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In April 2007, I took part in an online argument over US state gun control following the horrific Virginia Tech school shooting, in which 32 people were murdered. At the time, I failed to understand the distinction between ‘natural rights’ and man-made or ‘legal’ rights – as well as how entrenched the constitution really is in American politics.

In the discussion, I claimed that no one had the inborn right to own these weapons based on a 220 year-old manifesto, confused with (or, perhaps, ignoring) the fact that, yes, they did according to what is the foundation of American law, liberty and their wider culture. Part of this was a problem with language: I ought to have said ‘no-one should have the inborn right…’, a position which can be well argued. However, after the latest massacre in Connecticut yesterday in which far too many children to mention were senselessly killed, the debate regarding gun laws was reignited. This is the kind of incident where, surely, if any tragedy alone was to be the catalyst for such a seismic change in the federal law, it would be this.

Following the wave of emotive cries demanding we repeal the federal gun laws following these tragedies, there is also a backlash invoking the all too common retort that ‘guns don’t kill people, people do’. It is quite easy to see the faulty logic in this self-deprecating statement, which can be illustrated if  the statement is reversed: of course people kill people…with guns! The issue is that the acquisition of the means to kill so many people is much too easy and the results are far more catastrophic than when other weapons are used. It is like saying ‘calories don’t kill obese people, the choice to consume them does’. The right tool is required to perform a certain action – besides, guns are designed for killing; they are very effective at it.

There is a nauseating but useful parallel which can be drawn here between the events in Connecticut and another attack which occurred in Henan, China (when personal firearms are illegal) on the same day[1], where a man broke into school and injured 22 children with a knife. Of course people with mental health problems exist all over the world, but clear also is the fact that if he had gotten hold of a gun, he would have done a lot more damage, perhaps even on a US scale. What exactly might a 20 year old man in a quiet, well-off neighborhood need several handguns and a 223-caliber rifle for in the first place? The argument for self-defence is fallacious – sure, it may be a terrifying imperative having to defend yourself from a burglary (although I would be more concerned with preserving life itself than property) – but guns would only really be required if the attacker had firearms too. Statistics show that if you do not own a gun, you are less likely to get shot. This is the reason the British police do not have guns on them. The situation is self-escalating: guns are needed to protect from other people who have guns.

There is also a cultural problem which cannot be ignored. Online, I have noticed that many people who take the NRA’s line that ‘guns don’t kill people…’ follow it up by diverting the topic on to the mental health issue. They imply that the healthcare system neglects mental health patients, ignoring the fact there is no firm evidence that the perpetrator of the Connecticut shooting suffered from any such health problem, except perhaps mild Asperger Syndrome. Incidentally, I think the issues of gun control and healthcare are variably linked because both invoke living dangerously.

I get the impression that with such an emphasis on freedom (we know this though presidential rhetoric, the constitution, the American Dream, etc.), Americans embalm the idea of ‘fair game’, where responsibility rests with the individual. Far from the traditional perception of such political issues being conservative ideals, they are fiercely anarchic in this respect. With the reformation of one (say, healthcare) it would not be surprising if soon after came the reformation of another, as they both concern a similar type of attitude – the attitude toward freedom, responsibility and the constitution.

What motivates (almost always) young men to go out and murder innocent schoolchildren is a question that can never really be answered, and might be the real cultural question here. The number of such incidents is far higher in the US compared with other countries, even where personal firearms are legal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_violence_in_the_United_States). But evidently these incidents will keep on happening until something is changed and it has to be in law. Even with an understanding of how practically difficult it might be to effectively change the constitution, the question remains: if it isn’t done now, when will it?

AK47


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It is fair to say that spectators and speculators on Philip Larkin, from Anthony Thwaite to Christopher Hitchens, reveal in their prose the idea that Hull says more about Larkin than the other way round. This might be only partially true. For studying Hull and its literary tradition, we can try to understand how this popularly neglected, post-industrial northern Town provides a fertile establishment for some of our countries great writers.

The old King’s Town of Hull produced its earliest significant literary father Andrew Marvell in the early 1600’s. Marvell was a republican hero as well as poet and was elected into Parliament from Hull in 1659 as kind of a predecessor to the much celebrated William Wilberforce. The obscure Marvell relished in the tradition of metaphysical poetry of the love kind, developing his craft at the intellectual haven of Trinity College in Cambridge, alma mater of Newton, Russell and more recently, Stephen Hawking. He happily served Hull from the houses of Westminster for the rest of his life and created a significant legacy to those studying such periods in English poetry.

