Reviewing Modes of Transport [Incomplete]

Having experienced several new modes of transport on my recent holiday to Paris, I thought it’d be worthwhile comparing the different ways humans have invented to get from A to B.  All of these can also be considered pleasurable activities (perhaps some more than others), but the fact we’re not all using the same method of transportation suggests each has their pros and cons.  Why do we choose to travel the way we do?  Here are some of my reasons.

Buses

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who likes buses as much as me.  Most people treat them as a necessary evil to be abandoned by the young as soon as they learn to drive or endured by adults unfortunate enough to be unable to use a car for whatever reason.  I mean, I can’t say I enjoy buses and I certainly wouldn’t ride about them for pleasure; the screeching noise of people packed within layers of metal accompanied by a constant stop-start and eventual motion-sickness is hardly pleasant.  Yet I’ve found buses to be the most useful and cost-effective way of traveling long distances.  And they’re not all bad – if you’re a people-watcher like me you can find the most interesting people on them.  It also entirely depends what sort of landscape you’re traveling across; taking a bus across Shetland is vastly different than across Edinburgh, for instance.   I suppose I could review Edinburgh buses and Shetland buses entirely differently.  On one hand, Shetland buses are generally quieter and pass through the most beautiful scenery; on the other, they’re bumpy, unfit for the topography and so annoyingly infrequent.  I suppose what I’m describing is a love-hate relationship, but I can’t deny that they’re so very handy for my purposes.

8/10

Canoes

I’ve only ridden in a canoe once, up in the Scottish Highlands a few years ago, so I couldn’t call myself an expert on this mode of travel.  An obvious problem is its limitations; there aren’t many places a canoe can take you to.  I suspect they’re too frail to be taken out into open sea for long journeys and lack the storage space for provisions.  I suppose you could travel through canals which would give you access to most major land areas, though you would make slow progress.  No, canoes are primarily used for pleasure.  And for this they are truly excellent – my memories of sliding down meandering rivers beneath overcast trees still fill me with joy.  But for practical purposes, I can’t see them being taken seriously.

5/10

Cars

Oh, cars.  By far the most popular and widely-used mode of transport on this list – there are 32 million cars in the UK alone.  It’s easy to see why.  Cars are undeniably the most practical way of travelling, being able to cover hundreds of miles in a single day without causing severe exhaustion to the driver.  They can be used to drive to work, to travel on holidays or jaunts, to attend events – everywhere except perhaps in the most congested town centre can be arrived at using a car.  Yet, beneath all this, there lurks a dark side to our favourite automobiles.  In environmental terms they’re catastrophic; 30% of US carbon emissions comes from its traffic, while cases of city air pollution are as notorious as they are frequent.  And these millions upon millions of cars are soon to become totally obsolete once we reach peak oil.  Once we’ve transitioned to much more efficient cars (electric cars?  Hydrogen cars?) I’ll have to come back to this review.  They’re also incredibly expensive to operate: from the cost of lessons to insurance to petrol to the car itself, owning a car will set you back many thousands of pounds.  Yes, cars are extraordinarily handy, but come with some heavy costs.

6/10

Cycling
Bicycles are a wonderful thing.  Cheap, efficient and environmentally friendly, they’re growing in popularity among many of the world’s cities.  I’ve never had much opportunity to use them for recreation, firstly due to living in a sparsely-populated rural area and then, when at university in Edinburgh, down to the difficulty I might face when having to travel back and forth from home.  I am beginning to give serious thought to buying a bike to use for traveling around Edinburgh next year for the wonderful positive reasons I’ve listed above, but one thing holds me back: safety.  Cycling remains one of the more dangerous ways to travel.  In a Geography class at high school last year, shortly after accepting my offer to study at Edinburgh, we were using the city as a case study for urban development.  I asked what it was like for cycling, having noticed some cycle lanes near the city, but she replied “I would be terrified to cycle in Edinburgh!”  Given that my cycle route would take me through Princes Street and the High Street – the two busiest streets of the city – I’m inclined to agree.  Cycling should be the unequivocal best way to travel, but poor previsions for cyclists in most cities is sure to put many people off.

