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Week 26 - Positive Thinking - Buddhism

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A couple of years ago a friend of mine tried introducing me to mindfulness and positive thinking. “That’s all nonsense,” I said.  At the time this was my default reaction to anything new, but I felt I was right to be skeptical.

For one, my friend is one of those happy-go-lucky types. One look at his Facebook feed and you’ll know what I mean. It is awash with nothing but motivational quotes.

“Don’t be yourself. Be your better self.”

“Believe you can and your halfway there.”

The only time I ever consulted him for advice his response was: “Close your eyes. Take a breath and the answer will come to you.”

Needless to say, that didn’t help with my car loan repayments at all.

I was also highly skeptical of all this positivity malarkey. I considered it highly overrated. Sure, a cynical, critical, and cruel voice inhabited my head and it often told me I was doing a terrible job, but this is what pushed me to improve.

In fact, I explained to my friend, all significant achievements in history were fueled by insecurity and anxiety. “Mollycoddling didn’t put man on the moon,” I think were my exact words.

About a year later, after a particularly bad breakup, I didn’t feel my stance on this topic was as solid as before. The breakup hit me hard. During those dark days everything in life was a joyless chore. You name it: Eating food, meeting friends, going to work, showering! They had all become tasks that were pointless. I’ve heard depression described as the complete absence of hope and this is probably best description of what I went through.

Most of the people around me (friends, family, colleagues) didn’t see a difference. I’m grumpy at the best of times. In its natural resting position, my face can only be described as miserable. Even on days when I’m full of joy people have come up to me and asked, “Is everything OK?”

I tired luring my mind into a happy place, but it proved impossible. Learning to juggle with chainsaws would have been an easier task. Instead, I did what I had always done when I felt lost. I drank, I smoked, and I got on planes and trains and went traveling. Each escapade offered only momentary relief before the sinking feeling began to take over again.

By the time I finally dragged myself out of the hole, a month or two later, my mind was made up. I had resolved to never feel like this again. Sheepishly I approached my friend and asked about mindfulness and positive thinking. This time I was a little more receptive. I even suppressed my innate cynicism when he regurgitated nonsense: “When the universe speaks you need to listen.”

I didn’t understand everything that was said but I managed to break it down in my head like this.

Our brains are a little like transistor radios and we are tuned to frequencies. Some of us pick up positive wavelengths, others can only receive negative signals. This is why certain people can be stuck in a traffic jam and immediately use this as an opportunity to listen to their favorite podcast or catch up on study. Then you have others, like me, who bang their fists on the stirring wheel and scream. “God, why do you hate me?”

Not all negativity is bad, of course. Some scientists believe it’s a useful defensive mechanism. Suspicion and paranoia are kept the human race alive for millennia.

Problems occurs, however, when all the positive signals are blocked. This is essentially what to me. All those years I spent thinking about worse case scenarios meant I couldn’t hold on to a happy thought when I needed them the most. After the breakup I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, I couldn’t even imagine one would ever exist again.

Mindfulness and positive thinking can be used to reign in some of those dark thoughts and help your mind become a little more optimistic. They are rooted in Buddhist belief that compassion is the key to good life. Not just compassion for others but showing yourself a little gratitude too. Be kind. Pat yourself on the back for getting up in the morning. Congratulate yourself for tying those shoelaces. Celebrate the small victories that make up the day. Doing this won’t solve all your problems but it will help your antenna pick up some positive signals once in a while. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

 


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Week 25 - Protest Music of South Africa

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Between 1948 and 1993 one word dominated the politics of South Africa: apartheid. These cruel laws fuelled by racism segregated almost every facet of life. Black members of society were forbidden to work, marry or mingle with the white population. They were even forced to live in designated areas on the outskirts of cities and towns.

Opposition to these unjust laws came in many forms. There were hunger strikes and worker strikes, peaceful as well as violent demonstrations. Artists also found themselves involved in protests. Playwrights, poets and novelists produced work that were unashamedly critical of the government. While useful in shining a light on the government’s cruelties, the written-word and theatrics had limited reach. Music, on the other hand, was dynamic and flexible enough to reach the masses. It was easily spread through radio waves and be promoted at concerts and rallies.

The blues and jazz were musical forms that were forged in discrimination and injustice of early 20th century America. This was the same music that went on to inspire the black community in South Africa, who felt a deep affinity with their African American cousins. Even before apartheid South African musicians began playing jazz and blues in the shebeen of the large cities. Fusions between American and local music began producing new forms like marabi, kwela and mbaqanga. These musical styles were themselves a form of protest. In a land where the black community had no voice, musicians were carving out their own identity through music and song.

In the 1950s the government introduced ever more aggressive policies aimed against the black population. One such example was the Relocation Act. This act effectively uprooted hundreds of thousands of black people and relocated them to distant townships. A depiction of this event was captured in a popular song called Meadowlands

Have you heard what the white people say?
Let's all go to Meadowlands

The song was in no way melancholy. Written in the kwela style (a type of ghetto jazz) the song was upbeat and catchy. This confused the authorities who believed it to be a pro-relocation song and allowed it airtime on the radio.

But not all songs were so ambiguous. A growing number of songwriters were willing to challenge to government directly with their lyrics. Notable examples are “Thina sizwe (We African People)” and “Dubula ngembayimbayV (We will shoot them with cannons)”. These songs were radical and much more confrontational. In 1954 political activist Vuyisile Mini penned the damning “Ndosemnyama Verwoerd (Verwoerd! Watch out)”. This song didn’t pull any punches. It was aimed squarely at then prime minster Hendrick Verwoerd. Things would not end well for either man. In 1963 Mini would be hanged for his activism and Verwoerd would be assassinated a couple of years later.

The 60s and 70s saw yet more turbulent times. The resistance movement began increasingly violent campaigns against the white ruling class. The government in turn employed ever more cruel and heavy handed tactics. Thousands were arrested and there were frequent bloody clashes on the streets. Two of the most horrendous incidents happened in the townships of Sharpville and Soweto. Hundreds were killed as the police opened fire on the protesters.

Despite all this the protest music never stopped. Songs like “Soweto Blues”about on the brutal massacre continued to inspire and gather support. For the most part the international community seemed deaf and blind to the deteriorating situation. That changed, however, as the 1980s rolled around, and, again, music would serve as the catalyst.

After the activist Stephen Biko was killed in police custody singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel felt compelled to act. He was appalled at the indifference shown at the murder of such a prominent figure. His response was “Biko”, a song that incorporated South African music styles and featured lyrics that urged the world to wake up.

“The man is dead, And the eyes of the world are watching.”

The song was not only a hit, it went on to trigger an interest in the activist Stephen Biko as well as the politics of South Africa. Soon apartheid was being referenced in all manner of songs, from hip hop to folksongs. Some even incorporated South Africa music styles to show solidarity and support.

In 1985 The Specials released a song that would push another activist’s name to the forefront. It seems inconceivable now but before the release of “Free Nelson Mandela” the future president of the new South Africa was relatively unknown throughout the western world.

It would be naive to think that music alone was responsible for the eventual collapse of the apartheid government, but it would be equally naive to think it played no part at all. It was certainly responsible for throwing a spotlight on a dark situation many didn’t know was happening. This was down to the bravery and persistence of the singers and songwriters that refused to be silenced.

 


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Week 24 - The Island - Athol Fugard

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The South African playwright Athol Fugard is an existentialist. He loves asking, what he calls, the nagging questions that plague us all. Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the meaning of it all?

As he talks. though, there is little sense that you are in the presence of a man that feels lost. Far from it. He speaks with flair and confidence. His answers are clear and articulate. But for a man who is a self-confessed lover of words, this is to be expected.

From an early age he was drawn to language. He would listen to conversations the way some people listen to music. Identifying the subtle rhythms, the tones, the vernaculars of dialogue became an obsession, and eventually became a gift, something that has played a huge part in his success.

Raised in Port Elizabeth he considers himself very much a regional writer. Nearly all his plays, short stories and novels are based around this industrial city. In fact his breakout play, The Blood Knot, in 1961, is a gritty tale of two brothers living in the slums of an area where he grew up. The play went on to become a trilogy, with each part dealing with down-on-their-luck family members navigating through the underbelly of his hometown.

