A week in the West Bank

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Seven days isn’t enough to explore the Palestinian Occupied Territories, let alone get a real sense of what it’s like for people who live there.

I’ve just spent a week in the area with another student journalist from Edinburgh, travelling and talking to as many people as possible. Aside from doing all the touristy stuff in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, we spent a day at Birzeit University speaking with student activists and interviewing one of the institution’s vice-presidents (resulting articles will appear imminently in The Journal).

Sitting in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, mulling over the last few days, a few things stand out.

There are too many bored young men with guns. On both sides. At the checkpoints, yes, but in city centres also. Walking through Tel Aviv, it’s notable just how many young recruits wander about on public transport with M16s slung over their back. Many of them look young, and with national service compulsory at the age of 18, it’s probable they’re not much older.The potential issues of giving young people weapons have been reiterated by hearing that during the time we’ve been here, a Jewish man has been shot dead by an Israeli soldier at the wailing wall (reported here on BBC news).

Many of the policemen in Ramallah don’t carry guns, but there’s still a precedent for very physical expressions of discontent.

The reaction to a young man from Gaza winning the Arab Idol contest (the Middle East’s Eurovision equivalent) on the evening of 23 June is extraordinary. Everyone with a car takes to the streets, hysterically punching their horns as young men hang out of the vehicles and scream “Allahu Akbar!”. Violence breaks out at a local checkpoint as people throw stones at Israeli soldiers.

Aside from every other problem facing this area of the Middle East, the provision of weapons and the arrogance that can accompany military identity seem a fairly lethal combination.

It’s not all about religion. As a visitor from western Europe, it’s worthwhile acknowledging that, as with every society, levels of religious belief in Palestine and Israel fluctuate. Part of me is surprised that we don’t see more people going to pray/ religious observance in Ramallah, and how unimportant a role  –  superficially at least – religion seems to play. Sectarian identities are certainly as significant as religious divides.

Student politics in this part of the world means something different. Because of the unique situation, student activism requires an extraordinary level of commitment. Supporting a cause here means acknowledging that you may end up with a spell in prison, suddenly find yourself under house arrest, and almost certainly have your ability to travel curtailed. Next time I hear a student politician in the UK wingeing about how hard they have it, they’ll get short shrift.

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The dilemma for journalists who want to write creatively

Edinburgh University’s creative writing society PublishED held a thought-provoking talk yesterday, given by the publishing guru Dr Alison Baverstock.

Two key points of the lecture focused on social media and time management. For any writer hoping to get published today, it’s essential to have twitter followers, a Facebook profile, a blog etc, otherwise publishers just won’t want to know. In a twittercentric universe, the author has to be willing to take responsibility for much of the publicity themselves – they must have a visible online profile. Writing your damn novel is only one part of the story.

Baverstock makes the crucial point that managing the amount of time an author spends focusing on social media is absolutely key. But I suspect this is more easily said than done.

The short-term, schizophrenic sort of concentration that’s required in order to absorb – and to write – 140 character messages is utterly antithetical to the in-depth concentration that’s needed in order develop creative ideas at length.

So what’s this got to do with 24-hour news?

It used to be the case that a lot of novelists wanting to write cut their teeth in the journalism industry. The early 70’s, to name but a few, saw the likes of Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens all working for the New Statesman. The list of contemporary journalists-turned-novelists goes on and on, from Julie Burchill and Geraldine Bedell, to Will Self and Wendy Holden.

But both the exponentially increasing speed at which the news agenda moves and the advent of social media are creating a real problem for those who want to try and straddle both fields.

The key difficulty is one of expectation. As a journalist today, it’s assumed you’ll have an iPhone, and you’ll be checking it twenty-four hours a day. It’s assumed you will pick up every tweet or Facebook message that comes in, and that when it does, you’ll have that story processed within a couple of hours.

The amount of time that’s spent trying to manage the information flooding into the various screens and mobile devices totally opposes the creative impulse (and that’s really the crux of the matter. It’s an absorption and regurgitation of information as opposed to the outwards creative thrust.)

