German Ghost Border

I’ve just seen another map shared by the Twitter account, @onlmaps, which I felt compelled to discuss on here.  You can see it at this link.

As anyone who is familiar with maps of Europe between 1945 and 1989 can testify, this divide is almost exactly along the border between the former Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the communist, Soviet-puppet German Democratic Republic (East Germany).  Less than 30% of the population of former East Germany is religious, compared to an average of 60%-90% in former West Germany.  The reason for this seems fairly clear: after 12 years of Nazi rule, West Germany allowed its citizens to continue worshiping freely, whereas East Germany’s government advocated an atheist, secular agenda.  According to Wikipedia, one way it did this was by organising secular coming-of-age ceremonies to replace the Catholic equivalent, and largely discouraging church attendance in general.  As with the Polish Ghost Border, I find it incredible how long-gone borders between countries can continue to have a social and economic impact upon the territory they divided.

The main reason this divide surprised me is that I had always assumed that the Soviet-Communist governments had largely failed in bringing religious observance down.  But I’ve done some research into the former Eastern-bloc countries and the results seem to be mixed:

Country: (proportion of people who do not believe in a God)

Estonia: 71%
Ukraine: 63%
Belarus: 41%
Russia: 38%
Latvia: 21%
Czech Republic: 34%
Slovakia: 13%
Lithuania: 10%
Bulgaria: 9%
Poland: 5%
Romania: 0.2%

So actually, incredibly mixed.  Some area were successful, such as Estonia, Ukraine and Belarus.  These three countries were formerly part of the Soviet Union, yet Lithuania, also in the Soviet Union, still sees high religious observance.  Meanwhile, Poland and Romania have incredibly low rates of non-religion; I can only presume that their Cold War governments did not push an agenda of atheism.

For comparison, here’s the rates of some Western European countries:

The Netherlands: 51%
Sweden: 34%
France: 31%
Norway: 29%
Scotland: 28%*
Belgium: 27%
England and Wales: 25%
Spain: 25%
Denmark: 24%
Luxembourg: 22%
Finland: 21%
Switzerland: 20%
Italy: 15%
Portugal: 7%
Ireland: 6%

So actually, the cases of East Germany, Estonia and Ukraine aside, the Soviet-Communist governments of the Eastern Bloc don’t seem to have had that significant impact in reducing religious observance compared to the natural decline we’ve witnessed in the West.  Perhaps my original assumption was correct, and that East Germany’s government was the exception.

*This is from the 2001 census, as the results of the 2011 census for Scotland don’t seem to have been published yet.  I imagine it will be at least 30% now, considering that England and Wales lept from 15% to 25% between 2001 and 2011.  If Scotland had a similar jump, we might even see 38% of Scots claiming no religion.  It’s curious that Scotland is less religious than the rest of the UK.

Ideologies of Europe

Ideologies

I’ve just completed one of my main Summer projects: a video charting the rise and fall of ideologies across Europe over the last few centuries.  For those interested, you can watch it here.

The wide variety of ideas on how we should structure society and govern ourselves which have sprung up from Europe have always fascinated me.  From hereditary monarchies to liberal republics, Communist Utopian dreams to Fascist order and discipline – and even the idea of no structure, no state, in occasional anarchist societies; we’ve attempted the lot.  Most have failed, or been brought down, but there’s no reason to suggest what we’re experiencing now isn’t simply a brief period of calm which, as I discovered while researching the video, are extremely common, before another tumultuous divergence.  My favourite aspect of the video is watching the consensuses change: seeing the ideals of authoritarianism and ‘tradition’ dissolve while new accepted forms of governance emerge.  Is our current system of capitalist democracy here to stay, or will something currently unimaginable one day usurp it?

See, this is a prime example of how studying history is always relevant.  From the past, we can extrapolate the future.