7/10

Ferries

Ugh – do I have to talk about ferries?  I do?  Hmph.  Ferries are similar to buses in that they depend entirely on what kind you’re on.  A standard travel ferry is much different to a cruise (I imagine), while the Northlink ferry between Shetland and Aberdeen is much different to the ferry that takes you between the different islands of Shetland itself.  I’ll review ferry journeys like the Northlink ones.  Imagine 12-14 hour slogs across open sea, being entirely bound by the whims of the weather conditions.  Will it be a calm sailing or your shuddering nightmare that refuses to end, minute after minute after minute?  If you have £100 to throw away you can at least hide in a cabin but for common students like myself you have to simply rough it in reclining chairs, ‘sleeping pods’, or anywhere else you can find.  You have to deal with people vomiting around you if the sea is rough – or vomiting yourself – as well as put up with the drunken antics of many rowdy passengers on that poorly-policed ferry.  On my recent trip down I left the Sleeping Pod Lounge ay 2am for fear of a fight breaking out.  And you never sleep, either, causing the agonising journey to drag out even longer.  Yet, it’s not all bad.  If you travel during the summer you have enough light to watch some brilliant views go past through the windows, or it can be quite tranquil just watching the velvet sea.  A lot of ferries allow you to go ‘up top’ to get a better view.  Just be careful you don’t fall off into the sea.

2/10

Horse riding

Horse riding!  Here’s a fun one.  I have a fair bit of experience with this because of the pony stud my Auntie owns.  Well – of pony riding, I suppose.  This can be a very pleasant way to travel as you never feel lonely when with a horse, and can experience the journey in its company.  There’s a very powerful bond you can feel with a horse when you’re riding it.  On the other hand, in today’s age riding horses isn’t a very practical way of traveling at all.  Nowhere is equipped with stables for your horse and they’re far surpassed in speed by most longdistance modes of transport.  I also suffer the unfortunate curse of being allergic to horses – it can make traveling difficult when you can’t see through running eyes.  Horse riding is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable ways of traveling for people who can last a minute without sneezing, but it’s sadly no longer that workable.

5/10

Planes

Airplanes are undoubtedly the Kings and Queens of transport when it comes to long-distance travel.  The idea of traveling between Europe and America, or from Britain to Australia, any way other than by airplanes is unthinkable for all besides the most adventurous.  A journey that would have taken weeks a century ago and months several centuries ago can now be completed within a matter of hours.  What’s more, they’re statistically the safest form of transport.  And yet, I can’t stand them.  A significant part of that is an entirely irrational fear I have, based upon the fact that although I’m much less likely to die in a plane, if I am to die I’d rather drown or be crushed than find myself hurtling to the Earth at multiple metres per second amid burning wreckage.  Sorry, got morbid there.  They also have a terrible impact on the environment, contributing to as much as 9% of anthropocentric climate interference.  There are always news story of various environmentally-friendly forms of aviation, such as solar planes, but these are very far off becoming the norm – or even practical.  Airplanes are a necessary part of our modern globalised world, but like cars they come at a massive cost.

5/10

Dammit, WordPress.  I had another 1,500 words [needlessly] reviewing the remaining forms of transport on this list, clicked ‘publish’, got an error message then found it had all gone.  I don’t have the energy or the will to write it all again, so I’ll leave you with summaries for each one and this video summarising my feelings.

Subway: exciting rabbit warrens, incredibly useful, though the stench of urine and angry shouty people (still don’t know what that Frenchman way saying to me) are two minor negative aspects.  8/10 

Taxis: can be a lifesaver but expensive and not environmentally friendly. 5/10

Trains: I LIKE TRAINS. 9/10

Night trains: These are even better. 9/10

Walking: Fun, good exercise, hippy stuff about experiencing the world around you; but not good for long distances. 9/10

Image credit: By Vince pahkala (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Excuses, Excuses

Once again I must return to this blog with excuses of why I have been so inactive.  Since making the last post a month ago I began the lengthy process of moving home which has unfortunately taken up most of the time I could have used for blogging.  Additionally, my Mum and I took a week out to make a trip to Paris.  There’s a lot to be said about both of these experiences and I hope to write something semi-insightful about them in the coming weeks.  There’s also lots of world news, politics and book-related stuff to catch up on, which I’ll make my best effort to do from henceforth!

To prove this isn’t an elaborate lie, here’s a picture of me in front of the Eiffel Tower!

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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].