His ear for dialogue and eye for detail has brought him many awards and accolades, but it also brought unwanted attention. During apartheid there was a strict censorship on content and sometimes his depictions of non-whites were a little too raw, a little too honest. While his work was never overtly political there were always discreet themes of oppression within his characters.

In the 1970s the government passed even stricter laws. This time the mixing of black and white actors and audience members was forbidden. Despite these regulations Athol established an underground theatre scene. It thrived with people across all racial divides. Held in dingy clubs and back rooms, these productions were stripped, with little or no set designs. He described it to a friend as “bare stage, few props, great theatre.”

It was during this period that he wrote and directed The Island, one of his most influential works. The play tells the story of two inmates on Robben Island prison (the same prison Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 25 years). In the story the two men discuss their life while rehearsing the Greek tragedy Antigone. It was a simple production with two actors and a blanket representing their cell. At the same time the story juggled hefty themes such as Isolation, separation and, of course, existentialism.

In his later years Athol delved into movies and he adapted many of his plays to the big screen. They had modest impact, but never packing the same punch as the live stage shows. The most successful reworking of his stories came in 2005 with Tsotsi, a movie based on a novel. But he was never wooed by the bright lights he was firmly devoted to the theatre. He couldn’t drag himself away from the “bare stage, few props, great theatre.”


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Week 23 - Antigone

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Irish people are no strangers to tragic literature. In school we’re force-fed the gloomy rhymes of Yeats and Kavanagh; we’re thoroughly examined on the bleak landscapes of Casey, Synge and Beckett.

These are the master stories-tellers of our land. Poets and playwrights, wordsmiths of the highest order, but my god they are depressing. Honestly, you’d have more fun going to a funeral than reading their work.

Maybe it was these childhood memories that lured me towards Antigone. Written 2000 years ago I found something hauntingly familiar in this Greek play’s make up. Maybe it was the hopelessness, the bleak setting, the ending so tragic it was comical - I lost count of the dead bodies. When it was all over, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the playwrights from my school days had picked up a trick or two from their miserable ancient-Greeks counterparts.

Antigone’s story begins an hour or two after the end of a civil war at the city of Thebes. Two brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, have killed each other in a brutal fight for the throne. The newly crowned king, Creon, declares Polynices a traitor and, as such, orders his body to be left on the street to be mauled and eaten by dogs and vultures.

Antigone, our hero, is the sister of the brothers and believes this order to be unjust and immortal. Under the threat of execution, she defies the king and sprinkles dust on the body in an attempt to honour his death.

At first glance this might not seem like a very relevant or inspiring story. But check again. This is a play about rebellion, about standing up and fighting against a cruel system. It also asks interesting questions about where we should place our loyalty. Antigone believes family and god are above the laws of the man. Creon, on the other hand, sees things differently. He believes his rules must be obeyed or chaos will envelop the state.

Written by Sophocles sometime between 450 and 500BC, this is a story that still resonates. And so it should. Unlike the ancient Greek myths of Cyclops and Medusa, this is a human story, a quintessential underdog tale. Traces of its DNA can be found in the likes of David and Goliath, Robin Hood and Erin Brockovich. I’ve even heard it compared to Star Wars and Die Hard, but I think that might be taking things a little too far.

And let’s not forget, Antigone is one of the first dramatic plots to contain a strong female lead. A hundred years ago this would’ve been a bold move, who knows how it was received in the time before Christ was born.

Antigone’s power as a story doesn’t stop there. Buried within the plot are themes that have also inspired countries and movements suffering under oppression. During apartheid in South Africa the play was immensely popular. The plight of Antigone and her courage to stand up for herself struck a chord with people across the cultural divide. Nelson Mandala famously played the role of king Creon in a prison adaptation. He was more than happy to lend his thespian skills to support Antigone, a character who he beloved “would not back down even under the most trying circumstances.”

In Nazi occupied France, the play managed to sneak beneath the strict German censorship radar. On opening night in Paris ,1944, the German officers in attendance were the only members of the audience oblivious to discreet messages within in the play. They were blind to the fact that the German occupiers were represented by the cruel king Creon while Antigone symbolized the brave actions of the resistance.

Ireland’s relationship with Antigone is also interesting. The play has been re-imagined many times on this small island. In 1984 alone, there were three different versions produced and performed. Each version examined the complicated political and social strife occurring up and down the country. Abortion rights in the south, civil rights for Catholics in the north and the overall encompassing call for more feminist rights.

Antigone seemed to encapsulate and articulate the feelings of that generation. Even more so than some contemporary works. It is testament to great writing that King Creon, a character written over two thousand ago, can, in this day and age, simultaneously represent the Catholic church, the Irish State and the British government.

Given Antigone’s knack for appearing during periods of oppression and social upheaval there is no doubt we will see her again. Her story, tragic as it may be, still has wisdom and misery to impart. Maybe it's time to revisit some of those old childhood plays again to see if I can look past the misery.


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Week 22 - Moving Forward - Reflection

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There’s nothing quite like a pandemic to prompt a re-evaluation of where your life is headed. In 2020, after months of lock-down and another wave of infections on the horizon, I finally did what I had been threatening to do for years: enrol in a degree course.

I’m no stranger to studying or taking courses, but the vast majority of my adult learning has been in the arena of continual professional development, i.e. short term courses designed to improve my programming skills and make my resume sparkle.

This time around however I decided to pursuit my passion, to follow my heart.

From an early age I’ve always felt the gravitational pull towards creativity. I was one of those strange kids that sat at hone drawing while my friends played football; read comic-books while they had adventures. This is what attracted me to Arts and Humanities. I guess you could say, beneath my cold programming exterior, there was the heart of a poet. (Or so I tell myself).

That’s not to say I didn’t have reservations or worries about my decision. In fact, the second the money left my bank account doubts began to creep up:

How was I going to keep myself motivated?

How would I measure progress?

And lastly, what was the point of learning humanities in this day and age?

How to keep myself motivated?

When the course began in January I hit the ground sprinting. In the space of a week and a half I completed four chapters and had already made a start on the first assignments.

But I knew this wasn’t sustainable. I was riding a fake wave of motivation, fed by my childlike enthusiasm for anything new. It would soon ebb and die and then where would I be? Besides, Arts and Humanities seemed like a discipline that encouraged students to slow down and appreciate the beauty in life, tackling the materials with such velocity seemed obscene.

Thankfully I eventually saw the error of my ways.

The most consequential change I made was setting myself this weekly writing challenge. Writing a 500-600 word summary of each chapter I read and posting it as a blog entry was a great experience. But this didn’t always go to plan. Some weeks I wrote about subject matters that had little or no relation to the original topic.

This didn’t help me crystallize the materials, but it slowed my pace of study. I also found the exercise quite satisfying and, most importantly, I inadvertently stumbled upon the most sustainable type of motivation: having a laugh.

Measuring progress

Studying online has many advantages but it also comes with its own unique challenges. I was often concerned about how I would go about measuring my progress and identifying knowledge gaps. In a traditional classroom setting this is achieved by frequent feedback, questions and answers sessions , and hanging-out with other students (a highly underrated part of the learning process).

Online learning is much more solitary. The number of lectures and drop-in sessions are limited and it can take weeks to receive feedback on a piece of work.

Given these circumstances, the emphasis falls to the student to cultivate their own learning environment. This is why receiving feedback on an assignment was so important to me. It felt like I was finally engaging with the tutor one-on-one and had a chance to find out where my skill levels were.

My experience with feedback is pretty good.

First of all I approach the suggestions with a growth mindset. Understanding your weaknesses are a great way to grow. I would always highlight two or three areas that I would tackle for the next assignment.

One drawback that has been mentioned about my work was referencing. I seem to have a habit of making statements without fully qualifying where the ideas came from. Not surprising, in life I make wild unsubstantiated statements all the time.

“Use a quote to back up your argument.”

“I’m not sure where you form this impression”

In my last assignment I tried to address these shortfalls, but I still think I have a long way to go. Referencing, I’ve come to realize, is an art-form. Which quotes to use, where to deploy them for greatest effect, these choices can all have a huge impact on the writing.

