Review: My 2013 Predictions

Last year I wrote a list of predictions for what I expected to occur across the world stage in 2013.  I’ve been looking through it over the year, pleased with some predictions, while despairing as other world events swept passed my expectations.  Here I’ll review each prediction, one by one, and tally up my score to see whether I should become a professional psychic or not.

UK Predictions

  1. Our next Holy Monarch of Divine Highness to Rule Over Us All Forever blah blah will be born.  Everyone will go nuts and the republican minority will grumble.
    Prince George (‘of Cambridge’) was born on the 22nd July 2013 in good health.  The BBC and other broadcasters had around the clock coverage; he was on virtually every newspaper front page; and we republicans did indeed grumble.
  2. The coalition will continue on its path, though plans to create individual identities for the parties will become clearer in preparation for its end.
    Economically the coalition government has continued to assault the country with austerity upon austerity.  Just this month, chancellor George Osborne announced another billion pound cuts from government departments.  The economy does seem to be improving, at long last, however Labour leader Ed Miliband is rightfully bringing to attention a ‘cost of living crisis’ (perhaps because he has few other policies worth discussing).
    In terms of party politics, there doesn’t seem to be the separation of identities between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats I’d expected.  The Liberal Democrats have been highlighting their key policies of this government, such as raising the income tax threshold for low earners and pushing free school meals.  Yet, if anything, they’ve seemed to me to be moving further to the right.  When Nick Clegg stood in for David Cameron during a recent Prime Minister’s Questions, he sounded more and more like a Tory with each passing question.