The Legacy of Colonialism

David Cameron must be getting pretty sick of all these disputes popping up across the world about various Overseas Territories.  Recent sabre-rattling by Argentina over the Falkland Islands has only just fizzled out and now we’re seeing tensions grow between the UK and Spain once again over Gibraltar.  These stories appear in the news frequently, and each time they do I’m reminded of just how messy colonialism is.  Between roughly the 16th century and the early 20th, our country (morphing from the Kingdom of England into Great Britain into the UK) took control of approximately a quarter of the world, soaking up territories in North America, Africa, Asia as well as bits and pieces dotted about elsewhere.  However after two world wars this Empire proved unmanageable for several reasons and was gradually dismantled.  This process was mostly completed by the mid 1960s.  So how are we still facing so many issues 50 years later?

Colonialism clearly penetrates so deeply that it cannot easily be plucked free from the countries it affects.  You might expect this of the victim countries – a huge number of problems* in Africa and Asia today can be directly attributed to British colonialism – but who’d have thought we here, in the ‘master country’, would continue to be plagued by it?  Turns out letting go of our colonial possessions isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Granted, our problems are far less significant, but the point I’m trying to make is that colonialism is too messy an endeavour to possibly clean up in half a century.  It will be many more centuries, I expect, before we’re passed its repercussions.

To be clear, I’m not criticising the British government for holding onto the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar.  The people of Gibraltar have consistently shown that they would rather live under relaxed British rule than become part of Spain, while 99.8% of Falkland Islanders voted earlier this year to stay British.  As long as the people of any Overseas Territory wish to stay part of the UK, they ought to be.  It’s the imperial actions which created the problems in the first place I object to.  What’s done is done; seeking a reversal of these actions is often impossible.

Basically, continuing conflicts such as these should serve as a reminder to us and to future generations that colonialism is not only wrong but simply not worth the effort.  As time goes on and we forget about the horrors of war, imperialism and nationalism, there’s a very great risk the same mistakes might be made again.  We mustn’t let this happen.

*Okay, I acknowledge that many positive things also came from British colonialism, such as developed infrastructure, wider availability of vaccines, trade links, etc.  More bad than good, I would argue, but that’s a debate for another day.  Either way, these nations are undeniably still shaped by the legacy of colonialism.

 

Exam Results!

I received my exam results today – my last ever encounter with the Scottish Qualifications Authority.  It will be like losing a difficult and demanding friend, but one who has stuck with me throughout many difficulties.  Anyway, I had the crazy idea of filming myself discovering the results on camera, which you can watch here.

I’ll now just pass you onto a couple of links I promised to upload a while back:

English dissertation: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218339/
History dissertation: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218347/
The British Revolutionhttp://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218366/
The Lightning Strike: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218368/

The Thief of Time (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

I randomly picked this up a shelf from the local library, impressed with the concept and what I believed were author John Boyne’s writing credentials for having written the well-performing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.  The book is written as a fictional journal for Matthieu Zéla (finally, a character who shares my name!) and explores his life – all 250 years of it.  Since the late 18th century Matthieu has never aged.  This is a concept which has been explored heavily before, although this is my first personal encounter with the idea, and I was curious to see how Boyne tackled it.

Unfortunately, the novel never lived up its potential with this grand idea.  It’s structured around several different periods of his life, ranging from revolutionary France, the glamour of 1920s America, postwar Communist witch-hunts and 19th century Britain.  Each of these separate stories begin and end without a clear pattern, but the narrative returns to two stories: Matthieu’s arrival in the UK as a teenager focusing on his life with Dominique, and the present day.  I found this haphazard way of plotting irritating, I think generally because there was no progression throughout the novel.  I have no problem with fragmented storytelling, as my love of Cloud Atlas testifies, but there has to be a reason for it which The Thief of Time lacks.

