would be surprised if some of you did not disagree) and I will be happy to respond on the comments section. Remember: be civil. Alex is the autocrat of the Magical Realm, and thus has the power to censor all that he wishes ;)

15 Sep 2016

Life is Life, Amsterdam

You may have been wondering what my life, here in Amsterdam, has been like these past two weeks. Am I settling in? How is the city? And what of university life?

These questions I shall address herewith. If you are wondering as to how the Ark is going, however, you may wish to signup to the mailing list instead. You will receive regular weekly updates on my progress, along with sneak peeks into the Ark—a privilege you will not be privy if you simply follow the Magical Realm.

Anyway, onto business.

University Life

Uni life is... interesting. Different. And at times hectic—though, I suppose, that isn’t saying much. School has been hectic for many years, now that I look back. Indeed, over the past 6 years or so, I have had nothing but exams. First it was SATs; then the 11+; then GCSEs (in year 9); then more GCSEs; then ASs, and finally A levels. Suffice to say that whenever I hear of a test or assignment, I feel a wearied expectation rather than a pulse of fear.

Nevertheless, university life does have two aspects that are foreign to me. The first is the schedule of the lectures, and the way the workload is distributed more generally. I have lectures starting at four pm and ending at six; I have lectures starting at 9am; and I have everything in between, from 11 to 2. There is no regularity between days.

Is this confusing, you wonder? Certainly. I often find myself working well into the evening; and yet my afternoons are frequently free.

The second aspect is of course the fact that I, not the curriculum, dictate what courses I take. Yes, there are some requirements—I need to do a certain number of courses for my major, I need to take a Big Questions and a Theme course every year (or something), and I have Dutch and French learning periods for two months—but generally speaking, I have a lot of choice.

I can take whichever theme course suits me—be it Energy & Climate, Social Systems, or a multitude others. I can select my big questions course; be it Big Questions in History, Big Books, or whatever other topic picks my fancy. And in my minor, I can choose to do everything from sociology, photography, physics or computer science.

There is something a little bit daunting about it, I will admit. I need to take a certain number of courses to fulfill the university requirements. I need to take certain courses to pursue economics further on in the 3 years and for my masters (if I choose to do that). But, you know what? I can deal with that; choice is no bad thing.

Bureaucracy and Incompetence

Other aspects of my stay here have been less pleasant. The IKEA bed I ordered is missing some holes; I have demanded a refund from IKEA. And as for my (mandatory) registration to City Hall, well; that’s a bit of a story.

Firstly, I didn’t know what documents I needed—because the exact documents were not stated on the municipality website. So, I phone them—dialing the local number unsuccessfully before trying the international one—am put on hold, and finally told that I need to register through the university.

I go to the university... only to be told they can’t register me and I need to book an appointment with the municipality.

I call the municipality again, learn that I only need my ID card and rental contract (with the birth certificate after 3 months), and manage to book an appointment with them—on October the 28th!

So, as you can see, I have been rather busy.

The City

I have visited three parks here: one called Frankendael, another one right next to me, and one other near the Van Gogh museum. I have also visited the city centre—in particular the infamous Regulierwardstraat in the red light district.

The place has a reputation that precedes it. Rather than a hotpot of dubious activity, the place is rather civil and clean; the most notable irregularity is perhaps a sex shop and some gay bars.

Anyway, I have taken these opportunities to take some photos. I will be releasing them soon, so keep an eye out on the Magical Realm.

Cooking

Another aspect of my life that has changed is of course the need for me to cook my own meals. Initially, this proved difficult; I have the wonders of ready made salads and pizzas to thank for my survival. But soon, I found myself cooking—simple dishes such as salads, sausages, pasta, snitel and the like, but food nevertheless.

I have no delusions about my ability as a master gastronomer, but I at least have a modicum of confidence in the kitchen.

Calories are also of great interest to me. I have, over the past few months, tried to gain weight—and with some success. I weighed just 59 kilos a few months ago, but I know weigh over 62. I hope to reach 70kg in time; a feat which requires a great deal of calories.

