Notes Backwards

We’ve all wondered what we’d say, if we could travel back in time, and tell ourselves what to do. I thought I’d blog about it today, on account of the weather being simply terrible, which is making me all reflective, and thoughtful.

Knowledge, and university courses. In the pursuit of knowledge, there are several things a person must know. The first, is that learning stuff, the big stuff, isn’t easy, and unless you’re bless with a photographic memory, something I dearly wish I had, you will spend an inordinate amount of time reading, rereading, and note-taking, before you can confidently declare to understand something. Moreover, somebody will always know more than you about something. This is inevitable, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t attempt to be absolutely the very best, at everything you try to do. You should take the university course you love, because otherwise you’ll be extremely resentful of it, and it’ll make it one thousand times more difficult to finish it.

Art. Art is important. It’s important because we like to build things, create things. We must remember to write, read, draw, and dance, throughout the exams, and throughout the long working weeks, because otherwise life becomes well, incredibly boring. It’s also never too late to be something you’ve dreamt of being, even if you find you’re just a little older than the others. That just means you’re more mature.

Body. You think you’re fat now, however hindsight suggests you were wonderfully slim. As Baz Luhrmann quite rightly says, “you are not as fat as you imagine”. Take care of the body. Get some exercise, even if you hate it, and remember not to eat too much rubbish. Some junk food however is good for the soul, and so eating some of it is strongly encouraged. As is the eating of broccoli.

Success. Being an awkward child, you don’t know what you want to be yet, however you do know that it’s going to be something incredibly high-flying, and difficult to manage. The aspiration will seem like it’s a really long way away when you get a reality check, and sadly have to check into the real world for a while, however you ought to just keep going, and find new ways to pursue things. Thinking outside the box is really very, very important.

Self Confidence. Another Baz Luhrmann quote. “Do not congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either.” I find these to be rather wise words, and he has a point. Remember not to get complacent, and don’t think that you know everything. When you get to university you will be humbled by everyone and everything, including your peers, how daunting the real world seems, and how little you really know about your degree. Just remember it’s only the beginning, work hard to understand more, and use the library often. Do not be disappointed if you don’t just sail through, straight away. There’s no reward, if it’s too easy.

I think that summarises my wise words of the day. I think it’s useful, sometimes, to remember what you’ve learnt. It makes you feel wise, and more mature than you were when you first started out, even if it was only really six months ago.  The video by Baz Luhrmann is something I find incredibly useful too, have a listen!

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Comrade Stalin Makes A Comeback

Stalin has long represented a period of history that I find fascinating; one of my interests is the history behind the Russian communist period, and the ways in which the dictatorship found such a huge proficiency. The ideas of communism are so profoundly different to the systems employed in the UK that one cannot help wanting to research them, and want to know more. Fundamentally however, communism in its purest form, the form employed in The Communist Manifesto, has never existed as a social construct; some of its ideas have been implemented, however it has never occurred as Marx dictated. Instead, communism to the modern world is representative of dictatorships, and of huge loss of life.

Stalin himself was a man of personal power and had an entire court, often referred to as “The Court of the Red Tsar”, in his command. He worked extremely hard in maintaining a culture of fear, both of the regime and of himself, and when reading his bibliography, one becomes acutely aware of the sheer force of manipulation he applied in relation to his comrades. The power balance was maintained by a system of intricate politics, designed mainly to maintain Stalin’s prestige throughout his rule.

I think what is most interesting to consider however is the idea that Stalin was something of a family man; in contrast to his infamous counterpart, Adolf Hitler, he had two wives, and three children, although both of his wives died; it is often alleged that his second wife committed suicide, after an argument with her husband. His oldest son, Yakov,  attempted suicide by shooting, however survived, causing his rather to remark “He can’t even shoot straight.” When he was taken hostage by German forces and held in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, he committed suicide by running into an electrified fence.

Stalin kept a close circle of comrades around him much of the time, often summoning them for evenings of drinking and watching foreign films. This informality (which was in itself a facade) creates the impression of a dictator with more than one dimension; he enjoyed the social aspects of having an unlimited amount of power, however equally, used these forced social events as a way to confirm his own position. His most trusted colleagues however tended to be enraptured by Stalin’s presence, however also terrified by it; there was never a “safe job” within the Soviet Union.

The progression of communism... (1)

Today, Stalin remains as a figurehead in Russia, especially among the older generation. In 2011, it was reported that Stalinism was seeing a surge in popularity, and people were becoming less inclined towards de-Stalinization. Unlike Germany, the public of Russia still feel as though Stalin did some good for the country, and arguably, in the aftermath of the Second World War, he led a country to be one of two leading superpowers. The rise of Stalin’s popularity shows the potency of his influence over the country.