My other major issue with the novel is that, all things considered, the individual stories told of Matthieu’s life are just so dull.  “Yes, back in the 19th century I was a businessman with wife X…” “1920s I moved into this industry and married wife Y…”  We get the impression that Matthieu spent his whole life either courting women and investing money, shying away from anything more dramatic.  Ocasionally he gets into fights but his chivalrous and charitable nature keeps him out of most scraps, resulting in him frequently playing the role of a concerned figure of wisdom.  Most of the time the only tension was provided by one of Matthieu’s succession of nephews, all names a variation of Thomas – referred to as ‘The Thomases’.  Each Thomas tends to be impulsive and dies an early death after impregnating a woman, thus ensuring the line continues.  Despite appearing silly at first, by the resolution this plot thread had been adequately explained and given a sensible explanation.  Oh, and often these stories included the name dropping of famous historical figures: “I happened to meet Charlie Chaplin”, “No other than Pope Pius IX himself!” etc.  This was occasionally done to great effect, as with his brief involvement with the Rosenbergs during McCarthy’s Red Scare in the 1950s, but mostly came across as unconvincing and needless.

This problem is made worse by the fact that Matthieu comes across as such a dull character.  He’s likeable enough, patient and wise, but I found him utterly boring and unrealistic as a character – particularly one with his experiences.  Nowhere in the journal does he go into detail of what it’s like to live to such a grand age.  There are passing references, such as commenting on the transience of all political movements and how he sees contemporary trivial pursuits as pointless, but this barely scratches the surface.  What of loneliness?  What of his ego?  Does he really never question it?  Sure, his life (and the book) has been too boring to give him a great deal of angst, but even so.  I can’t help comparing him to Jack Harkness from the BBC’s Torchwood, around whom the concept of immortality is far more successfully explored.  Also, passing references along the lines of: “I’d taken a couple of decades off to relax,” just seem very simplistic, even childish.  Likeable, yes, but Matthieu is a very badly crafted character.

As I mentioned, I found the story of Dominique and his modern day existence more engaging.  Both still felt unconvincing in places, particularly in regard to his relationship with Dominique (who is very inconsistently written), but they at least had been turning the pages and reeling with shock at the plot twists.  The character of Jack, Matthieu’s friend, seemed surprisingly developed and real.  I found this often, in fact – with the exception of the various dull businessmen, the secondary characters often seemed the most multi-dimensioned.  Still, I must have invested enough because I had a silent gasp at Dominique’s horrific fate.  The tale of Matthieu’s ownership of an independent satellite TV channel in 1999 and of his son’s life as a soap star was hardly thrilling, but progressed well.  The conclusion of this story – and, indeed, the novel – was one of its best moments.  I really like Matthieu’s realisation that his added years are those that the Thomases never lived, and the moment he ‘saved’ Tommy from his self-destructive nature he begins to age (in a wonderfully abrupt ending scene).  The fantasy elements are fully described but never quite explained in a way which shouldn’t work but does – the same result Wilde achieved with The Picture of Dorian Gray.

I was both impressed and disappointed with the novel’s portrayal of historical events.  Sometimes it covered them well, as with the 1848 revolutions in Italy and the 1950s Red Scare in the USA.  Matthieu’s opinion of these events was also fascinated; he came across as a reactionary with a not entirely closed mind, normally willing to ‘go with the flow’.  I enjoyed reading the brief note of his enthusiasm for the space program in the 1960s, for instance.  But often, I felt Boyne just didn’t get how to write historical fiction.  I admit it’s a very hard style to write and you can argue he did a good job, being aged only 29 at the time, but there are some glaring problems.  One of which is the fact none of the characters speak as you’d expect from the period.  Dominique and young Matthieu, almost street urchins, talk like well-educated young adults from today.  There’s no register between the characters, nothing in their speech to indicate rank or role in society.  This can be somewhat forgiven when you remember that it’s written as a modern journal – but then, this begs the question, why is Matthieu’s writing style so modern?  Also, take this exchange, set in 1793:

We decided on a whim to take a trip.

“Perhaps Australia?”
“I think not.”
“Africa then.  There’s a whole continent there waiting to be explored.”
“Too hot.  And too underdeveloped.”