Rioting in Stockholm

For the past week, I’ve been following fairly shocking news of rioting in Stockholm, and also various other areas in Sweden.   It’s shocking because Sweden has a particular reputation for being a peaceful, largely equal country.  In retrospect I don’t think the 2005 riots in Paris and the 2011 riots across England were hugely surprising, though I don’t know nearly enough about Sweden to comment here.

What saddens me is that the riots are reported to have occurred in areas where immigrants make a majority.  I know there will always be cultural difficulties and conflicts with first-generation immigrants, especially when they arrive on a large scale, but it’s tragic that it results in such violence.  This will just give credence to the policies of growing right-wing, anti-immigrant nationalist parties across the continent – the New Democracy party in Sweden, or UKIP in the UK, National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, etc…

I personally cannot understand the psychology behind rioting.  The smashing of public or private property, of setting cars alight, of attacking police, is not something people would do on their own, yet there seems to be a sense of safety and anonymity in numbers during riots.  Yet, do riots really allow people to exercise a normally hidden desire for violence?  I find that hard to believe.  There is the theory of ‘mob mentality’, which argues that people can become caught up with the mood of the group and conform to its expectations, following this uncontrolled force like sheep.  I accept this to be true – it’s the same force which powers most aspects of human society – but I cannot personally understand it.  I’ve never been in a situation such as this, but would I suddenly get involved if a riot would break out?  I just cannot imagine it.  Of course, I’m also a generally privileged White male who’s had access to a decent education and healthcare for his whole life.  I have a stake in society, and see no reason to riot, within or without a mob.  So is inequality a major factor?  Both inequality and the mob mentality combined?  It’s an intriguing question.

Related links:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22656657
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/05/2013525239363676.html

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

Travelling The World

I have a confession to make…  I have never in my life left the UK.  This usually is greeted with shock and pity whenever I admit it, but that’s the tragic truth.  In my and my family’s defence, I’ve seen an awful lot of the UK: I’ve at least passed through most major cities, seen a massive amount of the Scottish highlands and made a few ventures into Wales – though I’ve yet to tackle Northern Ireland.  (I suppose that would be another benefit to Scotland becoming independent – these places would suddenly count as ‘abroad’!)  But with respect to all the individual cultures within our country,and I know personally how far these can differ, what I really want is to explore the cultures, landscapes, wildlife and history of other countries.

So I’ve compiled a list of the countries in the world I would like to visit, presented in map form:

Places I Want to Visit

Okay, I appreciate there are problems here…  North Korea and Iran would be challenging to get into, and since I don’t have a death wish countries like Syria, Mali and Afghanistan may have to wait.   I may voluntarily miss out the Vatican.

Joking aside, I really would like the opportunity to visit as many foreign countries as I can, but I have narrowed them down to places which I shall focus on first:

  1. Canada.  Similar culture, same language, less insane than various elements of the USA – should feel fairly at home here!  I’ve been told Vancouver would be a great place to start, and I would also love to explore some of the more far flung northern provinces.
  2. France.  I speak basic French, though would need to seriously brush up on it.  There are so many parts of France worth visiting, from the typical tourist spots in Paris to the cornfields and castles of Provence, from visiting the fields of the First World War to the Alps.
  3. South Africa.  I still can’t put my finger on why, but I have a slight obsession with this country.  I think I’m in awe of the astounding progress which has been made since Apartheid, despite failings the government may currently have.  Feels like an accessible country to start my explorations of Africa with, due to the use of English and my knowledge of the country.  My only concern is that the country could potentially, in a worst case scenario, slide further and further into corruption and intolerance and may not become the safest place for a European to visit.
  4. Egypt.  There’s so much!  The history angle would dominate, obviously, with the pyramids and tombs and ancient cities.  But also more recent history; how fascinating it would be to walk across Tahrir Square and know the victories which had been won there – a symbol for the ongoing battle for freedom.
  5. Japan.  This would be the most difficult by far.  Completely alien language and script, alien culture, alien social norms, alien technology!  These factors make Japan all the more appealing, but I know I would struggle and definitely could not go alone; the culture shock would be enormous.  Yet Japan seems such a beautifully rich and diverse country, I have to visit it at least once in my lifetime.

One other significant plan I have is to look into the various railway deals offered in Europe which travel through a variety of countries, offering a chance to experience a multitude of cultures and scenery without having to plan each journey individually.  I’m not sure these still exist – I hope so!

If – no, when – I travel to these countries, I hope to update this blog accordingly with my experiences.