 World Predictions

  1. The war in Mali will see some form of conclusion: Northern Mali will return to government control.
    Correct!  In January, following an Islamic rebel advance upon the south of the country, when it looked as though the capital Bamako itself might be under threat, France began a military campaign against the rebels on 11th January.  In one of the more successful Western interventions of recent times, the rebels were driven out of most major settlements in the north by February and had returned to government control.  Violence is persisting but the government remains in control with the help of French and African Union peacekeepers.  Elections came soon afterwards, during which Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, former Prime Minister from 1994-2000, became the President.
  2. The Assad regime will fall.  Failing that, the rebels will increasingly control Syria.  I expect them to receive more support from the West and the government to lose Russia’s backing.
    Uh, no.  No.  And no again.  News stories coming out of Syria during 2013 and have been getting more and more depressing, with no prospect of change coming soon.  The Assad regime did not fall; in fact, it looks stronger than at any other point during the course of the war.  In May, Lebanese Shia armed group Hezbollah entered the war on the regime’s side.  Its fighters flooded across the border and helped the government seize control of the strategic city of al-Qusayr and the surrounding countryside.  The rebels have also made gains, however more and more militias have been swearing allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda linked Islamic fundamentalist organisation which has been making advancements against more moderate rebels in what’s described as a ‘civil war within a civil war’.  The death toll continues to mount: in September France estimated 120,000 people to have died, while the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights currently puts it at 160,000.
    In terms of international support, Western powers have continued to supply non-lethal equipment to the rebels, while in June US President Obama announced military aid would be supplied to the rebels, although it’s unclear how much ever arrived.  Recent developments concerning the rise of Islamists have caused even this aid to be suspended.
    Meanwhile, Russian support of the regime has only strengthened.  This became clear following the increased reports of chemical weapon use across the country.   Both sides blamed each other, of course, but after particularly horrific attacks in the Ghouta area of Damascus the international community seemed to demand action.  It looked as though Western nations – primarily the USA, UK and France – were preparing to launch military strikes against Syria to send a message to Assad.  However, when the UK Parliament voted against action and Obama looked close to defeat in Congress, this never came to be.  At the last minute, Russian President Putin came to the aid of both President Assad and Obama by proposing an operation to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.  Despite difficulties accessing all the chemical weapons depots, some in contested areas of the country, the process of destroying them seems to be going successfully.  This has had the effect of restoring legitimacy to the Syrian regime, which is seen as an equal partner in these negotiations, and the West effectively giving up on Syria.
  3. Obama’s next year as President will not be dramatic.
    In hindsight, it’s probably a bad idea to predict anything won’t be dramatic.  Alongside the aforementioned Syria crisis,  he’s had to put up with threats of war from North Korea, the failure of his proposed gun law reform, the shutdown of the US government after political gridlock in Congress, a botched roll-out of his key ‘Obamacare’ policy and, perhaps worst of all for Obama, massive leaks about the level of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of US and international citizens by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which has brought international condemnation and affected relations with countries including Brazil and Germany.  He’s probably very glad for a new start next year.
  4. A war will not start over Iran.
    Correct!  There’s actual much cause for optimism over out future relations with Iran.  Everything seemed to change with the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani in June.  Though far from a radical – he’d never have been allowed to run otherwise – the fact that so many Iranian voters opted for the least conservative candidate has sent a clear message to the ruling elites that they want change.  Perhaps this is why Rouhani has been given something of a free reign to pursue his policies.  He held a phone call with President Obama in September, the first time the presidents of either country have spoken directly since the 1979 revolution which brought the current Iranian regime to power.  Then came a historic agreement in which Iran finally agreed to curb its nuclear activities in return for the easing of sanctions.  There’s much progress to be made, but also reason to be optimistic.
  5. Angela Merkel will be re-elected in Germany.
    Correct.  Merkel achieved her best ever result in September, gaining 41.5% of the vote and nearly achieving a majority in the Bundestag, ensuring her a third term as chancellor.  After months of difficult talks, her Christian Democratic Union agreed to enter into a ‘grand coalition’ with the opposition Social Democratic Party.  Merkel certainly seems to be bucking the trend of European leaders being brought down by the financial crisis – she’s in a stronger position than ever.
  6. Libya will finish its transition into democracy on paper with success.
    Um.  Not really.  Kind of?  Well, Libya has avoided descending into complete anarchy, but there are still many incidents of armed militias operating outwith the control of the government, the most frightening case being when Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from a hotel, although he was safely returned.  A timetable for national elections still hasn’t been established, but it’s hoped that Libya can have its first post-revolutionary government by the end of next year.  So really, I suppose, it’s too early to say on this one.
  7. Egypt will head down its route of democracy with a very Islamic tint.  Morsi will bring stability to the country – at long last.
    Hahaha, oh, how wrong is it possible to be?  Unfortunately not.  To save me repeating the dramatic events of the 3rd July, you can read the post I wrote about it at the time.  Since the coup, things have only got worse.  Protests have continued from both sides, pulling Egypt down into further instability.  This culminated in a horrific massacre where dozens of protesters were killed by security forces.  The ruling military regime has since strengthened its hold on power, imposing curfews and recently branding the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi’s party, a ‘terrorist organisation’.  The country is appearing more and more to be under the grip of a General new to the scene, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, currently appointed as Deputy Prime Minister.  Elections are expected for next year, which Sisi is widely predicted to run for.  In short, I couldn’t have been more wrong about Egypt.