Most, if not all of the popular writers descending from Hull are not part of any scene or movement. I sometimes realise with mild annoyance that we are so decidedly out of the popular music circuit in England, apart from a brief spell in the 90’s with the Adelphi Club, and would probably be unfashionable to be so for the reasons illustrated below. None of Hull’s poets really form any meaningful collective – Motion was just starting to divulge his poetry toward the end of Larkin’s career and indeed, life – and have tended to reside at the University, a place which attracted Professor David Wheatley.

In spite of declining to host such musical endeavours, one of the wittiest and lyrically provocative songwriters in pop music, Paul Heaton also made Hull his adopted home as commander of The Housemartins and The Beautiful South. As a modern champion of left-wing causes in a Town one feels would be unwilling to propagate him otherwise, Heaton encapsulates the idea that the mundane can be beautiful and must be celebrated with a pinch of irony. Hull, it seemed, was the perfect catalyst for this spirit.

Hull certainly feels decorated by the baby boomers with its long concrete 60’s department stores, interspersed with Victorian structures like the Train Station Hotel and old theatre.  Fashion, fame and glamour somehow clash with this, being perched on the rugged coastline reaching out toward Scandinavia. Working class-ness and the blunt demeanour of the people supply ample opportunity for one learning the craft of kitchen sink realism, demonstrated through the writers I have included.  The attraction seems plausible; what else by way of art and reflection can be done but observing, writing, residing in the cocoon? Larkin sums up this unlikely breeding ground in a letter to Robert Conquest; ‘Hull is like a back drop for a ballet about industrialism crushing the natural goodness of man, a good, swingeing, left-wing ballet’. [1]

Pursuing the location further, Hull is unique because it is awkwardly positioned and so, if you come here, you come for a reason. Cold, rugged, halfway to Scotland from London, numbingly unexciting, it maintains its satisfying quirks: the cream telephone boxes, its artistic flare, approachable via the immense suspension bridge, a good University.  There couldn’t be more of a subtle place for a writer to be, particularly one desiring to be induced by their surroundings.  Interestingly, Hull is where many such writers chose to live rather than originate here, like Larkin, Roger McGough and Andrew Motion. Larkin, unlike the others, never became emancipated from the place and eventually immortalised Pearson Park in high windows in 1967.

To make sense of this, one must conclude that writers require the blank setting to fill their imagination, with deprivation of high luxuries being a familiar virtue, in particular for those inclined toward poetry. It was of course the deep isolation of the trench which lead poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen to record the tragedy they witnessed forever on paper.  Terry Eagleton says ‘The Hull setting was symbolically apt for Larkin: as the 20th Century unfolded its wars and revolutions, he cowered behind the book stacks in this remote provincial outpost’[1]. Whilst I think perhaps that last description is a little unfair, Larkin truly did create a fragile nest and often complained about Hull and the political state of his beloved England in his letters to, among others (like lifelong friend Kingsley Amis), his fellow librarians. In contrast, contemporary George Orwell actively engaged in politics, writing extensively on the Soviet revolution and WWII, whilst fighting for the Imperial Police in India in his earlier days. One cannot imagine such a ‘street fighter’ would choose Hull as an apt setting for his life’s work.

There is therefore hope that the literary tradition of Hull will continue, so that the same attractions that are highlighted bring a few more significant novelists, poets, essayists and intellectuals here. The ‘Larkin 25’ celebrations a couple of years ago officially acknowledged the importance of Hull for modern literature, but to me sent out a more profound message: there’s inspiration in this soil yet.


[1] Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, Christopher Hitchens, first published in 2000 by Verso.


[1] Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940 – 1985, edited by Anthony Thwaite, first published in 1992 by Faber & Faber Ltd.

Human privacy is something we don’t tend to think about much, other than when considering the prospect of having it removed from us. Except I did, the other day when walking past a window with some particularly short and shoddy curtains which, whilst helping to illuminate the room somewhat, also drew my attention towards the student-standard MacBook, football posters, etc. there for all to see. It may also have been because I had on that day seen Andrew Sullivan’s ‘classic tory’ views on transparency within the American government, who claimed that whilst the government should certainly be accountable for its behavior  they shouldn’t be totally exposed, nor should the content of meeting discussions be disclosed. They must have their privacy. So, is privacy perhaps the defining concept in the life of the free individual in a functioning society, those of us in the West?