In many ways, I suppose this isn’t a new problem. Barnes and co. must have had the same problem, trying to find snatches of time to write, away from the telephone and the boozy haze of the Fleet Street newsroom.

But it does seem particularly maddening for writers trying to start out.

On the one hand it’s expected that you’ll push yourself hard online, requiring an omnipresence verging on the obsessive. On the other, you’re expected to find uninterrupted time for the deep reading, thinking, and writing that’s required to produce really quality prose.

Kultur concrète

People often seem to have something against concrete. I’ve had a number of conversations recently where someone’s pointed at a building (the Barbican centre in east London for example) and said ‘oh, look at all that concrete, isn’t it ugly?’ My reply would be: ‘That’s exactly the point.’ This is brutalist architecture. It’s designed to be disquieting. In the case of the Barbican, it’s designed to remind people that it was built during a period of post-war national turmoil.

There’s no better example of provocative ugliness in the form of concrete than Berlin’s memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Designed by Peter Eisenman, it consists of 2711 large concrete blocks each of varying sizes, and occupies a prominent square near the Brandenburg Gate.

In the bleak drizzle of a January late-afternoon the place is eery and empty. Long, directionless corridors of concrete yawn into the distance, as if channelling a collective psyche. The sensory experience is heightened by the weird echo effect produced by the proximity of the rectangles.

Counterintuitively, this is architecture – sculpture – at its most functional. Its very purpose is to make the passer-by stop and realise something momentous has occurred. You can look at the Reichstag from a distance, with its new roof by Norman Foster, and get away with thinking ‘wow, this is a suitably impressive building for the government of Europe’s biggest economic power’ rather than ‘this is the place that was set on fire by the Nazis, allowing Hitler to seize emergency powers.’ You can’t do that with the holocaust memorial. It requires the visitor to ask why the hell someone has gone to the effort of sticking so many enormous hunks of concrete in the centre of Berlin. Even the oblivious English tourists behind me, who at first shouted ‘Ooh look, it’s a maze!’ were shocked into silence.

One of my favourite architects is Basil Spence, who’s been in the news recently thanks to the Mortonhall crematorium scandal. He had an uncanny talent for creating brutalist architecture that prevents people from forgetting. This is for another post/ article, but a few of the buildings he designed include Coventry Cathedral and the University of Edinburgh’s library (I will fight to the death over this one – it’s not to be called ugly…)

Wandering round this memorial was a reminder that things don’t have to be beautiful to have aesthetic value. We live in a world that’s utterly focused on the perfection of form as it is – bodily form, intellectual form, sporting form, whatever (how about makeup adverts, for example, constantly telling women how they need to improve themselves?) Architectural forms such as Brutalism and Functionalism allow a certain release. They remind us of our limitations. If skyscrapers like the Empire State Building or The Shard are constructed to make people look up in awe at the possibility of money and ideas, we should also celebrate structures that refuse to capitulate to the beauty of form.

What I’m reading in Berlin

1) The Innocent – Ian McEwan

This is an early, easily overlooked McEwan novel. It may not have the polish of his later books (the beginning’s a bit slow, and there are chunks of unconvincing dialogue), but If you’re into cold war espionage literature then you’ll be hard-pressed to find another author who combines cold war narrative with sepia 1950’s existence so effectively.

Many of McEwan’s novels deal with sclerotic post-war British identity and the accompanying sexual hiatus. This is no exception. Twenty-five year old electrical engineer Leonard Marnham is sent out to Berlin to work on a top secret project tapping Soviet lines, when he has his first sexual liaison with a young German girl. Dysfunction ensues.

2) Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood 

This delicious set of fragments gives a real flavour of 30’s Berlin, depicting the sudden fall from prosperity experienced by everyone in Germany after the Wall Street Crash. The narrator takes up the namesake of the author, and despite protestations in the introduction, the account has a strong autobiographical streak.