Today however, there are still several communist based political systems in existence; North Korea is an obvious example, and China still maintains ideologies of communism throughout it’s government; for example, freedom of speech and of research is still tightly restricted. Vietnam and Cuba remain today as communist states.

I’m rather interested to know how communism as an ideology will progress in relation to the modern world, and in relation to the recession we are experiencing; will it produce a rise in popularity, or will it see a decline in popularity? Perhaps there’s a dissertation paper, right there…

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(1) http://www.freewebs.com/webnz/Communism.bmp

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On Crossing the Orient

One of the biggest dreams I’ve had, ever  since I was a little girl, is to travel across Russia and China on the Orient Express. The decadence of the train itself, as well as the history behind it, completely fascinates me. I think I’d feel as though I’d entered a Poirot story, and would get horribly caught up in things like dressing for dinner, and using the appropriate cutlery for each course. I regularly find myself flicking through the website, dreaming of being able to afford to go on such a beautiful and extravagant journey.

Train travel is rather a reassuring method of travelling, compared to via car, or aeroplane. Trains are reliable, safe; they cross land at a steady pace, smoothly. It lacks the stopping and starting of a car, or the prospect of waiting in endless traffic queues; bathrooms are always available, and the British service station can be completely avoided. Whilst British trains are hardly comparable to the Orient Express, they are functional and serve their purpose. They transport you from A to B. However, the use of the overpass in a railway station is something that continually irks me; when you use the train to travel a significant distance, you have luggage. In my case, I had an entire suitcase, because I was travelling with enough luggage to last me a month. The stress involved in dragging the monstrosity over the overpass was completely disproportionate; the underground ramps seem to serve a much more practical purpose. The elderly find these easier than ninety-seven stairs; I find them easier with a gigantic suitcase. After this journey, I made an executive decision: to travel lighter, and with a backpack instead. It was possibly the best decision I’ve ever made.

Carriages on the Orient Express (1)

This is the reality of my travel aspirations however; I’m not especially concerned with luxury, or seeing the opulence of a location. I’d much rather use the money to travel to the rural areas, live with the locals and experience the cuisine of the area. There is nothing so wasteful as going to an English pub whilst abroad. There’s always one within a mile or two within reach at home. The food of other cultures has always fascinated me somewhat; Japanese food especially, Chinese, and middle Eastern cuisine. I love to try out the new things. Travelling on the Orient Express would offer a plethora of fantastical dining options; I’d know, since I’ve explored the sample menu section of the website frequently. Obviously there would be an appropriate outfit for the consumption of beef fillet. I realise this might be fantasy running away with me, but this isn’t the only fantasy of travel I have.

I do however have a much more realistic aspiration; a trip around all the countries of South America in the summer of 2014, with a couple of friends, a backpack, and an acceptance of limited hair washing opportunities. All my money will go towards this rather ambitious plan, but helpfully, train travel is cheap; flying won’t be necessary very often, which bodes well for me, since I don’t like to fly. (A pressurised metal tube, in the sky? Just, why?) Food is cheap, voluntary opportunities are plentiful, and I think you’d meet some amazing people. It’s going to be fantastic. I just need some money and an itinerary.

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(1) http://static.orient-express.com/vsoe/images/720x300images/vsoe_720x300_slovakia01.jpg

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Up the Mountain of Literature

There are many lists on the Internet and in the great works of people such as F.R Leavis that detail the best novels in the world; the ‘classics’. However, I tend to greet these lists with a degree of scepticism. I find myself debating with my friends and family the merit of Pride and Prejudice, and find myself vilifying it repeatedly. When discussing feminism in philosophy recently,  I somehow managed to spark a rather heated debate on Austen’s merit as a feminist writer and on her position as a ‘great’ author. In hindsight, this was not the wisest of topics to broach at that particular moment. Nonetheless, I defended my position and maintain it today in relation to that particular novel.

Let us for a minute consider Time’s list of the top ten novels; which can be found here.  The list is of American origin, and includes novels such as The Great Gatsby, alongside Hamlet, and even Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. It is not rare for Proust to appear on the top ten lists; despite being rather inaccessible, and being one of the longest texts ever conceived in the world. Time’s list is a rather complex one and is also rather multinational, ranging from America, to Russia, to France, to England. I do however wonder what criteria leads to the formation of this list; the top one hundred novels in Time Magazine also provides the beginning of a very lengthy literary debate, I think.