I shall also try and hit the gym, though my student card has yet to arrive.

Parting Thoughts

Life here has so far proven interesting. The students are diverse and some have caught my attention; the courses are generally stimulating and interesting; and while there are some all but inevitable difficulties (particularly where it concerns bureaucracy) I am generally in good cheer.

Keep following the Magical Realm for more updates, photos, and important news about my writing. Until then, may the stars be with you...

10 Sep 2016

Yes, Prime Minister

Hello readers!

My previous posts were concerned with the state of my upcoming novel, the Ark, as well as my experiences here in Amsterdam. This post is not about that; there is little to add so far. It is instead about a matter that I will still occasionally address here on the Magical Realm—that of British politics.

I have devised a hypothesis: the more I analyse British politics, the stranger it all seems. I liken it to an addiction; it fascinates me to no end. Anyway, the topics I will be addressing here are threefold. Firstly—the Brexit. (This is obviously the overarching factor behind a lot of this, and it will likely remain an issue for many years to come.) Secondly—the Labour leadership. And finally, May’s plans to bring back the grammars.

The Brexit

These past few weeks have seen three important, if unsurprising, announcements. We firstly know that May’s Cabinet is divided and does not know exactly what it wants from the negotiations (let alone how to achieve it).

Secondly, we have learnt that the US is prioritising trade discussions with the EU before the UK. (Suck it up, Brexiteers.) And thirdly, the Japanese government has published an open letter from its business leaders warning that Japanese companies in the UK—like Nissan—will ‘reconsider their investments’ (i.e. leave) if the UK does not maintain single market access.

So what’s the outlook on all this? It looks rather dim from where I’m standing. The naive amongst us may think this will provoke May (if not the Brexiteers, whose delusion is without bounds) to make keeping the UK’s single-market access a priority. But I do not believe this is the case; May has been adamant that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

What precisely this means if not entirely clear, but it’s safe to assume it will involve some sort of migration controls—and by implication curtailed access to the single market.

From what I’ve seen, a lot of commentators—and it seems some Tories—believe that May is a secret Remainer: that her appointments of BoJo, Foxy and Davey (collectively, the three Brexiteers—like from Musketeers, you know?) are really just a clever ruse to abrogate political responsibility when the negotiations inevitably fail to deliver on the Brexiteers’ insouciant fantasy. Giving them rope to hang themselves with, so to speak.

This may sound plausible, but I don’t find it particularly credible. For me, the skepticism stems from what I know of Theresa May’s personality. She’s not the quiet, sensible and competent woman she likes to pretend she is. Her support for Remain, if we recall, was lukewarm at best.

Rather, what I see in Theresa is Cruella. As Home Secretary, she was involved in many questionable deportations—and was held in contempt of court for one of those deportations (Wikipedia, ‘Deportation decisions’). She planned to introduce a £37,000 a year salary requirement for non-EU immigrants, putting many NHS nurses at threat of deportation. She refused to grant asylum to a Nigerian lesbian who faced serious danger back home. (Telegraph) And—she was a proponent for scrapping the Human Rights Act, something which she can now do outside the EU.

Her support for Remain may have been entirely politically expedient (Cameron was pro-EU after all, and she was a senior figure in the Cabinet). Or, barring that, we can at least say that it was a reluctant position born of political realism.

So in light of this, I see the following scenario as being most probable. Firstly, after a delayed and protracted period, May invokes Article 50; in the negotiations, she and her Brexiteers argue for a cap on migration, but the EU refuses. ‘Free movement or WTO’ is the EU’s position.

So, May pulls the UK out of the EU, and loses access to the Common Market. Not long after, the UK will see recession, followed by stalled growth. The SNP call a referendum, and Scotland leaves the UK in order to keep its place in Europe.

As for the rest... I can only speculate at this point. But I doubt it will be pretty.

Labour Leadership

The other big thing going on is of course the leadership contest. In about two weeks, voting will have closed and we will discover who is leader of the Labour party.