In short, I know I have more to learn but I’m looking forward to the journey.

What’s the point of Humanities?

A few years ago, I took a two-hour sketching course. I’m not joking when I say it changed the way I looked at the world. I began appreciating the shape of leaves, the geometry of buildings, the subtle variation of shadow and light. Arts and humanities has brought about similar, but more comprehensive, changes within me. I now look at everything differently. Paintings appear more vivid; music has more depth. Chapter 5 even ignited an interest in sculpting that I had never realized I had.

It has also brought about unexpected benefits too. I didn’t think my job as a computer programmer would be impacted but it has. My weekly presentations have improved immensely. In the past I would just turn up and wing it, but now I find myself thinking carefully about the structure of my presentation.

One more benefit I’d like to mention is critical thinking. Before I was never much of a person to question anything. I wasn’t gullible, I was just lazy. Nowadays, however, I find myself questioning more and more. Reading the newspaper, watching documentaries or the news, I often wonder where the information came from, and can it be trusted. I’m not exactly a conspiracy theorist yet but give me time.


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Week 19 – Material Culture - Humanities

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Across the bay is the toy-town of Cobh. Rows of colourful houses stacked on top of each other like a scene from a Roald Dahl movie.

“Do you know why each house is a different colour?” the guide asks us.

There are about 12 of us standing on the dock and none of us have a clue.

“Drunken sailors,” the guide explains.

We are told that after a long stint at sea, sailors would often get inebriated in the seafront taverns and forget where they lived. To assure they found their way home each house was painted a different colour.

It seems like a tall tale, but we are suitably amused, nonetheless.

I’ve come to check out Spike Island in Cork harbour. Just a quick ferry ride from Cobh, the place is jam-packed with legends and history. You might even say it’s got a history more colourful than the houses across the water. At one time or another the island served as a Christian monastery, a bustling town, and a military fortress. But it’s remembered most famously for being a notorious prison that housed revolutionaries, gangland criminals and joyriders.

The main structure on the island is a military base originally built by the British. It sits atop a man-made hill. This steep slope was constructed by some of the first prisoners who came here to await transport. They toiled the earth and hammered at rocks until they were eventually shipped off to Van Demons land for crimes against the crown.

In 1779 the extra fortification around the base was commissioned due to rising tensions in the world. The high walls were erected due to fear of attack from the French or the Americans, who were in the mist of gaining independence. Back then, Britain had a special knack for annoying other countries and attracting war. Cork harbour and Spike Island were locations of strategic importance. If breached, invaders could lay siege to colonial Ireland and on to the British mainland.

These attacks never materialized but all the hard work didn’t go to waste. The tall walls and deep moats meant the complex could make an equally decent prison.

Walking through the main gate there’s a massive military style courtyard. In front are the remains of the old prison block and an army quarters that burned down in 1916. The tour moves through the aptly named punishment block and towards the barracks. Along the way the vivid history is articulated through video, exhibitions, and the helpful tour guides.

Tackling the area on foot you get a real appreciation of the scale. Spike island is often compared to Alcatraz but in reality, it is much bigger. At one point in history the prison had the unwelcome record of being the largest in the world.

This did not translate into comfortable living conditions for the inmates, however. Prisoners were packed into the cells like sardines, sometimes 50 to a room. It was so crowded that prisoners in solitary confinement had to share with 6 or 5 others. Under these conditions it was no wonder then there were so many escape attempts.

One such daring escape was undertaken by three IRA terrorists at the turn of the 20th century. While working in the fields they got the jump on the guards and made their way to the waters edge. The plan was to swim out to a boat moored offshore, cut the rope and sail to freedom. Things went awry however when the prisoner swimming out dropped the knife. So determined was he to escape he spent the next two hours in the water gnawing through the rope with his teeth until the boat was freed. The three men got away and were never seen again.

Every inch of the island seems to have a story. Stories of murderers, thieves and shipwrecks. What’s so compelling about these tales is their relationship with major events from Irish history. From the brutal Cromwell campaigns to the famine, Spike Island was used to incarcerate revolutionaries and those who stole Trevelyan’s corn.

During the Easter Rising and the War of Independence the island was used to house political prisoners. It was also one of the last pieces of land returned to Ireland after independence. In 1938 DeValera came here to witness the first raising of the Irish flag to the island.

For the next 50 years the place remained a military base, but in 1980s it was acquired again by the department of corrections. A prison was needed to tackle the rising crimes and Spike Island fit the bill. Things got off to a rocky start however, when six months after the reopening a riot broke out. In fear of their life prison officers fled on a boat. For the next 72 hours the prisoners had the run of the island. Buildings burnt and destroyed. During one comical episode a group of convicts got trapped outside the walls and had to use a JCB digger to break the gates down, making it one of the few times in history that prisoners broke into a prison.

After years of overhauls and repairs the prison finally closed in 2004. Not many people shed a tear. For another 10 years it lay dormant until a bright spark had the idea to turn it into a museum. Spike island is a fascinating visit and a remarkable lens in which to view the history of Ireland.

 


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Week 18 – Cultural Nationalism - Humanities

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When I first arrived in China in 2008 I found a nation in the grips of a mania. There was an obsession with western TV shows, Hollywood movies, and above all, learning English.

In those early days it wasn’t uncommon for strangers to walk up to me and say: “Hello. I speak English. Let’s be friends.” It was jarring (and a little creepy). China was in the mist of being westernized, there was no doubt about it, I could see it everywhere. Basketball was the national sport. Premiership football was all over the TV. When I was invited to dinner Chinese friends took me to Pizza Hut so they could impress me with their knife and fork skills.

When I moved back home, a little over 10 years later, China had become a different place. The west had lost its appeal. Curiosity in all things western had waned. Even foreign TV shows held little interest for a China more preoccupied with embracing its own culture again.

While journalists and experts are quick to blame government’s patriotic policies for this change, I believe this is only part of the story. To me, the Chinese people have grown confident of the country’s accomplishments on the world’s stage. They have also grown weary of western countries attitude towards their homeland, believing it to be unfair and downright hypocritical. In short, the Chinese believe the time has come to promote and elevate their own culture and their own ways of doing things.

Being a teacher back in 2008 was a fascinating time. I could easily fill a two hour class with nothing more than allowing students to ask me questions. They had a curiosity about me and my hometown that I had never experienced before. At first I thought it was a time wasting technique, but their excited tone told me otherwise. They asked many questions, from how much money to do make, to do foreigners get headaches?

On occasion I got to turn the tide and ask some questions myself. I always asked why they were learning English. Answers fell into three categories: to travel abroad, to study abroad, to work in an international company (and possibly go abroad.) It wasn’t difficult to spot the common tread in these responses. To them English wasn’t a hobby, it was a key to a door they had never been behind, it was a pathway to a better or more interesting future.

At the that time many of the students didn’t have passports. Instead, they viewed the world through the window of the internet and American and western tv shows. Friends. Sex and the City. These shows depicted lifestyles completely alien to the common Chinese person. Not just in a physical way, but in a psychological way too. These shows had characters with strong individualistic tendencies; they did their own thing and rarely conformed. For the students I taught this was radial and attractive. The adults I taught worked sixty-hour weeks and teenagers I taught were up each night to 1am doing homework. And none of this was by choice. It was forced upon them by bosses, parents, and society itself. Learning English just might be a ticket to a better way of living.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one noticing this growing obsession with English and western ideas. The government were paying close attention too. They had previously stamped out a infestation of western thinking back in 1989 but the memory still loomed large. While the Chinese government always maintained it was dedicated to providing better options for its people - better job options, better healthcare options, better housing options - it drew the line at offering ideology options. There was only one way of thinking: the communist party way.

At the time the party still had absolute control on society. Their power was felt in all corners of life, from the education to business. You couldn’t go for a walk without passing government slogans on a wall or browse the web without the great firewall telling you the site was not found. Even at the school where I worked, we felt the ever-watchful eye of the government. On the first day all teachers were lectured on what topics we couldn’t mention to students. The three Ts were off limits. Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. Punishment for mentioning these subject matters was deportation or possible imprisonment.

But the government’s power worked more like a deterrent. Their perceived reach was much longer than reality. None of these policies were policed or enforced. In the foreign community we never heard of anyone being deported and students were more than happy to talk about these topics.