Retreating to a Marxist perspective, one can muse on the idea that the existence of the private sphere comes from an oppressive capitalist society and that we are social creatures by nature, and a free-market global economy has isolated us from this very nature for hundreds of years. But we seem to have a more tenacious and inherent natural desire for privacy than almost anything else in Western society. We will fight for it at the risk of losing our lives, and overall it has clearly triumphed. Perhaps then, privacy is the embodiment of freedom itself.  For those cynical about what this life virtue can produce, please listen to Little Boxes by Malvina Reynolds as the soundtrack for reading and you’ll note a caricature of the perils of isolation centered on the private home.

What we consider the most oppressive societies in the world are surely those who do not permit a private life for the individual. North Korea is probably the best example of such a place which has strict ‘lights out’ blackout in the capital of Pyongyang around 10 p.m. All phone calls are monitored so private discussion is difficult to have at all, giving an unfailing reminder of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, actually published one year after the founding of this horrific state.  A Korean citizen however, probably would not be able to think like Winston Smith; from a young age the confines of their social environment (and language, as is again demonstrable in Orwell’s newspeak) would undoubtedly constrict their concept of freedom or privacy or the possibility of such ideas even existing, let alone being attainable.

Again, I seem to have made ‘privacy’ synonymous with ‘freedom’, but can the two ideas actually conflict with each other? Those who feel uncomfortable around public toilets (like maybe those who are not cis-gendered) may dislike the social pressure of having to enter a designated male or female cubicle, in which case their freedom is limited by having to make a choice. Meanwhile, their business is still private. Social critics and Marxists will point out that our structures of upholding privacy in life, like this such example, or say being pressured to move into our own houses and flats from a young age, make us prisoners of ourselves and our true human nature. I myself see some aspects of this in society (with things like schooling), but reject the overall interpretation of a great social human nature. If we have any ‘natural’ aspects as humans, it is surely that we are curious and envious. These traits are shown through our fanaticism with tabloid newspapers in Britain and it is shown through the stoning of the woman who might have had a secret love affair in Saudi Arabia. Privacy, it seems, in the name of individual benefit, must be retained to a significant extent.

We like our privacy, but I wonder if we are so quick to permit others the same right. The sensation surrounding Julian Assange over the last two years is an intriguing case. Given that he and his associates leaked private files containing sensitive government information, does he still have a right to move freely without interruption or defend himself in the court facing a rape charge? Those who think not have to admit that, for them privacy is a content-free construction: if they permit it for one body, they must permit it for everybody. So bearing this in mind, I wonder whether I agree with Andrew Sullivan’s view. In the context of this discussion it must be pointed out that when we punish individuals, we do so by taking away their privacy (amongst other things), something I don’t necessarily disagree with, a thought which I think we like to relish for ‘moral’ or actual criminals. Assange if convicted might face the consequences of this in prison and it is up to the law to take into account the full details of the case. Still, I am sure we like to delve in the private lives of others more than we might admit. Trans* people, if asked often say that the reason so many people feel uncomfortable when they cannot immediately gender-type a person is because they want to know about the genitalia of strangers. And yet we would hardly say that a stranger has the ‘right’ to know such personal details.

If we are going to learn about humans and their habits and behavior for anthropological, socially progressive and historical means, a good degree of transparency seems like a must. There is a conclusive split between personal and social privacy and this is an argument elaborating on the former. There is a reason we feel horrified at the extreme invasions of privacy featured in The Lives of Others (2004), which is that we are so used to having our private lives relatively un-tampered with. But the more we shut ourselves off from the rest, the quicker society follows the trend.

Picture the scene: it is the middle of 1969 and famous Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono are staging one of their many ‘bed-in’s’ for peace from a hotel room somewhere in Montreal, or Holland. Lennon, becoming ever more outlandish in his peace protests since the release of Revolution the year before, is apparently leading a generation of angry, young, idealistic voices against the culmination of wars in the first half of the twentieth century, currently Vietnam.

Emotive, drastic, forceful words are flying in the face of the media from a man who has at this point been one of the most famous people in the world for the last 7 years (featuring many quotes which will survive the natural weathering of time far longer than one might’ve thought), but one shall stick out: ‘if everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace’. Less than ten years later, Lennon and Ono are of course living in their million dollar luxury flats in uptown New York where he easily managed to ignore the issue of his personal wealth and laugh off Orwellian socialism whilst continuing to oscillate his mantra of peace and love  – the same scene where the Beatle met his pointless, untimely demise. But these acts confirmed Lennon as a member of the 60’s peace movements along with his rock star colleagues.