  8. Berlusconi will not be elected in Italy.
    Well, technically, Berlusconi was elected to the Italian Senate, but if we assume I meant elected as Prime Minister then I got this correct.  Italy’s election this year left no party in a position of power, meaning multiple parties had to come together to form government, including his People of Freedom party.  However, the Prime Minister of this unstable government turned out to be Enrica Letta of the Democratic Party.  Berlusconi himself has been involved in continuing scandal after scandal, being recently convicted of tax-fraud and sentenced to four years in prison (none of which he’ll actually serve due to his age), and barred from political office for six years.  Subsequently, he was expelled from the Italian Senate.  I wouldn’t underestimate Berlusconi, but I can’t imagine his career recovering from this.
  9. The Afghanistan campaign will appear more and more hopeless.  Peace talks with the Taliban will develop.
    Pretty much.  I haven’t been following this in too much detail, but I’m aware of various talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government being on, off, on again, off again, and so on.  Really not much seems to be happening in the run up to NATO’s withdrawal next year.
  10. I expect more crises from North Korea.
    Yup.  There was that strange period last April when North Korea threatened war against South Korea, Japan and the USA which I referred to earlier – I don’t think anyone knows what that was really about.  Needless to say, that came to nothing and North Korea soon quietened down again.  I imagine it was an attempt by Kim Jong-un to create a warlike atmosphere within the country to further entrench his rule – nothing increases loyalty like giving people a common enemy.  Then, even more shockingly, earlier this month Kim had his very own uncle executed as part of a wider purge.  I wrote about it here.  Nothing which has yet threatened to spiral out of control from the perspective of the West, but erratic and worrying behaviour nonetheless.
  11. Iran’s economy will continue to plummet under sanctions.  Possibility of something dramatic happening.
    Pretty much.  I largely covered this earlier.
  12. This is a completely wild one: Robert Mugabe will no longer be in power in Zimbabwe by the year’s end.
    Unfortunately, Mugabe is still President of his long-suffering nation.  My reasons behind this prediction were Mugabe’s age, having turned 89 this year, and the fact an election was due to be held earlier this year.  However his health seems to be as strong as ever, while the election this year re-elected him in very fraudulent conditions indeed.
  13. There will be at least one coup.  And likewise, at least one country considered a dictatorship will become more democratic.
    I’d consider events in Egypt earlier this year to be a coup, so got that one right.  I think Mali could count as having become more democratic, having achieved mostly free and fair elections after a year of chaos.  I can’t think of any other standout examples, which is a shame, but Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2014 report (due to be published fairly soon) might shine a light on this.
  14. Burma will continue down liberalisation and democratisation.
    This is really impossible to say.  Again, I await the Freedom in the World 2014 with great interest.  I’m going to take the lack of any particular evidence to the contrary as evidence that Burma at least isn’t backsliding.  Aung San Suu Kyi did recently announced that her National League for Democracy plans to contest the 2015 general election – widely hoped to be Burma’s first free election – even if the constitution isn’t amended to allow her to run for the Presidency.  Which seems to be a good sign.  Hopefully.  I really don’t know.  I think I’ll give myself this one…
  15. Hugo Chavez: difficult to predict.  I’m gonna throw this out there and say his health improves and he’s able to continue as President.
    Nope – President Chavez of Venezuela died of cancer on the 5th March, later to be succeeded by his Vice-President, Nicolas Maduro, who seems to be carrying on his divisive legacy.
  16. Al Shebab will be almost completely pushed out of Somalia.
    Despite continued advances by Somalian and African Union forces against Al-Shabab, they’re far from having been cleared from the country and still control much territory, particularly in rural areas.  So wrong on that one.
  17. More than two Arab countries will see increased protests and violence.  Potentials: Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon.
    This was unfortunately a pretty safe bet.  As I wrote earlier the death toll in Syria continues to mount; there have been continued protests and unrest in Sudan, though not coming to much; Egypt has had what were tipped to be the ‘largest protests in history’ which deposed President Morsi; April was the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008; Libya’s been having increased issues with militias, as I indicated earlier; and Lebanon has had increased bombings, assassinations and clashes as the Syrian Civil War continues to spill over.
  18. Julia Gillard will no longer be Prime Minister of Australia.
    Yes.  She was ousted earlier than I expected, having her position as leader of the Labor party usurped by Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister.  The Labor party was then met with disaster in the September election, losing 17 seats and its tentative majority to Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition, ending 6 years of Labor Party rule.
  19. Putin will consolidate his dictatorship in Russia.
    To be honest, his dictatorship was rather consolidated anyway by the end of 2012, but it certainly hasn’t weakened.  He’s continued pressing forward in policies such as the ‘anti-gay laws’, infringing the rights of LGBT people.  Things have become more interesting in the last month in the run-up to next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi: Putin granted an amnesty to many high-profile political prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the remaining two members of Pussy Riot and the ‘Arctic 30’.  Perhaps this is a big to improve Russia’s standing among the international community.  He must have been shaken by two bomb attacks in the last couple of days in Volgograd, which might be part of a continuing campaign by Cechen rebels.  But nevertheless, his authority in Russia seems pretty powerful.
  20. The Mars Curiosity Rover will make more discoveries which fail to interest the public.
    Yeah, I’ll give myself that one.  There have been many discoveries on Mars, including pretty strong evidence that it once had running water.  That’s more interesting than I expected, but I don’t suppose it’s something the majority of people noticed or continue to think about.
  21. Netanyahu will be re-elected in Israel.
    Yes!  Sorry, that explanation mark makes me sound more enthused about this than I am.  See more here.