But all of that was about to change.

When President Xi came to power in 2012 he immediately implemented sweeping changes. The economy, the military, schools and universities were all hit with heavy reform policies. He also introduced an all encompassing Chinese ideology. In order for this to succeed it was clear western ideas needed to be expunged. What followed was typical totalitarian behavior. Overnight books were removed from libraries and stores, TV shows were taken down from the most popular platforms. It was done with great fanfare. Party members who were reprimanded for having affairs or taking drugs came forward to apologize for being corrupted by ideals inadvertently picked up from western movies. It was ridiculous but it worked and soon trickled down to the masses.

The phrase. 崇洋媚外, which roughly translates to person crazy about foreign things had always been part of the Chinese vernacular. I had mostly heard people use it as a joke, however, after 2015 I noticed that it was being used more and more, especially online. Now it was used as a harsh insult and directed anyone who spoke favorably about western culture or products. Around this time also I noticed some push back regarding speaking English. On a few occasions while outside at speaking events myself and students were told: This is China. Speak Chinese.

I had hoped these episodes were nothing more than unfortunate interactions but after discussions with other foreign friends I could tell this was becoming more frequent. It was nothing we couldn’t handle but we felt a shift in attitude toward us. Something had changed.

It was hard to know whether this was the result of the government polices or the result of what was happening in the world. This all coincided with Western governments taking a hard stance against Beijing and China was becoming more assertive on the world stage.

I agreed to a certain extent with their woes. China and its citizens were growing tired of countries that dropped bombs on poor people talking about human right abuses. It was comical. Furthermore, many of the students I had taught had got their passports and travel to western countries. They had been sorely let down. They saw filthy, expensive cities riddled with crime and they started to consider the idea that the west was not worthy or praise or admiration.

China has grown a lot over the last 30 years. It has incorporated some western ideas into its society but has also rejected many more. This doesn’t always have to be a negative thing. While their political system can be cruel and totalitarian, it has also lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and crime is almost non-existent. Could it be time for western governments to finally start incorporating at little bit of Chinese culture.

 

 


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Week 17 – Philosophy: Questioning Tradition - Humanities

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Imagine you’re out for a walk one evening down by a river. You’re enjoying the scenery and tranquility when suddenly you hear a cry for help. There’s a man in the water frantically splashing about. No one else is around and it’s clear that if you don’t do something this man will be in serious trouble. What should you do? Or better yet, what is the courageous thing to do?

The nature of courage and courageousness is a philosophical hot potato. It’s been debated for eons, most notably by the two heavy weights Plato and Aristotle. While both agreed that courage was a virtue - a trait that everyone should aspire to have - they disagreed on the definition.

For Plato courage was linked heavily to knowledge. He argued that a person could only perform a courageous act when he or she understood the dangers involved.

For example, in the above scenario, if you jumped into the river fully aware that you were risking your life, this was a courageous deed. On the other hand, if you jumped in to save the man and yet were ignorant of the risks, this was an act undeserving of praise.

Aristotle’s view was slightly different. He believed everyone possessed courage, just in different quantities. Furthermore, he believed it was the goal of each person to cultivate, what he referred to as, the golden mean, the right amount of courage.

For Aristotle, running away from danger or blindly jumping into danger were both equally foolish and both equally un-virtuous. The correct course of action was always to first assess the situation. A courageous person should only make a move if the risks were reasonable and within his or her control. Otherwise, their duty was to call for help.

Is any of this important, you might be asking? Surely Aristotle and Plato are just debating semantics, after all. You’re right, but these subtle variations have hidden consequences, albeit consequences of a philosophical kind.

Let’s tweak our scenario and explore the implications a little bit more.

Again, you’re still out walking, but this time you’re not alone. You’re with Lois. It’s your first date and after a lovely dinner you take her for a romantic stroll by the river. And yes, your evening is about to be ruined by a man falling into the water.

This time the steaks are higher. There is added pressure for you to make a move. Does this change anything?

Well, for Plato it doesn’t. If you jump into the river to save the man, even under the pretense of trying to impress Lois, you pass his test. You knew the danger, but you acted regardless. Your reason might not be admirable, but your action is.

Unfortunately, Aristotle wouldn’t see it this way. His philosophy of ethics require you do the right thing for the right reason. Jumping into the river in order to impress Lois cancels out your good deed because you are using your courage in a reckless and dangerous manner. In the eyes of Aristotle this is not the behavior of a courageous person.

To illustrate this point in more detail, think about robbing a bank. This is a dangerous act; you could be killed, you could be arrested. But if you went ahead would anyone consider this courageous?

For the hell of it, let’s make one last change to our scenario.

You’re still out with Lois. You’re still down by the river and there’s still a man in the water. Only this time around your name is Clark Kent. a.k.a. Superman. You jump in to save the man and Lois is suitably impressed, however, the question remains: are you courageous?

According to Plato, definitely not. There was no clear and present danger for you in that situation. You’re Superman for crying out loud. The biggest risk you took was getting your shirt wet! In Plato’s world, no danger, no courage.

For Aristotle, though, you’ve ticked all the boxes for being courageous. You didn’t run away, you didn’t take unnecessary risks, and you used your courage for an admirable act.

And there you have it. Two definitions of courage that have no real word application. But hey, that’s philosophy for you. Sometimes it’s popcorn for the mind. Sometimes it’s questioning everything you believe. If you don’t question it why do you believe it.

 


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Week 15 - Poetry - Humanities

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On a sweltering night in the city of Guangzhou, China, I first heard the name Li Bai. I was alone in a busy bar, sipping on frosty Tsingdao beer and working on a short story masterpiece. 

Suddenly I felt a presence behind me.

"What are you writing,?” the girl asked, peering over my shoulder.

She was looking at the page in front of me trying to decipher my caveman-like scribbles. 

"Nothing," I said, crumpling the paper and shoving it in my pocket. 

She pulled up a chair and told me I reminded her of the ancient poet Li Bai. Apparently he was a man who also wrote under the influence, producing some of his best work with a drink in one hand and a pen in the other. 

"Never heard of him," I said. “But sounds like my kind of writer.”

We chatted a little longer but, as is often the case, just as I was beginning to feel a connection she got up a left. Feeling sorry for myself, I ordered another beer, and got back to my masterpiece.

Five years later I was thinking of that fateful night as my train sped through the countryside. The girl, I never saw again and, as for my masterpiece, it ended up in a drawer and never saw the light of day.

I did, however, learn a little more about Li Bai - the poet I was compared to all those years before. 

He was born sometime around 701AD and is considered one of China’s greatest poets. Besides writing, he was a man with other talents too. He was a statesman, a thinker, and prolific traveller. And yes, he had a knack for drinking people under the table.

His hometown is believed to be Jiangyou, a city two hours north of Chengdu and the final destination of the train I was on. With a population of only 2.5 million it is seen in the eyes of many Chinese as a backwater. There are only two reason to go to Jiangyou: to visit the Li Bai memorial or to sample their world-famous pig intestine noodles.

I was definitely there for the memorial.

The centre of Jiangyou is bustling and loud. Rickshaws dominate the streets, weaving in and out of traffic causing havoc. Amongst the chaos, though, Li Bai is never far away. There are statues of the bearded poet are dotted all around and some of his most famous are carved into the ground of the pavements.

Amusing Myself

Facing my wine, I did not see the dusk

Falling blossoms have filled the folds of my clothes 

Drunk, I rise and approach the moon in the stream

Birds are far off, people too are few

Li Bai’s tipple of choice was choujiu, a strong milky-coloured liquor distilled from rice. He was a great believer that when choujiu flowed, the words did too.

His lifestyle fascinated the Chinese people, even more than his poetry sometimes.

The common Chinese person was (and still is) bound by structure and tradition and they rarely saw a man so blatantly carefree. All he did was travel, write poetry and drink. A hippie before hippies existed.

In the memorial I can see this fascination still remains. The exhibition halls are full of portraits depicting the poet in different states of intoxication. In fact, in every painting he is either drowning himself in alcohol or sleeping off the effects of a few too many.