Who in 1793 took a trip “on a whim”?  People traveled, yes, but the concept of tourism was far from what it is today.  Then the examples: Australia has a population of only a few thousand at this point and scarcely existed as a united entity.  Travel to Australia took several months there and back, often in diseased and dangerous conditions and, even considering Matthieu’s longevity, would be an almost guaranteed one-way journey.  Even if they made careful plans to return, one would hardly go to Australia on a jaunt.  Africa’s not such a problem but it’s still naive to suggest people would consider traveling there in such an off-hand way; this is many decades before the widespread colonisation of the continent. They ultimately decide to go to France despite, you know, the ‘Reign of Terror’ and the fact France and Britain were at war.  How did they even get there?  It’s just little issues like that which ruined the novel for me, which is a shame because it does come across as very well researched at times.

In conclusion, The Thief of Time was a disappointment.  Not a total failure – there is still much to like – but I found it, overall, extremely boring to read and the largest challenge to finish a book I’ve had for a while.  It’s too long, I think.  If everything which doesn’t work could be culled, changed, reduced or developed then the novel might work but, as it is now, I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Final rating: 5/10

Doctor Who: The Witch Hunters [Novel] (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

I’ve always considered the Doctor Who novels to be a weaker offshoot of the main television series.  Bound by continuity, unable to make major alterations to the development of characters or stories, I had an image of them as being superficial adventures – as entertaining as these can be.  I was given The Witch Hunters by Steve Lyons about 5 or 6 years ago as a birthday present and decided to read it now.  It was published in 1998 – during what fans consider the ‘wilderness years’ of the show after it had been cancelled in 1989 and before its return in 2005.  Set in Massachusetts, 1692, the story focuses around the tragic events of the Salem Witch Trials.  It features the First Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara and fits between “The Reign of Terror” and “Planet of the Giants” (around 1964).

The historical setting is the most striking aspect of the novel.  Doctor Who, up until 1966 or so,  featured frequent ‘historicals’ in which the travelers would land in a period of Earth’s history and be the only alien influence seen during the story.  I rather miss that format – it would be nice now to see the Doctor travel back in time and not have aliens cause Mt. Vesuvius to erupt, for Shakespeare not to be influenced by witches, etc.  But I digress.  There was a point half way into the novel where I feared the antagonist would be revealed as supernatural witches, but it soon became clear this uncertainty was Lyons’ intention to make the mass hysteria appear all the more powerful.  This tactic most definitely worked.  I also enjoy the TARDIS landing on what seems like Earth but the travelers having no idea where they are.  I wish that too would happen more frequently in the new series, but then nowadays there isn’t time for exploration.

Mass hysteria is a concept I in my snug, stable society have always struggled to understand, but Lyons’ approach to the subject is both tactful and enlightening.  Even before the Doctor explains it, the tight-knit, claustrophobic community crippled by mourning and paranoia is developed through virtually every page and the reader believes that such hysteria could occur in this village.  (Actually, these conditions finally provide a decent excuse for Othello…).  I’m still not entirely convinced by the explanation for the children’s well-timed fits during the courts, but a combination of the puritanical society denying them an outlet for energy, the regular abuse they face, living on the edge of the Known World with all the trauma that entails and the fundamental religious belief all comes together to create a psychological state I could scarcely imagine.  It is obvious Lyons has done his research.  My main criticism is that the religious aspect sometimes felt a little shoehorned – Ian, coming from the 1960s UK, really wouldn’t say something like ‘your Bible’.  Even if he himself is not religious – possible after all of his experences – he’ll certainly have friends or family at home who are.  I get that the intention is to further portray this village as alien to the travelers but on this occasion it’s a bit forced.

This is why I love historicals; through a glance into different cultures, different beliefs and different events they shine varying lights into human nature.  Humans become the enemy, with all the ambigueties this entails.  The Witch Hunters is no different in portraying the dark side of humanity than we saw with the Aztecs and French Revolution on TV, but what does make it different is the increased amount of cruelty we see.  This must have been when the novels entered their ‘adult phase’ – both Ian and Susan experience forms of torture during the story and the entire plot is mired with death.  This is much darker than anything which would have been allowed on TV, and I love it!  Also, historicals really do provide different perspectives of the world.  No better is this seen than in Samuel Parris’ ironic desire to: “go down in history for all the right reasons” by ridding Salem of witches – an action which, of course, has instead made him infamous and a figure of hatred.  It also allows for time jumps, described well by beginning each section with a date; one page we’re in 1692 and the next it’s the 1950s.  So much fun! (Besides, er, the witch executions…)