Overall, I seem to have actually fared better than I expected, having been more or less correct on 65% of the issues!  Tomorrow I’ll publish my list of predictions for 2014 – watch this space.

Advertisements

Syria: Not Our Problem?

Something I forgot to mention in yesterday’s post: I’ve tried to take an open-minded approach to this crisis, accepting and appreciating viewpoints on either side of the debate, but one argument I have no time for is that Syria is “not our problem.”  You’ll surely have heard other variations of this: “Leave the Muslims alone to kill each other” and other often xenophobic statements.   Fair enough, you might dispute the West’s moral right to intervene in Syria or the effect such intervention might have on our economy, but to suggest that atrocities committed in Syria does not affect us is absolutely wrong.

Firstly, there’s the wishy-washy but strong point that we are all members of the human race and that atrocities committed to some directly affects us all.  If you disagree with this fundamental principle then, logically, you’re arguing that we were right to allow Rwanda’s genocide to happen, that we were wrong to stop Hitler’s holocaust, that any group of human beings can be tortured, massacred and desecrated so long as it doesn’t directly affect us.  This analogy is perhaps overused, but it’s the same as saying that ignoring a stranger being mugged, raped or murdered is morally acceptable.  To be clear, this isn’t necessarily an argument for intervening in Syria but it definitely does make the atrocities committed there the responsibility of us all.

More practically, we share a planet with Syria so naturally anything which happens there will have an impact upon us.  The war could spread to other countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey or Israel, creating more of a problem for all of us.  The destruction of a country’s infrastructure and displacement of millions of its population is bound to have economic ramifications (someone described the strain upon Lebanon and Jordan as being equivalent to the entire Canadian population crossing the border into the USA).  The longer the conflict goes on, the more extreme elements of both the rebellion and government will become, the more weapons will proliferate – and therefore the change instability beyond Syria’s borders and of terrorist attacks against the West will increase rapidly.  Again, not necessarily an argument for intervention, but you simply cannot deny that what happens in Syria won’t affect us.

Whether we decide that conducting military strikes and/or further intervention is right or wrong, there is no doubt that Syria’s war is absolutely the international community’s problem and that it’s in the interests of us all to bring it to an end.

NEWS UPDATE: Since yesterday, the British Parliament has voted on a government motion and Labour’s amendment – both were rejected.  I’m a bit confused about where this leaves us.  The motion supported military action if backed up by appropriate UN evidence, so now this has been defeated will we definitely not be joining the USA’s missile strikes?  Or will a second vote next week in which Labour may or may not support strikes still go ahead?  This is impossible to keep up with!

Yes, that appears to be the case.  Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has confirmed there will be no military action in Syria.  Wow.  For a prime minister and government to be so decisively defeated on an issue of foreign policy must be almost unprecedented.  Can Cameron ever overcome this embarrassment?  Wow.  Um.  If I have enough to say, I think I’ll blog my reactions to this tomorrow when I’m less tired.

Mohammed Morsi: One Year On

A year ago today, on the 30th June 2012, Mohammed Morsi* took office as the fifth President of Egypt.  This marked the rise of the once-banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt after former president Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.  Morsi himself served time in prison during Mubarak’s administration.  He is significant for being the first president in Egypt’s history – all 7,000 years of it – to have been elected in what was generally recognised as a free and fair election.  That’s great, right?!  Finally, a leader who respects democracy?  Well……

Morsi never fails to pay lip service to his democratic ideals – more often than not to safeguard his legitimacy – but is he really interested in promoting the ideals of the revolution?  I had a positive opinion of him upon his first election.  Small things, such as not wearing a bulletproof vest during his inauguration speech and refusing to have presidential portraits of himself hung like Mubarak had convinced me he was, at least, different to what had come before.  By no means indications of the route his leadership would take but a good start.

Unfortunately, as the months dragged on it began to look as though his rule was becoming ever more authoritarian.  I uneasily read reports of journalists and presenters who had been arrested or threatened by the government and, although Egypt is nowhere near the level of a police state it was under Mubarak, these are not things which happen in a democratic country.  Then came that November decree where Morsi announced ‘temporary’ powers over the judiciary, effectively granting him more powers than even Mubarak had wielded.  In response to the mass unrest which occurred afterwards he did rescind the decree, and has gone on record since of saying the move was a ‘mistake’.  So, pretty mixed.  Economically, Egypt has continued to stagnate, and while the unrest caused by Morsi’s divisive policies are one factor of this I don’t think he can be solely blamed.  Egypt’s economic problems will take longer than a year to fix.