The mentality of free love culminated in Woodstock some months after John and Yoko’s protest, highlighted by the cynical spectacle of Jimi Hendrix performing ‘Star Spangled Banner’ to an audience of mostly young draft-dodgers rather than any serious candidates for political protest (this can more or less be confirmed by reading audience accounts online at the dedicated Woodstock website). This was a spectacle which actually ended in a dirty field full of plastic bags, polluted water and all other imaginable by-products of hippies going without adequate cleaning facilities, toilets, food and free space for a week. As they all retreated home, it somehow signified the end of the 60’s counterculture movement.

It is an interesting question to pose, whether there is any long-standing significant impact of the sexual revolution and free love propaganda of the 1960’s.  Politically, it was certainly a revolutionary period – from JFK to Malcolm X, communism in Cuba and Prague, the war in Vietnam, the Parisian student revolts (the latter group subsequently becoming famous as the Soixante-Huitard’s, the sixty-eighter’s who encapsulated the defying spirit of their political ambition).  The free love zeitgeist may have helped move a generation of baby-boomers closer to their libertarian ideal in a few ways, but perhaps shouldn’t have been the primary catalyst.

The sexual revolution of the time basically coincided with new forms of birth control, empowerment of women through feminism, the gay movement and in Britain, at least, the introduction of the abortion act in 1967. It is tactful to suggest that sexual and hormonal energy which would have otherwise been discharged in a furore of violence or more destructive impulses at the issues of the 1950’s and 60’s – unequal society, the Cold War an development of nuclear technology, superficial politics etc. – was instead spent on flower power, pretty music and lots of lovemaking. Introducing drugs to the scene helps one see further the unhelpful distractions and the blaringly obvious dichotomy between preach and practice which permeated the lives of pseudo-revolutionaries. What was the real revolution?

Happily to us, it seems that the so-called ‘protest’ music of the 1960’s (Dylan, Joan Baez, The Beatles) also coincided with the defining issues of the day, but noticeably all American fodder; the civil rights movement and Dr. King, Vietnam, Haight- Ashbury, etc. There are for example, no Jimi Hendrix tunes about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The plight of Guevara only became world-widely celebrated decades after his work, somewhat ironically through the form of his imprinted face on t-shirts, posters and all other items of cheap consumerism. The 2003 film The Dreamers documenting the May 1968 student riots in Paris makes use of such rock and roll music for precisely what it was: a pleasing soundtrack. Allusions to The Stones and all bands portraying the hippy ideal were characteristically unpopular a decade later, best shown in The Clash’s 1977:

No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones,

in 1977.

Punk in America and Britain was the perfect antithesis of flower power in the late 70’s which only showed how much the music current despised the failed utopian dream. One wonders how the veterans of the era and the more politically minded took to their futile occupations of lying on lawns with tea and hash ten years previously… with stale nostalgia at best?

The culmination of events in the world that decade, mainly political, gave birth to the largest united shift of consciousness since the War and this means something. One therefore wonders what became of the free love legacy. The deaths of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy only signified that extremism still existed. The Nixon years in the White House in the 1970’s and the neglect of the Labour Party in Britain showed that politics was game as ever, with the Vietnam ending on its own accord – such events becoming illuminated through those rose-tinted spectacles of hindsight and past reflection. This is not to diminish the excitement of the time for say, a young journalist learning the trade of politics in real time in Israel writing on the Holy Land dispute, or the authoritarian regime in Portugal, or the rallying powers of Castro in Cuba; things which culminated long after the fads of the counterculture had worn off.  A brilliant account of this time and these activities is available in the rousing memoir of Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22. Taking in such events and pushing for a sense of moral duty on the streets must be the defining spirit of the late 1960’s.

So this is the legacy those of the time rightfully will remember. Having started with Mr. Lennon, we can certainly finish up with him. In 1970 Lennon released John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band amidst a haze of prog-rock nonsense and the premature deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The final line of the most poignant song on the record summed up the feeling of the time, at least only for the hundreds of thousands of crying hippies at the disbanding of the Beatles: the dream is over. I wonder if there could have been a better timing.

I was shocked when I learnt recently that apartheid in South Africa was only officially abolished a few years after I was born, in 1994. In my ignorance I believed it was something which had faded away no later than the 1980’s, with Nelson Mandela emerging as the figurehead of a reformed South Africa a decade or so after. Perhaps this impression was generated (understandably) because of the hushed tones it has been spoken of in the time since, like some barbaric artefact of the past belonging to the previous generations.  But can a system like apartheid ever ‘belong’ – and are the stories really that distant?