The laws of time are given an interesting role here, too.  It’s a concept which has been explored numerous times in Doctor Who – often in direct contradiction with what has previously been established.  Rather than messing with the more modern idea of ‘fixed points in time’, Lyons builds on the ideas first developed in “The Aztecs” that history cannot be changed.  This is proved wrong when the characters make minor alterations, and so I am left to assume that this is an artificial rule imposed upon the Doctor.  Is he so scared of changing time because to do so might catch the attention of the Time Lords he’s currently on the run from?  It’s never said for sure but the novel does hint that’s the case.

I was also highly impressed with the way Lyons wrote the characters.  As I already mentiond he is restrained with what he can do, although he skillfully takes as much from the characters as he can.  He managed to tie the novel in to the vague developments shown in the TV series, contributing to Susan’s growth to independence and the Doctor’s lonely nature, as well as creating an insight into the Doctor’s strained relationship with Ian and Barbara which will actually help me to understand their interactions better whenever I next watch an old episode.  That’s powerful writing to do that.

Ian and Barbara’s dialogue could effortlessly have come from William Russell and Jacqueline Hill, while the Doctor’s mannerisms were usually believable.  Susan was the weakest written character, I found.  The Susan of this story was written convincingly enough but it didn’t quite fit in with the Susan from TV.  While I enjoyed her almost childlike hope that Ian and Barbara would continue travelling forever, she was at times written to be too young.  I think Susan’s age is supposed to be around 15 or 16 but she’s written to be more like a 12 year old.  This was a flaw of the TV series too but it’s particularly prevalent here.  Considering the adventures she ought to have had at this point, on Skaro, with cavemen, Revolutionary France, the Aztecs, the Sense-Sphere… etc. – she really ought not be this naive.  The Doctor, on the other hand, was developed well beyond the writing for TV.  We see his inner turmoils as he is forbidden from altering time, the discrepencies between what he says and what he thinks which can only be hinted at from television performances.  When he takes future victim Rebecca Nurse forward in time to see a production of The Crucible, then shows her Salem in the modern day, it’s such a beautiful reflection of the character which I’m accustomed to seeing only in the new series.  Yet, Lyons has fit these attributes to the personality of the first Doctor – a successful blend of new and old.  That bit where he manages to convince the prison guards to let Ian free is so Hartnell, yet also has the depth which only developed later.

In conclusion, Doctor Who: The Witch Hunters is a surprisingly entertaining and thought-provoking book.  It’s expanded my knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials – appearing to be exceedingly accurate from my own limited research – and has expanded the already established characters.  It’s encouraged me to seek out more Doctor Who books in the future.

Final rating: 9/10

Thoughts on Romeo and Juliet

Contains spoilers.

Romeo and Juliet, published in 1597, is arguably the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays.  It has definitely been the one I’ve been most aware of since childhood, though that might be due the fact our school got us to do a production of it when I was 8 – which was very fun indeed!  I played Paris and relished the death scene.  Probably the best role I’ve ever had in a play, actually.  But that’s digressing.  I remember thinking at the time I wanted to read the ‘original book’, but was put off the idea when I found out it originated from a 400 year old play.  Now, 9 years later, I decided to finally read it.  Because of its immense popularity and widely renowned nature, this is a hard play to discuss objectively.  I knew the story off by heart before reading it so that will also have affected my response.