I wander the extensive network of buildings of the memorial. It includes temples, tree-lined pathways and pools of carp, all decorated in the style of the Tang Dynasty. The halls contain calligraphy and scrolls dating back over 1000 years. At the age of 15 Li Bai left Jiangyou and you can find detailed maps of the poets travels down the Yangtze River and up into the heartland. 

One of the texts I read also details a little more of his extravagant lifestyle. He was a notorious womanizer and a keen swordsman. The latter skill coming in useful, no doubt, when he had run-ins with some of the husbands on his travels. 

Leaving the memorial I picked up a small bottle of Baijiu in the souvenir shop. Its potent rice liquor similar to the stuff Li Bai drank. At one of his statues I raised the bottle and took a mouthful. I sipped a few more along the way to the train station.

Li Bai died at the ripe old age of 66. Story goes that he was chasing the moon ‘s reflection in a river and fell in. It goes without saying that he had a few choujius beforehand.

Drinking Alone with the moon

From a pot of wine among the flowers

I drank alone. There was no one with me

Till raising my cup I asked the bright moon

To bring me my shadow and make us three

I knew I was drunk when I ordered a bowl of pig intestine at a restaurant beside the train station. Best in town apparently.

“Did Li Bai like pig intestines?” I ask.

“They were his favourite,” the owner said.

I take one last swig of my baijiu and put my pen and paper on the table. Suddenly I felt some inspiration coming along.


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Week 14 - Creative Writing- Humanities

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Edited by Stephen Walsh, Tuesday, 1 Jun 2021, 10:24

Someone is waiting for a train. They have a suitcase that contains an object they wish to conceal. Imagine for a moment you are this character – put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself the following questions, then write the answers down in your writer’s notebook: 

  1. What’s your name?
  2. What do you do for a living?
  3. Where do you live?
  4. Do you have a family? If so, who are they?
  5. Etc etc

Now you know ten things about your character. Write a short paragraph about the character based on the details you’ve created for them. Don’t write a description of them, instead use the details to create the beginning of a story. For example, if your character is wearing a heavy coat (Detail 7) and the day is warm, they might feel uncomfortable but be afraid to take it off because they are ashamed of their clothing because they are homeless (Detail 3).

Waiting For The Train

The 2:12 from Brighton. The 2:13 from Colchester. The 2:15 from Kidderminster. They had all come and gone. He watched the passengers unload, shuffle through the turnstiles and go on their merry way. No stragglers. No suspicious looking loiters.

He had the name McCarthy or McGowan scribbled on a piece of paper. They had never met but he found himself staring at the more bedraggled members of the crowd. He couldn’t help it. He had packed the suitcase personally so he knew exactly what was inside.

“What are you fucking looking at?”

Terry turned away. His eyes had lingered on the man with the limp for too long. That’s all he needed, beaten up in the middle of the station and have the contents of the suitcase spill on to the ground for all to see.

“Why do I have to deliver this to a train station?” he had asked his boss, earlier in the day “Why can’t we put it in a box and ship it like normal?”

“You’ve a lot to learn, Terry,” his boss had answered. “Some clients require discretion. They don’t want a package arriving at their house where their wife or parents can find it.”

The two weeks working in “Come and Get it” were an real eyeopener. He was learning all the time, sometimes too much. From 8am to 5pm he was surrounded by dolls, dildos and scented lubrication. The place made him realize he had lived a sheltered existence. Never in his wildest imagination would he have guessed that butt plugs came in so many shapes and sizes.

Business was booming. The accessories were flying our the door. But he could take no joy from the success. None of his family or friends knew where he worked. He had tried to tell them but the words paint factory came out of his mouth instead. Now he has to have detailed conversations with his father about emulsions and colour shadings.

Another crowd spilled on to the platform. This time it was the 2:18 from Birmingham. Passengers flocked towards the turnstiles and Terry moved closer against the wall with the suitcase. The contents rattled about inside. The simulation 1000, the prostate massager and complementary lube. The Dirty Weekend for One bundle. 

He threw intermittent glances at the crowd, looking for likely contenders. He just wanted this over and done with now.

Then, as he scanned the faces he noticed someone familiar amongst the strangers.

He turned away but it was too late.

“Terry. Is that you?”

There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

“Hey there,” Terry said.

He rested his eyes on the man but he couldn’t figure out who it was.

“I had heard you came to the city,” he said.

He knew this man but he just couldn’t place the face.

“Your mother tells me you’re working in a paint factory. Good for you.”

It was then the stubborn penny finally dislodged itself and fell into the slot. He was the shopkeeper from his parents’ estate.

“Did you come in on the train? We could’ve had a cup of tea together.”

Terry picked the suitcase from the ground. “Sorry I’m in a bit of a hurry,” he said. “Got to get back and... mix those paints.”

“Lovely to see you Terry,” the man said.

“Nice to see you too, Mr. McGinty.”


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Week 13 - The Blues - Humanities

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The story of bluesman Robert Johnson is complicated and layered, a rich blend of fact, fiction and folklore. It can be considered a triumphant tale of rags to riches; a tragedy of a musical genius taken too soon; the legend of a man that made a pact with the devil and paid the price. What really happened depends on who you ask, and as time goes on the stories get more embellished and elaborate.

All we know for sure is that the legendary bluesman recorded 29 tracks between 1936 - 1937, a year before his death. These songs, an eclectic mix of folk storytelling and masterful guitar licks, went on to inspire the likes of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. Not a bad achievement for a boy that, as far as we know, was born in a shack in Mississippi.

The problem with Robert’s story stems from the lack of information available. Most of what is known about him has been pieced together through scraps of documents and old anecdotes that have faded over time. No surprise, then, that the blanks have been filled in with tall tales and make-believe.

He was born, most likely, in Hazlehurst around May 1911. From the get-go his situation was complicated. He was the tenth child of Julia Dodds and the product of an affair with a man Robert would never meet. It was a hard life that was confounded by the lack of stability. Growing up he bounced around a lot and lived with at least two different stepfathers. One, Charles Dodds, lived in Memphis. It was while living here he began to take an interest in playing guitar and the blues.

This is usually the part of the story where we hear about a natural ability with music but for Robert this wasn’t the case. Even after years of practice on the guitar he was considered average. In fact family and friends actively discouraged him from playing.

At aged 19 he met and married 16-year-old Virginia Travis. Soon she became pregnant and, to the delight of most, Robert promised to quit music and get a job at the local plantation. This was not a contentious decision by any means. Robert was happy and determined to give his child the stability he never had. Sadly none of this would come to pass.

Virginia and the baby died during childbirth. Robert was not there when it happened. In a final hurrah before working in the plantation and becoming a father he had traveled to some nearby towns to play music. When he got back his child and wife were already buried. In one fell swoop his whole future had been taken away.

Devastated and alone he had no idea what to do next. In the fog of grief he picked up his guitar and kept moving. He drifted aimlessly. During those dark days singing and performing were the only things that brought meaning and so he made a decision. He wasn’t going to work on the plantation for pittance, instead he would make a name for himself playing music.

At this time, circa 1930, the blues legend Son House took up residence in Robinsonvile, Mississippi. He became a regular at the juke joints and bars of the town. He recalled a young man named Robert who was eager to get on stage and play. Performers were welcome but this guy wasn’t very good. “Get that guitar off him, he’s running us crazy,” Son remembers. It was true. Robert lacked talent. But he had a zest for knowledge and was on the look out for a musical mentor. Problem was these were loud clubs with fast music and boozed up performers, no one had the time, or the interest, to teach this clumsy guitarist how to play.

Robert left town but was unfazed. What he lacked in skill he made up for in gumption and stubborn determination. He was a man with nothing left to lose after all, so setbacks did nothing but push him harder.

What happened next is unknown, there’s a gap in the timeline. This is the space that, over the years, has been filled with magic and myth. The simple truth is Robert disappeared. He wasn’t seen in any of the towns he frequented along highway one. No sightings anywhere. Then in 1932, almost a year later, he turned up in a juke house in Banks, Mississippi. Son House was playing that night and he recognized him as the clumsy guitarist from the year before. As ever the young musician was eager to perform and they reluctantly let him play. Expectations in the room were low, however, the performance that proceeded would be talked about for years to come.