Internationally, Morsi hasn’t taken any dramatic routes.  Egypt’s partnership with the USA and ‘The West’ has continued, if perhaps in a more limited fashion.  He has made tentative moves to improve Egypt’s relationship with Iran and also seems committed to maintaining the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.  I would say his general policy is to keep as many potential allies abroad as possible, although he has appeared heavy-handed at times.  The most prominent example of this is his fierce opposition to Assad’s government in Syria, calling for direct support to the rebels fighting Assad and the imposition of a No-Fly Zone over the country.  He has also recently attacked Ethiopia’s planned project to dam the Nile, giving a veiled threat of war, though this is unlikely to happen.

Today, on the anniversary of his acquisition of power, mass protests have yet again broken out across the country.  As many as hundreds of thousands could be out, right now, protesting in Cairo, Alexandria and most other cities.  Many are calling for a ‘second revolution’, claiming they will not leave until Morsi resigns.  There are conflicting reports of how the army views the situation, with some claiming that the army, still recovering from its brief stint in power and keen to avoid more unrest, might play a more significant role than we have previously seen.

As I’m not Egyptian I don’t really have a right to comment, but I’m not entirely convinced Morsi should resign.  I oppose most of his policies I’m aware of, but there is the strong argument that he was democratically elected.  There’s also the strong argument that it would be a bad precedent of Egyptian presidents backing down from power at the first hint of trouble.  Also, quite simply, Morsi could have been a lot worse.  He does still permit protests and realises that he does rely on public consent to rule – a fact I don’t think he is ever allowed to forget.  He hasn’t yet set up a fundamentalist Islamic autocracy, as some feared this time last year.

It’s not unprecedented for popular protest to remove a democratically elected government from power, as we saw earlier this year with Bulgaria, and if the protests reach such an extent that the country becomes ungovernable then I do think Morsi will have to go.  There is the option open to him to hold a snap election and, in the presence of foreign observers, allow the will of the country to be properly tested.  I think that would be preferable to a direct resignation.  But I suspect, for now, he is here to stay.

*There are so many variations on how to spell his name – I’ve gone with the one I see most often.

Problems with First Past The Post

I’m really not fond of the First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system, used in many elections around the world.  I’ve just found an excellent video which details the severe flaws of this broken system.  The video explains it far better than I can, but to summarise its points:

  1. It often results in single-party governments without majority support
    Usually opinion will be divided between a number of candidates and parties, meaning that the party which forms a government often lacks support from a majority of the population.  This is how the UK generally ends up with a government the majority don’t want, an extreme example being the Labour Government from 2005-2010 which was only elected with 35.2% of the vote but won 55.2% of seats in parliament.  In more complex systems you can get candidates elected who actually won less votes then their rival – George Bush in 2000, for instance.
  2. Creates a two-party system.
    Due to the ‘winner takes all’ nature of FPTP, many parties or candidates who regularly poll in 3rd or 4th place have virtually no chance of winning an election, despite having a modest level of popularity (perhaps 20% or so).  Over time the voters for these parties will realise this and shift their votes to more popular parties, leaving only the very faithful continuing to vote for these parties.  This results in the growth of two parties- usually one left-wing party and one right-wing party.  Why is this a bad thing?  Well, it polarises political debate and suggests that there are only two options for governance, when in reality there may be many different opinions going unrepresented.  It makes it more difficult for individuals or ideas to gain representation and, in some cases (such as the USA… again), allows businesses and corporations which support the parties to have disproportionate influence.
  3. Can result in gerrymandering.
    I would hope this isn’t that great an issue in democracies which use FPTP today, but it does recur every time plans are made to create new electoral boundaries – which must happen regularly to keep up with demographic changes so that all constituencies or voting areas have the same population to ensure no areas have greater influence than others.  For more corrupt and authoritarian governments it provides an easy means of rigging elections but even in healthy democracies, creating boundaries all parties can accept is an added complexity which can be costly and time consuming.
  4. Voting third party is always a bad idea.
    Unless you dislike both major parties or candidates equally, this is a huge problem.  In the UK most people have a preference towards either Labour or Conservative (despite often blurring lines between them), even if they wouldn’t like either party to be elected.  It’s the same with Republicans and Democrats in the USA.  Say you’re a left-leaning liberal in Fictionland and decide to vote for the Liberal Party.  Most people who vote Liberal are also left-leaning.  Unfortunately this splits the left-leaning vote and allows the right-wing Free Market Party to form a government with less than 50% of the vote.  Therefore, by voting for the Liberal Party instead of the Socialist Party, these voters – who make up a majority of Fictionland’s electorate – allowed a government to be formed which they didn’t want.  This is, in my opinion, the main reason Margaret Thatcher got elected so many times in the 80s, because the left-wing vote was split between Labour and the Liberal-Social Democrats.  On the other hand, it is speculated that the rise of UKIP will benefit Labour because many Conservative voters will shift to them.