I think my main reaction was shock towards the plot.  I’d heard beforehand that Juliet is far younger than Romeo and that their relationship only spanned 3 days, but I had no idea just how distastefully this would come across even in the writing itself.  There’s a whole spiel about Juliet being ‘not yet 14’ – it’s never said how old Romeo is but we can presume he is older than 13, and Paris is probably around the same age.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it quite creepy that all these men should be chasing after a girl so young.  I could perhaps just forgive this, except the timescale of the play is so ridiculously played out:  Romeo and Juliet meet at a party he’s crashed, and within a page they’re tasting one another’s saliva.  That’s not love, that’s a hook-up at a party.  I can only presume they’re both drunk (actually, that might explain the entire play).  The fact that their first conversation has the form of a sonnet is a nice touch, but alone is not enough.  The next day they are married because, you know, they’re in love.  Like the people who go to Las Vegas for a party and wake up the next day married.  I had a similar problem with Les Misérables.  Thing is, I highly doubt Romeo actually loves Juliet.  To begin with he’s sulking over this girl called Rosaline, partly because she doesn’t love him but the main focus seems to be on her insistence to ‘remain chaste’.  Suddenly Romeo’s intentions become a bit clearer.  Friar Lawrence gets is right on the mark when he says:

“Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken?  Young men’s love, then, lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.”

This might indicate that even Shakespeare disapproves of their relationship.  Is Romeo and Juliet supposed to purport the same idea as his Sonnet 130; to make fun of traditional relationships?  The play does begin as a comedy, after all, only then collapsing into a tragedy.  Was Shakespeare having a laugh?  If that is his intention, he has certainly failed!  Romeo and Juliet has somehow, perversely, become the archetypal love story of “star-cross’d lovers”.  Though I would prefer the alternative of it being a ‘Great Hormone Story’, personally.

I don’t mean to sound overly critical; there were other elements I enjoyed.  Most of all, of course, was Shakespeare’s masterful use of language.  This, again, was held back by the poor plotting of the romance – beautifully written dialogue about love makes the situation even worse, in fact – but the language can be appreciated in isolation as lyrical and deeply poetic.  No examples spring instantly to mind, though again I find myself impressed by just how many modern phrases Shakespeare coined.

Romeo and Juliet does beg a question, for me, on the relationship between language and plot.  Some ‘literary elites’ may argue that true value is found in the skillful and original use of language, but I’m very much on the side of having a detailed, convincing plot, even if this means sacrificing the language.  Which is why I prefer the perhaps sometimes blandly-written Hunger Games or Harry Potter to Shakespeare, simply because they develop characters and stories to a much greater degree.  Other than being ‘star-cross’d lovers’, what development did Romeo and Juliet really have?  When they fall in love, I’m unconvinced.  When they commit suicide, I’m bored.  When Juliet says she would rather her parents die than Romeo be banished from Verona, I’m repulsed by the character.  The reader/audience is supposed to be on Juliet’s side, not cheering when she dies.

Sorry, ranting again.  The use of a chorus interested me.  Is it a technique Shakespeare uses a lot?  This is only my fourth of his plays (after Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello), but I’ve never seen it before.  I also felt the concept of feuding between the Montague and the Capulet families was initially well established, with the point becoming really well made of the futility of such a strife (even if I would argue Juliet’s death is more a reaction to her father’s patriarchal dominance, trying to force her into an arranged marriage, than the quarreling between families).  

Overall, Romeo and Juliet is a great story that’s let down by lazy* storytelling.  Most of my criticisms do, I admit, come from applying a 21st century worldview onto a story written in the 16th.  Is it wrong to look at old plays from the perspective of modern values?  Well, I am a reader in the 21st century and if the play no longer feels convincing then it simply hasn’t stood the test of time.  That’s not to say there’s no value for Shakespeare in the modern world; many aspects of his plays remain hugely relevant today, which is a testament to his skill as a writer, and I don’t think his mastery of the English language will ever stop provoking awe.  I’m just afraid that, in this case, it didn’t work for me.

Final rating (if forced): 6.5/10

*Oh no, it’s a mortal sin to call The Bard lazy, isn’t it?  Well, while his use of language may be unrivaled, the plot is lazy.  The amount of times I’ve bitten my tongue to stop myself arguing with a teacher who kept finding excuses to cover up Shakespeare’s plot holes…  The unquestioning reverence our society holds Shakespeare in is wrong.

[I should probably point out that there is a lot of Shakespeare’s work I like.  Sonnet 130 is a really interesting subversion of poetic conventions at the time and most of Macbeth is a complete joy to read].