I have already made clear my support for Smith in previous posts, and indeed—I’ve already voted for him. I will therefore address two things here. Firstly, what is the nature of the support for Corbyn—and can Smith win? Secondly, if Corbyn does win, what will happen next?

With regards to Corbyn’s support, I think it is fair to say Corbynism is one of the most misunderstood political phenomena in British history. The commentariat are dreaming about a revived British Trotskyism. Even his own MPs don’t understand the nature of his support—cue Tom Watson’s conspiracy theory about ‘old hands twisting young arms’.

Let’s make this clear: there’s a lot I don’t like about Corbyn’s movement (and for good reason) but Corbynism is not some conspiracy by entryist Trots and Tories. The number of Tories that voted in the leadership contest was vanishingly small. And I don’t believe there are enough Trots in this country to influence an electorate of 600,000.

Rather, Corbyn’s base is made up of what I see as two similar, though distinct, support groups. The first is an influx of generally young, idealistic and politically naive people. Some of them are ‘champagne socialists,’ but from my experience the majority are people who have been continually let down by successive governments: I’m talking about students with £27K of debt, young adults struggling to get on the housing market, and of course the numpties who are still banging on about Iraq.

The second group is made up of long-time Labour party members. I know some of them who voted for David Milliband in the leadership election. I know a lot of them who voted Tony Blair when he was standing for leadership.

The former group should not surprise you, but why, do you wonder, does Corbyn have support from the latter group? Surely, you would think, no one can vote for Blair and then for Corbyn!

Well, the reality in British politics is that electorates aren’t ideological: they judge political candidates not on whether they are socialist, Third Way liberal, or anything else. They judge them on the way the candidate can improve the country and their lives (as they judge it).

Tony Blair was seen as a charismatic and likable politician who beat the Tories. Ed Milliband was seen by many as a bit boring; there was little to recommend in him.

One thing that is true, however, is that the old guard of Corbyn supporters almost universally despise the Tony Blair of today. The Iraq war is a big reason for that, obviously; but just as importantly, I’ve found, were his failures to undo neoliberalism (it’s not stated like that, usually, but the angry words about unions and banks are getting at it) along with his craven support for dictators and big money.

The reason Corbyn appeals to them is twofold. To the young, he speaks a narrative that they have never heard: he speaks of undoing tuition fees, fighting against big business tax dodging, and bringing a brighter future to their cloudy prognosis. To the old, they see the antithesis of Blair: a man with integrity.

So, the million dollar question. Can Smith win them over?

On one level, it should be possible. Smith is compassionate as well as realistic; he understands why people are angry (just check out his plans to scrap tuition fees and help young people with housing) but he also knows that Corbyn is politically naive—his plans to scrap Trident being just one foolhardy example.

Smith is obviously more charismatic than Corbyn. In more normal circumstances, he should easily convince the young to vote for him.

So why aren’t the polls showing this? It’s to do with the circumstances of the leadership contest. Corbyn faced a vote of no-confidence and lost, with 80% (!) of his parliamentary colleagues saying they have no faith in him. Rational people would see this as enough reason to seriously question his role as leader; the fact that many in his Shadow Cabinet resigned, leaving him unable to fill all of the portfolios, should make Corbyn a laughing stock.

Don’t believe me? Just read the articles by Thangam Debonaire and Heidi Alexander. The picture they paint is sobering: Corbyn is incompetent, appointing and then sacking Debonaire without telling her (and while she was getting treatment for cancer!), and repeatedly undermining S. Cabinet positions on air.

But Corbyn’s backers drew the opposite conclusion from these facts. To them, Debonaire and Alexander were dangerous Blairites—not ordinary Labour MPs—determined to backstab the Great Leader and undermine his Holy Mission. (I am exaggerating here, but only a little.)

Owen Smith they saw as a false socialist, a conjuring by the Blairite devils to sway the people from the true path. His policies and ideas could not be genuine, they reasoned. His dealings with Pfizer were proof of that. (By that account, Clement Attlee could not have been a socialist, because he was an aristocrat. In real life, of course, things are more complicated than that.)