From the opening bar Son and the performers noticed a stark difference. Instead of ham-fisted strumming or awkward plucking he made the guitar sing. Everyone was blown away. Somehow the mediocre musician had not only improved but had surpassed all the years of experience surrounding the stage. At one point he stopped playing and added an extra string, turning the guitar from a six string to a seven string. “I had never seen anything like it,” Son would state in an interview years later.

The state of Mississippi at this time had a culture steeped in superstition and folklore. Demons and black magic were common themes in the tradition. Given his almost supernatural transformation it wasn’t long before word began to spread that Robert might be dabbling with the dark forces and had “been to the crossroads.” In this popular myth the crossroads is a place where one could go at midnight to strike a deal with the devil. It was suspected that Robert had exchanged his soul in order to become a master guitarist. a reputation that was cemented with songs titled such as Me and the Devil Blues. At the Crossroads. Hell hound on my Trail.

The next few years brought Robert a moderate amount of success. He no longer played street corners for nickels and dimes, he was selling out juke joints and roadhouses up and down Mississippi. But he wasn’t satisfied. He was looking to take his career to the next level, he wanted to sell out venues in the bright lights of New York and Chicago. This would never happen.

Between November 1936 and June 1937 he made three records, a total of 29 tracks. It was a collection of all his work to date and, unfortunately, it would be the only recordings he would ever make. Less than a year later he would be dead. He never achieved the success he had longed for. As with his whole life, the events surrounding his death are a mystery and have spawned a fair share of outrageous theories. Some believe he died after contracting syphilis. Others think he was killed by a poisoned bottle of whiskey bought by a jealous husband. And of course, there are those who believe something more supernatural was at play. Could it be that the devil came calling and Robert Johnson had to pay back his dues?

In one of his most famous songs, Me and the Devil Blues he sang:

Early this morning
When you knocked upon my door
Early this morning ooh
When you knocked upon my door
And I said, "Hello Satan"
"I believe it's time to go"

 


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The Storyteller - Week 8 - Humanities

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Edited by Stephen Walsh, Thursday, 29 Apr 2021, 11:51

The Storyteller

A hush descends on the bar. Standing in front of the roaring fire is a man with a wispy head of hair and wild beard. Before he speaks, he takes a final mouthful of Guinness. This is thirsty work. The small crowd ease back in their chairs. This is who they have come to see. Eddie Lenihan. Storyteller.

For 35 years Eddie has been collecting stories and folktales. In that time he has documented and recorded thousands of tales from his native county of Kerry and the surrounding countryside. For him these stories are cultural artifacts. As important as the old castles ruins that dot the landscape. Maybe even more so. These tales are more than just amusing and interesting incidents, they lay bare the soul of the land and its people.

The storytelling tradition in Ireland stretches back to the ancient Gaelic chieftains. Seanchai, as they were known in the Irish language, played an important part in society. In times before the written word these storytellers were the keepers of myths and legends. They travelled from town to town recounting the legends of Cú Chulainn or Fionn mac Cumhaill. It was a tradition that prevailed for over 1000 years, thought invasions, world wars and famines. Sadly, in 1950s with the increasing prominence of tv and radio the numbers of seanchai began to dwindle. Eddie Lenihan is one of the few remaining in the country.

Eddie’s journey to becoming a Seanchai wasn’t planned. After completing a master in phonetics, he began recording the old folks of the surrounding towns and villages. Initially he was trying to preserve the dying dialects of the area but instead found himself listening to the old stories and legends of times gone by. He used these tales firstly as bedtime stories for his children. Then he got his break on television program called Ten Minute Tales. With more than 10 books under his belt, he now travels the world spreading these old stories to as many people as possible. He seems to have an endless repertoire, he has tales about the famine, about the wars, about animals, and about simple beauty of everyday country life. One topic that he always comes back to is fairies, or the other crowd as he calls them.

Addressing a crowd in his home of Cusheen he says, “People still ask me ‘you don’t believe all that nonsense’ do you?” Given Eddies reputation this seems like a ridiculous question. In 1999 he gained international fame, albeit briefly, when he disrupted construction of a highway in county Clare to rescue a bush. According to Eddie, this was no ordinary bush, this was a sacred fairy bush. His plea sent headlines around the world and to this day, the bush stands.

While this can be regarded as a quirky story it is by no means a one off. In and around county Clare there are plenty of tales of a man with a long wild beard named Eddie advising what trees and shrubs shouldn’t be disturbed unless you’re prepared to deal the wrath of the fairies. There is no doubt that Eddie himself is now firmly part of the folklore of that part of the world.


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Van Gogh - Week 7 - Humanities

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Edited by Stephen Walsh, Thursday, 29 Apr 2021, 12:03

Cabbage and Clogs is the title of a painting by which famous artist?

This was one of the questions at a recent zoom quiz. I correctly guessed Van Gogh but the glory was fleeting; all other quizers got it right too. The clogs, I guess, were a dead giveaway.

The next morning, shaking off one too many beers, I googled the painting. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a still life of a cabbage and a pair of clogs. But I was. I guess I was expecting to see Van Gogh’s iconic style. Bright colors, thick blobs of paint, the swirling greens and yellows. Instead this was dark and moody. I felt like I had stumbled upon a painting done in his teenage angst years. All doom and gloom and yet it was still powerful.

Spurred on by this curious find I decided to delve deeper into the artist’s life. I wanted to see what other surprises Van Gogh could throw at me. Turns out, a lot. I also discovered that all the things I previously knew - Tortured artist that cut off his and took his own life - were either wrong or didn’t happen quite as I thought it did.

Tortured artist

It’s common knowledge that any artist worth his or her salt needs to be haunted by a trauma. It also helps if they drink, smoke and use drugs on a regular basis. The best writers, poets, and artist have all been damaged in some way shape of form. It’s the path to greatness. Right?

Van Gogh certainly ticked all those boxes, and a few more for good measure. He was the quintessential “tortured artist.” He had a debilitating illness of mind and drank too much, but that’s was the price he had to pay for his genius!

For some reason we have romanticized mental health issues in artists. If you’re an accountant that suffers with a disorder it’s a tragedy, if you’re a painter or a poet, it’s cool. You can use that suffering to create.

Van Gogh himself would be the first person to disagree with this way of thinking. He wrote extensively about his illness and he didn’t see this as an advantage at all. During his most serious bouts of depression, he was paralyzed and unable to lift a paint brush.

Psychologist too have weighed in on the topic. According to many specialists a broken mind could no more inspire you to paint than a broken leg.

But the myth continues. When we look at Van Gogh’s painting, we try to find hints of his madness. Maybe in the swirls are a sign of his madness? The bright colors and wacky dimensions are how his deranged mind saw the world?

There is no doubt that Van Gogh was a troubled man. But a more respectful way of remembering him is by saying he was a great artist despite his illness not because of it.

Ear incident

On one of his drinking binges, Van Gogh used a rusty blade to sever his ear off, afterwards he handed it to his prostitute lover, saying. “Please take care of it.”

That’s how the story goes.

The “ear incident”, as I call it, is arguably the most well-known, yet most misunderstood story about the great artist. We all known what he did but very few of us know why he did it?

At the time Van Gogh was living in the south of France. He had ambitions of starting a retreat for artists, a place where painters could hang out, forget about their worries and just paint. It almost came to fruition. Friend and fellow artist, Gauguin, joined him and for a while they got along. But cracks soon appeared in their relationship. Two alcoholic artists living under one roof is never a good idea.

As the arguments got louder and more violet Gauguin decided to move on. This was a huge blow for Van Gogh. His dream of starting an artist retreat was gone, and his friend was slipping away. Unable to cope with the overwhelming swell of emotions he began drinking more. This didn’t help, only made him more belligerent and threatening.

On the day Gauguin left Van Gogh snapped. Drunk and in the fog of a psychosis he picked a razor blade up from the sink and violently slashed at the flesh and cartridge of his ear.

Afterwards he stumbled around the town looking for Gauguin, the severed half-ear in his pocket. Failing to find his friend at local bars or brothels he settled on giving the ear to a prostitute.

Next day Van Gogh was found in his room, sleeping in a pool of his own blood. Distressed and disturbed it wasn’t long before he was in an insane asylum.