Any one of these reasons alone is enough to make FPTP a terrible system, but together it is shocking that we still use it.  There are many alternative systems to FPTP but my favourite of these is the Additional Member System which, happily for me, is used in Scotland.

Once a FPTP system is in place it is very difficult to remove because, obviously, it works in favour of all the major parties.  In such a strict two-party system as the USA it’s unlikely that the electoral system will change for a very long time.  In the UK things are a bit more optimistic: the pro-reform Liberal Democrat Party, for instance, became a part of a coalition government in 2010 and managed to push through a referendum on the electoral system.  This was defeated for a number of reasons – the most significant being that the alternative system was pretty poor – and electoral reform seems to have gone off the agenda since.

I’ll admit that there are also benefits of FPTP system: the most convincing of which being that it provides stability and limits the influence of extremist parties.  This would be particularly useful for new democracies which often collapse due to weak governments (this is a major reason Hitler was able to take power in Germany in 1933).  There are also a few occasions where I think it would benefit a long-lasting democracy, such as Israel which produces such inconclusive results that political and religious extremists nearly always play the role of ‘Kingmaker’ and are often included in coalition governments.  But in nearly every other case, FPTP is an inherently flawed system.

Iain Banks Dies at 59

I’ve just heard the very sad news that Iain Banks has died of cancer.  He announced that he had terminal cancer back in April – which prompted me to read one of his books, The Bridge – and said he was expected to have less than a year to live, but just two months is so incredibly tragic. He just missed the publication of his final book, The Quarry, which is due to be released in only a couple of weeks time.

I’ve been very late in becoming a fan of his work – and I really need to read more – but I can recognise that his contribution to literature and the political sphere have been immense.  He has around 30 published novels and has won many awards, including a Hugo Award and a British Science Fiction Award.  He has campaigned for political causes ranging from Scottish independence, Humanism, opposition to the Iraq War and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

He will be very missed by the multitude of fans and admirers he has developed over the last three decades.

The Bridge (Review)

Contains spoilers.

It was this tragic announcement which inspired me to read an Iain Banks book.  I knew very little about him beforehand, but recognised his position as one of Scotland’s, if not the UK’s, best general and science-fiction novelists.  I scoured the local library for a good book to start with – his only one I was aware of at the time, The Wasp Factory, scared me – and came across The Bridge.

My first impression was admiration towards his incredibly talented writing style.  The novel begins with a strange, contorted section from the perspective of the protagonist (I’ll call him John Orr for convenience after his Bridge persona, though we are also introduced to The Barbarian and it’s suggested, though never made clear, that his real-world name is Alexander Lennox) within his crushed car.  It glides through broken up sentences, curses, confusion and philosophy with great skill.  The rest of the novel continues this way.  Sections on The Bridge, John’s coma world, are written in a surreal and vaguely disembodied manner, as are the dreams; The Barbarian’s sections are written in broad Scots dialect and follow his exploits in a fantasy world of Greek mythology, but are nevertheless highly readable; his real-world history is heavily nostalgic, switching to third-person past tense for a biographical account of his life, interspersed with historical events to adds layers of realism.  In literary terms, this novel is a masterpiece.