I’m not saying Smith is perfect; he has flaws just like anyone else. But I believe the anger and hope that drove people to Corbyn has morphed into something more sinister: a kind of paranoia, so typical of the far left, coupled with a misty eyed appreciation of Corbyn.

Corbyn, it seems, is immune from rational criticism. In my logic classes, we would call it the fallacy of ‘Ad hominem: poisoning the well’. In other words, anyone who criticises Corbyn must be some sort of Blairite/Red Tory/backstabber.

So, personally, I don’t think Smith will win.

But if so, what do we do? Do we united behind Corbyn—and pretend all of this sort of never happened? Do we try and get rid of him through underhand means, with the threat of forming a new party?

Like Smith, I think the latter is a bad idea. Corbyn and McDonnell—along with the Progress rump—are both crazy enough to not stand down, and to actually split. That would be disastrous.

So, we get behind Corbyn. We go along with his policies; we stop penning nasty articles in the rightwing press. (That includes you, Simon Danczuk.) We try and do our best in his incompetent Shadow Cabinet. If Corbyn fails to win the general election, it would be on his account—not ours.

Grammar Grammar

Let us move away from Labour’s internecine conflict, and onto a recent policy unveiled by the dear Theresa.

I am of course talking about the (re) introduction of the grammar school. It is currently a topic of great debate among the commentariat; her political motives are being extensively scrutinised.

I’m not going to pay much attention to that. My intention here is only to consider the grammar school on the basis of its merit, as someone who has been to both a grammar school and a comprehensive.

You know what I think? The grammar school is not such a great idea. I am unconvinced by the claim that grammar schools improve the outcomes of the children who are selected into it (compared to a comprehensive); this is partly due to a lack of convincing statistical evidence, but also because of personal experience.

I was successful academically in my comprehensive. I got very high grades in maths and sciences; I had a strong interest in writing and reading, which the school library was able to suffice (for the most part).

Smart children in comprehensives are not forced to learn with the idiots; in my school, we separated the more academically able children into sets 0 and 1, and the less able going up the sets, until you hit set 6. (The children there were mentally disabled, or had alcoholic parents.)

You might argue that this just selection under a different system. Well yes; that’s the point. Selection in a grammar school is the very worst kind of selection. It happens at age 11; it leaves late developers behind. It places a lot of stress on primary-school age children. And, since the children are not adults and have no motivation of their own, it is basically a measure of how much money the parents put into tutoring their kid.

But that’s not the worst of it. The test is far from infallible; it is not only vulnerable to the efforts of tutors, but it actually requires tutoring. I—who got 12 GCSEs, mainly As and As, am attending a top 100 world university, got poetry published *and wrote a book at 15—failed the 11+! My parents, who are mathematicians, struggled with the so-called ‘non verbal reasoning’.

To top it all off, once the tutoring got you through the 11+, you were thrown into a bubble. Nearly everyone is middle class. You don’t interact with people from different social backgrounds; people who are poor, whose parents are very unlike yours, and who seem to be very different from you.

So you see, getting selected into a grammar school is not necessarily that good for you.

Nor is it any good for the people who don’t get selected: they go to a comprehensive where much of the talent has been creamed off. While enough bright kids usually remain in order to form a class, I do believe that since the majority of the kids are lower down the academic and social pecking order, they—the poor kids—also live in a sort of bubble. They don’t see that much of the bright kids (which are a minority), and think that getting a couple of Cs and Ds at GCSE is somehow acceptable. Their friends did the same, right?

Closing Thoughts

I have written quite enough on British politics for now. I will address it in future, but for now I have work to do on the Ark. Wish me luck. And if you haven’t already, consider signing up to the mailing list.

7 Sep 2016

An Important Update on the Ark...

Hello readers!

As previously promised, I am releasing a post regarding the status of the Ark—my work in progress novel extraordinaire. I must also apologise for the delay in doing so; you can blame it on university work, along with the numerous aspects of student life.

Anyway, the important bit is this: I have finished revisions!