Murder or Suicide

Who can resist a good old murder mystery? While many historians and researchers will outright dismiss the murder theory there are enough oddities surrounding Van Gogh’s suicide to warrant a further look.

I had always assumed this was an open and shut case. I can even picture it in my head. Van Gogh sits under a willow tree, he scribbles a note about not being about to take it anymore. Then, tired of fighting his demons, he produces a pistol from his pocket and ends it all. The sound of the shot sends crows flying.

If you think that sounds a little cinematic, you’re right. This is actually the final scene from the movie Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas. Thereabouts. You can forgive the filmmakers for taking liberties. Van Gogh’s final day or days were, in reality, messy and confusing and didn’t fit comfortably into a movie narrative.

On the day in question, Van Gogh gathered his easel and paints and went to the wheat fields as usual. What happened next, however, is unclear. Towards the end of the day the artist stumbled back home clutching his stomach. I have done something he proclaimed.

For the next three days he lay in his room writhing in pain. Doctors puzzled over the small wound in his gut and concluded it was probably a gunshot.

Even if we disregard the fact that Van Gogh never mentions suicide or left a note, this is far from being an open and shut suicide.

There are plenty of questions left hanging. Why did he shoot himself in the stomach? And surely since this, why didn’t he finish the job? There’s also a mystery surrounding his easel. It was never found. And finally, where did he get the gun? Van Gogh was never reported to carry a weapon.


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Nature vs Nurture - Week 6 - Humanities

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On the day we are born, who are we? Are we books that are already written or are we fresh blank pages ready to be written upon?

This question has been floating around in some shape or form for millennia. Is personality and character inherited from our parents, or do they come later, absorbed and shaped by the environment we are raised in? At first glance this might sound like interesting thought experiments, but the answers could have a real impact on society. There are also political and scientific implications.

One of the most controversial, and relatively recent, elements of the nature vs nurture debate is gender roles? Men are strong, aggressive, and unemotional. Women are gentle, domestic, and nurturing. Men drink lager. Women drink wine.

Up until recently this was seen as the natural order of the universe. These were instilled biological traits, pre-installed hardware we couldn’t mess with? But there is increasing push back against these beliefs. Some psychologists now believe these gender traits are not inbuilt or natural and are instead forced upon us because of expectation in society.

This is an extension of an argument that took place over 250 years ago. At that time philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proclaimed that women were naturally inferior to men, that they were better suited to obeying rules and pleasing men. This conclusion was established after observing children playing. Girls, he noted, had a fondness for dressing up dolls and looking in mirrors. These two activities proved women were obsessed with appearing attractive to the opposite sex. With that, he proposed women should only be educated in satisfying men and domestic duties.

While this sounds shocking by today standards this was readily accepted back then.

His beliefs didn’t go unchallenged, however. The female writer Mary Wollstonecraft had big issues with his findings. She blasted Rousseau’s logic and unscientific methods. Playing with dolls could easily be a learnt behavior and nothing to do with nature. It was a vicious circle that needed to be broken. She was also quick to point out that if women were raised to be inferior, they would continue as inferior. Something that would be bad for society as a whole.

This was a new and revolutionary way of thinking. But in a cruel twist of irony, because she was a woman, her ideas were not taken seriously.

It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that her ideas resurfaced again. Initially she became a champion of the feminist movement and sexual equality. Most recently, though, her ideas made waves in the world of child-rearing.

The term gender-neutral parenting usually provokes a vivid reaction. The concept is to allow a child the freedom to explore gender without influences passed on from society. Blue for a boy, pink for a girl is out the window. Some believe it promotes a healthy identity. Others think it is detrimental and harmful, bordering on child abuse.

But there are many ways in which it can be implemented. At the extreme end of the spectrum the child’s biological gender is not revealed to anyone, not to friends, not to close family members. This way all unconscious gender-based behavior is eliminated.

The child is also referred to with the pronoun “they”, until such a time they are ready to identify as a he or she or non-binary. This method of parenting has attracted the most attention. And the most opposition. While these are rare and unique cases they have been reported in the news and have created a bit of a storm.

It must be said, though, there are other less strict types of gender-neutral parenting. Ones that are more frequently used. In most cases parents don’t hide the child’s gender but instead cultivate what is known as a gender-neutral environment. For example, domestic and caring chores are shared by both parents. This way the child doesn’t associate these chores with one gender or the other. They also allow their child to play with whatever toys they want. Long hair or short hair isn’t stressed, the child can choose. There is also a clamp down on what is called gendered language. “Man up.” “Don’t be such a girl.“

The goal for gender-neutral parenting is not, as some suggest, to a create a gender-less future. The hope is that by removing society pressure to behave in a certain way future generation will focus more on personality.


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Amadeus Review - Week 5 - Humanities

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The story of Amadeus is told through the eyes of the composer Salieri , a musician of high standing, and a man of unwavering religious beliefs. When not composing or teaching music he spends his time in prayer and quiet contemplation. This devotion to god, he believes, is the reason he has been gifted with musical ability. This belief is shattered, however, with the arrival of a young composer by the name of Mozart.

As the movie opens we meet an aging Salieri . His life is tatters. He’s racked with guilt. He’s living in an insane asylum. As he recounts his story we learn he was once a successful musician. He served in the emperor’s palace. He composed concertinos. He taught opera to the finest singers in Vienna. All of this means nothing, though, after he hears the music of the composer named Mozart for the first time.

The musical elite of Vienna enjoy this new composer’s work, but Salieri recognizes the true genius behind the compositions. This rocks his confidence and he begins to question his own musical ability. Will all his life’s work be rendered mediocre by this new composer?

And if that wasn’t bad enough, he comes face to face with the genius and finds a childish slob. A womanizer. A drunk. Why, Salieri questions, has God bestowed such a precious gift to a godless man?

Amadeus is a story of jealously and rivalry, two traits we are all familiar with. Salieri befriends Mozart, but also plots and schemes his downfall. Atrocious actions but actions we understand completely. At times this movie spoke fluently to the vindictive person living inside my head. We’d all like to think, in similar circumstances, that we would act differently, but who knows.

Salieri's actions are not good for Mozart, and ultimately, they are not good for himself either. One ends up in an early grave, the other in an insane asylum.

But is any of this story true? This is one question that gets asked again and again about this movie. Believe it or not great chunks of this are based on real life events. The rivalry between Salieri and Mozart was true. Mozart’s eventual rejection from the musical elite was also true. His music – so new and revolutionary - was considered by many to have “too many notes.”

The movie, of course, won’t satisfy history purists; they will no doubt nitpick everything from the costumes to the accents. And what about Mozart’s personality? Was he really a childish womanizer? Many might consider this poetic license on the side of a Hollywood screenwriter, but Mozart did write a song called “Lick me in the arse”, so I’ll let you make up your own mind about that.


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Elizabeth I and Armada - Week 4 - Humanities

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Edited by Stephen Walsh, Tuesday, 9 Mar 2021, 10:09

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Disclaimer: These are just thoughts on the module. Written mostly from memory so dates and events may not be fully correct.

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On a dark and stormy night in 1588 a fleet of ships sailed dangerously close to the rugged coastline of western Ireland. Whistling gales and sloping rain had forced them to seek shelter along an unfamiliar shore. These powerful galleons, 80 foot long. 30 foot high, were no match for Mother Nature. The raging winds and unforgiving currents pushed the ships against the jagged rocks and steep cliff-faces, in seconds they were splintered into a thousand pieces.

By the end of this unseasonal storm 27 ships would be lost. An estimated 6000 men went into the water, precious few came out. Those lucky enough to swim ashore were quickly executed by waiting English forces. It was a humiliating end for the so-called invincible armada, an armada commissioned by the Spanish King Philip II to unseat the Queen Elizabeth of England.

The consequences of this defeat are still felt today. Not just on the rocky coast of Ireland but also in the geopolitics of modern world.

In 16th century, under the rule of King Philip Il, Spain had the largest empire on the globe. Helped by a world-class navy and ruthless conquistadors they had conquered faraway lands such as the Philippines and vast chunks of the Americas. Closer to home, parts of Belgium and the Netherlands were also in the hands of the Spanish.