The world of the Bridge is an incredible creation.  John, am amnesiac, finds himself on the world of the Bridge where an entire civilisation live suspended above the railway track in corridors and streets and buildings.  He spends his time undergoing dream therapy with Dr Joyce, before being moved – ingeniously coinciding with his real-world shift in hospitals – socialising, and searching for the labelled library.  It doesn’t make a lick of sense, and nor is it supposed to.  I have a hard time sifting through what’s intentional symbolism and the random fragments included to show the state of his brain.  The hospital-TV screen and beeping on the telephone are obvious; the warplanes leaving braille messages in the sky and his obscure dreams are less so.  Some of the dreams focus on an attempt to overcome warped laws of Physics – my favourite was his trying to pass through a narrow path when a stranger traveling in the opposite direction mirrored his every move – which symbolise how trapped John is within his own head.  Building up the mythology of the Bridge makes me really eager to discover what lies beyond, and Banks doesn’t disappoint; the prisons, the warzones, the sadistic generals… Beautiful writing, though again, difficult to determine their meaning.  I thought it might have been his mind fracturing as it splintered apart, but this is near the point where he finally awakens, so I’m not sure.  This is not a flaw.

John’s, or rather Alex’s biography is fascinating to read.  It was actually quite unnerving for me at moments: here we have a teenager with an interest in history and English who moves away from home to study at the University of Edinburgh, having fallen in love with the city; he later develops an intense dislike of right-wing politics and joins Amnesty International.  Uh – I hope this is where our similarities end!  I particularly enjoyed following his unusual relationship with Andrea.  She spent a large portion of her life in Paris and each had romantic partners within that time, yet they continued to be a ‘couple’ of sorts.  The definition of an ‘open relationship’, I guess.  Couldn’t comment on whether it’s healthy but it’s certainly refreshing from most of the gooey loved-up couples you find in fiction and reality.  These sections are not written in a particular narrative style; they flow up and down as any life would.  I really, really liked the bits of historical flavour Banks added.  He would begin a section by mentioning, for example, the election of Margaret Thatcher, or the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and go on to describe things like John’s donation to the African National Congress as an ‘apology’ for his company’s operations within Apartheid South Africa.  Reading John and Andrea staying up to watch Thatcher elected once, twice – and their resultant anger – felt so real.  These are deviations, but they add so much.

The characters are another strength of this fantastic novel.  The trinity of the protagonist’s psyche: despondent, political Alex; laid-back, casual John; and primal Barbarian, together feel like a whole, realistic person.  Andrea is a likeable yet flawed love interest, whose relationship with John I became totally invested in.  The characters in the Bridge world were also fascinatingly developed: from enigmatic Abberlaine Arrol (who vanishes from the novel 2/3s in, perhaps symbolising Andrea’s irregular presence in his life) to Dr Joyce (again vanishing), and even the characters who only appear once; each feels properly crafted and real, even when they’re not.

One curious response I had to The Bridge was a resurgence in my normally dormant sense of Scottish nationalism.  Iain Banks is one of Scotland’s greatest advocates for Scottish independence, and it shows.  Typically, my idea of Scots literature is either idolised figures like Robert Burns and Walter Scott – who I always presumed were raised on such a pedestal because we had no one else – or highly interesting but also repetitive ‘rural, Highland, Jacobite’ culture.  For the first time, I have fallen in love with ‘Scottish literature’ as a genre.  It stills feels a little wrong to separate it from ‘British literature’ – I would very much like to continue claiming Shakespeare and Orwell were writers from ‘my’ country, despite their English identities – but less wrong now than it once did.  Not that reading this has swayed my opinions on independence or anything – which I am hesitantly opposed to, though technically still ‘undecided’ – but I feel more proud of being Scottish having made this discovery.  Also, it was very exciting to discover that the Bridge is supposed to be the Forth Bridge near Edinburgh, a bridge I have travelled across many times in my life.  Perhaps this pride is born out of actually having settings and situations I can relate to on a personal level?

All in all, I was hugely impressed by Iain Banks’ The Bridge.  I think I must dive into more of his work as soon as I can – I’m very tempted by his ‘Culture’ series of science fiction books.  His imagination thrills me, and I can’t wait to find out what else it includes.  My only criticism is that the book was slightly difficult to understand at times, but perhaps that is a limitation on my part rather than his.  The tragic news of his cancer will hit the literary world very hard indeed, and he will be loved and missed by many.  But that’s a negative way to finish off; he has a final novel, The Quarry, still to be released and adored by his countless fans.