The six sections tell the tale of 1930’s Berlin from different standpoints, exploring the lives of characters the fictional Isherwood encounters; from the aristocratic family he works for as an English teacher, to an aspiring British actress treading the boards of the German dance halls.

Originally intended as part of a grand social project charting the rise of Nazism, this book is quite simply delightful to read. Isherwood flirts his way through the pages, never taking himself and his Englishness – or indeed anything at all – too seriously, even when presented with decidedly unusual moral dilemmas.

Lots of the characters are salacious and gossipy in a kind of flawed-but-ultimately-loveable way. This just makes it all the weirder when Isherwood suddenly mentions the political and social context: ‘She was, of course, a member of the Nazi party.’

Fifty shades of shite

A history graduate from the University of Edinburgh has been snapped up by Penguin for a two-book deal, days after taking America’s e-book market by storm.

Having self-published her work online over the summer, Samantha Young’s erotic novel On Dublin Street rapidly made it to number one in the American Amazon charts.

Set in Edinburgh’s New Town, the book explores a number of famous locations in the city, recounting the tale of a young American woman’s rather steamy visit to the Scottish capital. But this news won’t please everybody.

Much of the debate at the Edinburgh International Book Festival over the summer centred on the question of literary value, and the effect that this sort of easy erotic fiction is having on the publishing industry…Read on

Lessons from Mr Bisset: interview with Scots literary superstar

Alan Bissett bounds up to the National Library of Scotland, sparkly purple scarf around his neck, bright blue suitcase in hand. His easy-going amicability seems a long way from the character of Moira, the feisty working-class protagonist of his most well known piece for stage The Moira Monologues. “I wish I’d dressed more like a student”, he jokes, as he poses for a photo.

He explains with enthusiasm that he has just come from doing a talk at a school in Leith and is about to head off on tour. This week sees the final performances of his most recent play The Red Hourglass in Glasgow, which premiered this summer at the Edinburgh Fringe to widespread critical acclaim. The hour-long show, a series of erotic arachnid monologues, is performed entirely by the author who takes on the parts of both male and female spiders.

It’s fairly unusual for a writer to have such a hand in acting out his work, and Bissett posits that much of this desire to act as well as write comes from his teaching experience: “Teaching is an elaborate acting job. You have maybe thirty kids in front of you…you have to learn how to play them; you have to make them laugh, discipline them, inspire them, and the only way you can do that is by being a performer. I think that’s how I ended up doing it.” Having studied English and Education at the University of Stirling, Bissett undertook a short spell as a secondary school teacher before returning to university to study for a PhD. “I enjoyed it,” he explains, “but realised I would never be a writer if I stayed a secondary school teacher.”…Read More

Photo Credit: Allan MacDonald/ The Journal

Photo Credit: David Selby

What’s dull, uninteractive and made of paper?

How many browser tabs do you have open? I bet it’s more than three. And you probably clicked through to this article from elsewhere.

The impact of technology and the internet on the future of the novel is something that’s come under intense scrutiny at this year’s book festival. Speaking at an event this afternoon, Booker-winning novelist Howard Jacobson argued that the majority of the reading public no longer have the ability, let alone the inclination, to pick up a novel.

And he’s by no means the only author expressing concern for the future of the book. At this year’s Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, writer China Miéville argued that readers will begin to alter books digitally and produce ‘mash-up’ versions of published books, emulating the way in which the YouTube generation remix songs. Whether or not this is an accurate prediction, it certainly raises questions about the effect of technology on our ability and desire to read.

Writer and broadcaster Will Self, who will be speaking at the book festival on 25 August, talked to The Journal back in May, expressing some of the concerns he has for the future of the book  “There’s something about having a physical analogue; it’s almost as if you are conscious of the other pages because they’re physically there.” Self worries so much about the impact of the internet on the ability of the young to read that he’s setting up a module at Brunel University to focus on this as a subject of empirical research…Read more

Photo Credit: David A. Selby/ The Journal