On listverse, also an American website, we see many similarities in their list of the top ten novels of all time; Lolita is also included. The nature of this novel is rather controversial, and as a result it often appears as one of the great novels. American lists on the whole tend to include more Russian novels, a form of literature that is perhaps neglected in English universities. Undoubtedly however they are stylistically fascinating, and are another particular interest of mine.

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In the English lists, there is an abundance of European texts, strewn among the classics of English literature. A seemingly omnipotent Middlemarch is included in most of these lists. An interesting and rather comprehensive collection is The Telegraph’s. Some lists, such as F.R Leavis’s have extremely strict criteria for selecting ‘the best’; at the beginning of the rise of critical theory was the simultaneous beginning of a systematic categorisation of the novel in general: what is the best, most profound, and most influential? These questions were all necessary to be considered when attempting to classify “great” ideas.

From a wholly liberal perspective, the best, and the most influential is a very subjective idea. Influential events are not the same for every person, and may be the most minute things; a person never wakes and realises that this day will be the most extraordinary of their existence; in the same way, the best novels could not be considered the greatest by everyone, a prime example being my aversion to Pride and Prejudice. My opinion on the novel is very rarely shared. This does infer however that an opinion on a novel is always different; in an academic environment a novel is put on a syllabus, and even though there is the scope to decide one’s own opinion, it is always slightly guided. An engaging lecturer can always lead the mind down a different path, and encourage a person to consider interpretation beyond their own psyche. This is one of the highlights of university, at least for me.

The great literature of the world can be explored by anyone who wishes to delve in, whether they are a banker, a builder, an electrician, an academic, or a child. The greatness of literature can be explored by everyone, and their own greats may diverge hugely from the culturally accepted, however this does not make them any less valid. I’m curious to know what we all consider to be our greats, for instance the writers who shaped our own ambitions to be writers, or who inspired us to be something.

Who’re your greats? Suggestions welcome!

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(1) http://timeentertainment.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/top-10-books-lev-grossman-v.jpg?w=240&h=360&crop=1

Perceptions of Afghanistan: The Kite Runner

The novel, The Kite Runner, is singularly one of the most horrifying and simultaneously beautiful books I have ever had the honour of studying. The themes, including rape, warfare, and the idea of honour and betrayal, are perhaps themes that much bigger novels have attempted, however none, at least in my opinion, have succeeded quite so admirably and succinctly. I think that the  fecundity of the author’s mind alongside his own human experience produces the tenderness in the setting of the children; the use of such seemingly innocent minds is almost irreconcilable with the abhorrent acts included within the novel.

Children tend to represent the beautifully innocent mind; people who have not yet been naturally damaged by the world around them. The removal of innocence in the boys, one betraying the other however shows a disparity between the naivety associated with childhood, and the real political awareness one would have had, growing up in a war zone. The concept of conflict in itself, especially in a nation as politically unstable as Afghanistan is an interesting juxtaposition when considered alongside the children as entities in themselves; they go on to represent the damaged children of Afghanistan and the generations from the 1950s onwards that have lived their lives in such a way that the explosion of a bomb was an everyday occurrence.

Kings Tomb, Kabul (1)

The country of Afghanistan I think was brought into a much more public, literary sphere than it had been previously entitled to as a result of the novel. The history of Afghanistan is tainted with the history of imperialism and subsequent occupation and invasion. The problem has been exacerbated in the last fifty years, especially with the rise of problems such as terrorism, jihad, and the freedom fighter. This led to the western world feeling threatened, and  therefore attempts to ‘control’ the nation lead to invasion, war, and inevitably a global misunderstanding of what true ‘jihad’ actually is, and instead promotes the media’s perception of the terrorist as someone involved in jihad. There is always a distinction to be made in each individual case, however it would be a terrible mistake to believe that every Muslim is involved in anti-western jihad; the majority of people of Muslim faith live in America peacefully and as part of their respective communities.

This misunderstanding is one explored within the parameters of the novel, and looks at how elements of change are also included as negative and positive; throughout the novel there is an element  of both positive and negative progression, and unlike most of the media coverage of events in Afghanistan, looks at domestic conflicts which are so rarely understood and sympathised with. I would suggest that everyone read the novel, if only to satisfy their own personal curiosity about some of the issues in the area.

I have an interest in politics of the Middle East and one day, I would love to be able to travel more freely around the area. The history of horrific oppression, often in a domestic setting and in relation to its position on an international platform makes the area a fascinating example of political and religious conflict; I hope to be able to look at more Eastern literature, and if I could, I would love to study a historical module on the modern history of the Middle East.

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(1) http://images.fineartamerica.com/images-medium/kings-tomb-kabul-afghanistan-michael-palmer.jpg

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