Final rating: 9/10

Brief University Post: Edinburgh (and the Scottish Parliament!)

Yesterday, my university trip continued with the visitation of the University of Edinburgh. I have long considered Edinburgh to be my favourite UK city (alongside Brighton, which gets ‘honourary mention’).  I feel instantly at home whenever I step along the cobbles and gaze at the skyline dotted with spires, unlike the sense of foreboding and oppressiveness I feel in most cities.  So I dearly hoped the university would thrill me in a similar way.

And, on the most part, it did.  It isn’t quite as visually pretty as the other Scottish universities I have visited, like Glasgow, Stirling or Heriot-Watt, though it has its charms.  I can imagine George Square becoming a splendour of reds, yellows and oranges in the Autumn, and there’s something lovely about Bristo Square (pictured to the left).

Several particular features of the university excited me.  From a literary perspective, there’s such a charged atmosphere: the Literature Society has regular activities, including meetings with a range of figures, from Owen Jones to J. K. Rowling.  Edinburgh was UNESCO’s first ‘City of Literature’, and there’s a wide variety of festivals in which to engage in both reading and writing.  The city contains the National Library of Scotland, and a pretty hefty lending library.  The university library’s pretty nice, too.  These activites make Edinburgh seem an especially good destination for someone not at all interested in the drinking scene.

I was also fascinated by a talk for the History degree (I’ve applied for a joint English Literature and History degree at Edinburgh).  We were treated to an example lecture on the economic history of the UK, which turned out to be far more fascinating than it sounded.  Edinburgh is a city with a rich history, dating its large-scale growth far back before the Industrial Revolution – unlike Glasgow.  Along one street you’ll see Gothic style buildings, along another they’re almost Medieval, and then you’ll come across a classical display of pillars and gold.

There is also a lively political atmosphere in Edinburgh, which appeals to me highly.  Walk along any street, particularly near the university itself, and you’re likely to see a variety of posters advertising protests: to scrap the Trident nuclear missiles, to oppose the ‘Israeli Apartheid’, to oppose the totalitarian regime of North Korea, etc.  We even stumbled upon a petition-signing event protesting against the ‘Bedroom Tax’, organised by the Scottish Socialist Party, though it was wrapping up just as we arrived and so we unfortunately never had chance to put our names down.  There’s a variety of fundraising movements we witnessed, ranging from collections for children’s hospitals to firefighters marching for the National Union of Firefighters (or something along those lines).  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the the 2011 Occupy Movement in Scotland survived longest in Edinburgh.  Having grown up in a small island where the height of political activity is spars over whether or not to build a cinema, bridge, wind turbines, and so on, this was an amazing environment to find myself in.

This brings me on to the more exciting aspect of the trip.  I fancied a quick glance at the Scottish Parliament, located in Edinburgh, so we took a walk down the ‘Royal Mile’ and ventured in.  After a security check, we took a cautious walk into the public gallery of the debating chamber.  To our extreme fortune, it turned out that a session of the First Minister’s Questions were about to start.  My geek-credentials were proven with the fact that this excited me more than anything has in a long time.  One by one, high-profile figures in Scottish politics began to file in.  Johann Lamont (Scottish Labour leader), Nicola Sturgeon (Deputy First Minister), Ruth Davidson (Scottish Conservative Leader), and, finally, Alex Salmond (First Minister, and the Scottish National Party leader).  We watched him spar with figures such as Lamont and Davidson, and also debate with my own MSP, Tavish Scott.  I noticed Patrick Harvie, one of the few Scottish Green Party MSPs, in the chamber but unfortunately he never spoke.  It was strange, being so close to objects and people of intense interest to me.  I suppose, as I never personally interacted with any of it, the experience was not a lot different from watching the proceedings on TV, except the former never leaves me buzzing in excitement for the rest of the day.

Overall, I truly love Edinburgh.  I liked Glasgow more than I expected, but it would take a lot for me not to choose here as my place of study for four years.  From what I’ve seen of St. Andrews thus far, I don’t think my opinion will be changing.