While these conquests were beneficial for trade and natural resources Philip, allied closely with the Pope Pius V, also believed he was carrying out gods work by spreading Catholicism around the world.

It was this alliance with the Pope that would eventually put Spain and England on a collision course.

Under Queen Elizabeth I, England was pulling away from the old catholic traditions and becoming a fully-fledged Protestant country. This brought anger to the Vatican, and to Spain.

But there were other issues also beginning to stack up.

Trade for example. England, as an up-and-coming naval power, was beginning to flex its muscles on the high sea and had targeted many Spanish bullion ships coming back from the American with gold. There was also the sticky matter of England helping the Dutch resistance. The Netherlands began revolting against Spanish rule and England was only too happy to supply arms and troops to help.

With tensions already high the slightest spark was enough to ignite an all-out war. In 1587 Elizabeth lit a match. She ordered the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic monarch who was a supporter of Spain. Upon hearing the news there was no turning back, and within days Philip II began drawing up plans for an attack.

Such was scale of the armada it took months to commission and organize. Finally, in May 1588 the fleet left the port of Lisbon. 150 ships. 30,000 men. Crowds lined the shore to witness the spectacular event. The tall sails were still visual on the horizon for hours.

And this was not the complete armada. The plan was to dock in Flanders, in Spanish controlled Netherlands, to rendezvous with more ships and a 60,000 strong invasion force . King Phillip II anticipated a quick, decisive victory. He fully expected the ships to reach the English mainland without much opposition and sail up the Thames and descend upon London.

In hindsight let’s just say this strategy was flawed and the optimism was misplaced.

For a start the English had been warned of their approach and intercepted the Spanish off the coast of Cornwall. While English vessels were no match for the tall powerful galleons, they were nimble and highly maneuverable. Like a swarm of buzzing mosquitoes these fast-moving ships got close, did some damage and got out again.

This was an annoying rather than convincing tactic. The Spanish held their formation and progressed relatively unscathed up the channel, however, the attacks had drained of vital arsenal.

As a result, they were forced to drop anchor a little earlier than anticipated in Calais. Northern France. Here they awaited supplies. But they were also in a vulnerable position and were on high alert.

Across the channel the English were formulating strategies. The naval commander Francis Drake knew the armadas greatest advantage was its strong, impenetrable formation. If they could somehow split the fleet up, they stood a much better chance.

That night, under the cover of darkness, Drake and his troops set fire to eight ships and sent to on the wind towards Calais. These slow-moving torpedoes were not designed to inflict damage but to disrupt and to confuse.

It worked.

Already in a heighten state of anxiety the sight of the flaming ships on the horizon caused widespread panic. Without waiting for orders one by one the ships began lifting anchors to escape. In their haste numerous ships collided. Those that made it to the open sea found themselves scattered and disorganized.

For the next three days battles raged. The Spanish, unable to return to their tight formation, were bombarded relentlessly by fast moving English ships. Worse still, they hadn’t picked up any supplies from Calais and were now drifting northward, away from any possible salvage.

The English had the upper hand now. They could easily reach home shores and replenish their supplies.

Battered and beaten and with no other options the armada decided to retreat. The safest route was to continue northwards around Scotland and along the Irish coastline and back to Spain. Or so they thought. Months earlier when King Phillip II was told about the potential storms in the North Atlantic, he responded by saying: God is on our side. He will keep the sky clear for us.

Of the 150 ships that set out from Lisbon only 60 would make it back. Many historians agree that the defeat of the Armada led to the eventual collapse Spanish empire. More importantly it led to the rise of a global superpower: England. The English, and ultimately the British empire, would become the largest in the world has ever seen. Even today British colonialism can still be felt in faraway lands such as India, Burma, New Zealand and China.


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Cleopatra - Week2 - Humanities

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Edited by Stephen Walsh, Wednesday, 24 Feb 2021, 10:16

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Disclaimer: These are just thoughts on the module about Cleopatra. Written mostly from memory so dates and events may not be fully correct.

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For the best part of two thousand years Cleopatra has been depicted as a seductress, a woman with magical allure, the original femme fatale. She was said to be beautiful and wicked in equal measure; that her sorcery was so powerful that even the mighty Caesar was bewitched. And once he was gone, assassinated by his own men, she weaved her magic yet again, this time snaring Mark Anthony in her trap. This was a woman who would do anything and everything to get what she wanted.

Great story, isn’t it? Even Shakespeare thought so. And he would know. In 1600 he wrote a play about the doomed love affair of Anthony and Cleopatra. The plot was right up his street, full of betrayal and scheming, with the two main characters committing suicide at the end. In it, Cleopatra, fueled by jealous rage devised a wicked plan to lure Mark Anthony away from his wife and into her bed.

Audiences lapped it up. What’s more, they thought it was true. Other adaptations followed suit. In the 20th century Cleopatra hit the big screens on three separate occasions. 1917, 1932 and most notably 1963 with Elizabeth Taylor. None of the movies strayed far from the preconceived premise that Cleopatra was a man-eater so her reputation remained firmly intact.

But is this the real Cleopatra? In recent times many historians are skeptical. For one, Shakespeare’s play and subsequent movies rely on one source. The Romans. There are now new sources that have come to light that suggest we might have been duped by Roman style propaganda all along. A sort of prehistoric fake news campaign that is playing out today.

How did this happen? And why did this happen?

Before tackling these questions, we need to go back set a little context.

During the reign of Cleopatra, in and around 50BC, Egypt was technically part of the Rome Empire, having been gifted to Rome by a deathbed pharaoh. This left the queen in a bit of bind. Roman troops marching into Egypt and staking their claim was a real possibility. Action was needed.

Cleopatra became close to Caesar, and not longer after they became lovers and she bore him a child. In modern politics this would be a real thorny situation, however, back then this was regarded as win-win Roman - Egyptian alliance, an ancient style bilateral agreement.

But after Caesar’s death Rome descended into chaos and the Roman - Egyptian alliance was lost. Cleopatra was back to square one.

The empire also had a problem. A power vacuum opened and two contenders came to the forefront. Octavian and Mark Anthony. Both men occupied vast areas of the Roman Empire. Octavian controlled the west, and was based in capital, Rome. Mark Anthony was in the Eastern Mediterranean, his strongholds included present day Syria, Turkey, Israel, right up to the border of Egypt.

Again, with Rome at her front door Cleopatra sought an alliance. She knew a battle was coming and so she struck up a friendship with Mark Anthony and, wouldn’t you know it, they became lovers.

As the battle grew closer Octavian and Mark Anthony first engaged in a war of words, a propaganda war. Addressing large crowds these two warriors would proclaim themselves the chosen ruler of Rome. They also weren’t shy about criticizing and denouncing the other.

Octavian, in one of his most famous speeches, dubbed Marc Anthony a weak man bewitched by a foreign queen. He declared, “[Mark Anthony] has abandoned his life and embraced alien and barbaric customs.” Towards Cleopatra he was equally harsh. He accused her of using witchcraft to enslave the men of Rome and she would do so again if she got the chance.

The speech had a purpose: to rile up his troops and convince listeners that he was indeed the only worthy leader of Rome. He was also belittling and tarnishing his enemy’s name, trying to make him look weak.

Mark Anthony probably made a similar speech, but his words have been lost in the winds of time. We all know that history is written by the victors and it was Octavian who was triumphed in the battle. As a result it is his version of events that were remembered. More importantly it is his version of Cleopatra and Anthony that was written down, recorded and still lingers to this day.

But the problem is this is only one side of the story. And the story came from a warrior addressing his men in the heat of the moment. Hardly a reliable source.

Historians for many years have been trying to set the record straight. They have referenced Arabic texts which claim Cleopatra was a very knowledgeable woman: she wrote books, she spoke several languages, knew could converse on complex military strategies. In other words, she was much more complex and interesting than the Roman sources give her credit for.

While this doesn’t contradict what Octavian claimed about Anthony and Cleopatra it’s a reminder that we should look at this story from many different angles before making a judgement.

It might be a long time before we see a movie version of the knowledgeable and book writing Cleopatra. I guess the old saying true. Never let the truth get into the way of a good story.


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