Some background may perhaps be in order. I commissioned an editor, by the name of Matrice, to give me an editorial assessment of the Ark in its current stage. That was a few months ago. I have been extremely busy since then—what with university and preparing to go there—but I have managed to work on the suggestions she and I discussed.

The work has proven to be fairly substantial, but I believe I have accomplished the majority of my goals with it.

I am however still open to beta-reading, in part because there are one or two things I would still appreciate feedback on—in particular, those to do with the finer points of the protagonist’s relationship—and also because part three, naturally, still needs to be written.

If you choose to become a beta-reader, you will be able to see the Ark being created—and have say in how it turns out. Being a beta-reader is not a huge commitment: it requires only some of your time in order to read, and to provide perhaps a few hundred words of feedback every few weeks.

If you are interested, please signup for the mailing list and reply to the emails I will be sending you.

Mailing list signup

That is all for now. The Magical Realm will now primarily have posts on my time here in Amsterdam, along with other more literary matters such as the state of my poetry.

If you want to hear more about the Ark, signup on the link above. You do not need to become a beta-reader; signing up simply lets me know you exist and allows me to send you interesting Ark related news over the weekly newsletter.

Anyway, work calls. Do signup!

2 Sep 2016

Greetings from Amsterdam

Hail readers—and hello from Amsterdam!

You may be wondering why I am in this famous Dutch city. Is it for the cheese? The canals? The wonderful waffles?

Nope. I am here for university. As I have mentioned previously, the Amsterdam University College has offered me a place to study here; and I have accepted it. There are of course many complex personal reasons for my decision—but to give only a few good, non-personal ones: the flexibility of the course; the costs of living and tuition; and the opportunities that are present here.

Chiefly among these is of course the opportunity to learn some Dutch; but I will also receive French language classes, and have native speakers on hand to practise with. Aside from that, there is everything from journalism (the university has had interns in newspapers), sports (swimming, gym, Krav Maga), and of course the impressive pedigree of the student body.

Amsterdam itself appears to be a nice city, although sadly I have not as yet had the opportunity to visit it. This is because I have been extremely busy cleaning my rooms (it was in quite a state), buying IKEA furniture (which I still have to assemble), procuring a bike—a most necessary form of transport here—and of course there have been the Introduction Week activities to attend.

The weekend does however provide an opportunity to rectify this. Although I still need to finalise my rent contract and procure a Dutch bank account, I believe the following two days will provide some free time in order to visit. The canals and Oude Amsterdam are the chief attractions—although I may steal a visit to the infamous Red Light district.

Writing

Although the move has been time-consuming and rather stressful, I have managed to work on the Ark. In fact I have reached a milestone; details of which I will release soon in another post.

As for my previous novel, the Necromancer, that has garnered quite some attention. My classmates were quite amazed; likewise my roommates. I hope to capture more attention and convince some people to buy it. A writer’s work is never done, as they say.

Friendships

I have met many interesting people here, and I hope to form friendships over the course of the year and the rest of my studies.

But for now, it is my friends from the UK that occupy my attentions. I have talked to two of my friends extensively over Facebook. One is my writer friend, Oli Woolley, and the other is a recent acquaintance; he is a professional choir singer. Suffice to say that they are interesting people.

That said, there has been one unfortunate consequence of leaving to study here. After leaving sixth form, I have formed a considerably stronger relationship with two friends from school. It seems that interacting with people outside of a school environment brings to light a much larger aspect of people’s personalities. And, to my sadness, I have left them just when they were beginning to be so much more interesting.

But that said, let us not exaggerate. Amsterdam is, after all, a well-connected city with many (affordable) flights from Schiphol. And of course the wonders of Facebook, the telephone and Skype means a friendly conversation is never far away.

Finishing Thoughts

My post has been somewhat rambling; apologies, but as you are able to see, I am going through many changes in my life presently.

What I will say is that the Magical Realm will see two main themes being expounded on over the coming weeks and months. Firstly, the Ark; work is progressing well, and I am in search of beta readers. And secondly—I will share my thoughts on Amsterdam and the Netherlands, in matters tourism, political, and economic.

Until then, keep following. An important update on the Ark will arrive soon!