The two fundamental groups out of which the racial segregation evolved in South Africa are still present; the white Afrikaner’s (with Dutch, French and German heritage) and the black African natives. With this segregation between whites and blacks ever present from the Dutch and British colonisation of the Country, the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 officially changed the status of black slaves as ‘free’. Meanwhile, laws of institutional separation continued to be developed throughout the early 20th Century leading to the adoption of apartheid in 1948, when the National Party took hold. It could then be said that the fundamental reason or ‘problem’ which lead to the situation is still present (as the two races are present) but it is the attitude which changed (as well as international pressure, internal revolts and important figures such as Nelson Mandela).  In some communities though the attitudes haven’t changed (maybe for reasons too deep-seated to discuss candidly here) and the sins of their fathers have been transposed onto the sons.

The Kommando Korps, based in various locations in South Africa, is a survival camp which according to their Facebook page has the ‘ultimate goal that the fellow members of the local commando’s mutually protect each other’[1]. In at least all internet descriptions of the camp, an emphasis is placed on ‘protecting their own people’; a racist implication may not yet register.  But the Kommando Korps believe a racial apocalypse is imminent and train their disaffected youth in accordance.  Witness reports tell stories of apartheid-era uniforms, the old national anthem ringing in disgust of a rainbow nation… “The training has taught me that you should hate black people, they kill everyone who crosses their path”[2], said one boy in an interview. One wonders how far the termites have dug.

I first read about the Kommando Korps in an edition of the Sunday Times Magazine (Feb edition I think), with a photograph shown of a blond haired, blue eyed Afrikaner teenager sternly pointing a pistol at the back of another’s head.  As a blunt image, it invokes a sense of guerrilla warfare, with the deserted field in background. The violent association is immediately made plain but I was slightly shocked to discover that the camp is 100% unofficial, like some secret army training for non-existent warfare. Activities undertaken include army drills, 4am runs, weaponry training and engagement of physical combat – for boys aged 13 upwards. It is a relatively small group, training no more than 1500 in the last decade but one which has received revised attention in recent months.

Can an analogy be drawn between the likes of the American Ku Klux Klan or other white supremacist groups and the Kommando Korps? Perhaps, in terms of the breeding and thinking, but the Kommando Korps don’t seem as interested in spreading any ‘shock’ message (although ‘shocked’ might be the reaction of many outsiders – not so much at racism, but rather at the seemingly provocative, paranoid agenda of the group – considering the sensitive recent history of apartheid). The type of organisation which the Kommando Korps belongs to is much more combative in style; they are ready to use their fists and guns than just words. Their objective of defense and their prediction of the future are set down as matter of fact in this violent group, which recalls the format of Scouts or Guides and for this reason may be tempting for pushy parents when considering their kid’s social circles. There would be of course other motivations…a sort of ‘straight’ camp perhaps for some teenagers that way inclined or to discipline the badly behaved. Maybe there are just racist parents who want their offspring to inherit this characteristic and to defend it in blood. However, the overlying connotation of the Kommando Korps is fairly clear – get em’ while they’re young.

…And my love’s no secret anymore

The date, 7 June 1954. A man weathered by the trials of life sits down by his bed to indulge the forbidden fruit. There is a feeling of faint nervousness; he has handled cyanide before and knows the toxicity will certainly become unbearable. He picks up the apple and takes several quick bites – he never wants to see the sight of another needle – and resumes lying down on the bed.  Doris Day’s Secret Love fades away on the radio and all of a sudden; there is nothing.

We can only speculate on the manner of Alan Turing’s death. Aged just 41, the wartime code-breaker and computer scientist committed a lonely suicide two years after his conviction for ‘gross indecency’ for engaging in homosexual acts (in private).

Turing lived a life of communication, characterised by his invaluable service to British Technology research, and to the Government during the War. An eccentric character by all accounts he adopted the mathematic and scientific tradition in a time where fellow academics Wittgenstein and Russell were flourishing and developing their publicly controversial theories at Cambridge (Turing’s Alma Mata and theirs).  Turing developed his maths skills graduating with a first class honours from Cambridge at the age of 21. Synthesising his colossal understanding of mathematics with computer technology, Turing developed ‘Turing Machines’ which could perform any possible mathematic computation as an algorithm and produced many important papers in the development of computer science before the breakout of the War.

Wartime. In 1939 at the outbreak of WWII, Turing positioned himself at Bletchley Park for work decrypting German ciphers, secretly developing the technology used and anticipating further actions for deciphering the Enigma code.  One of the most important machines developed was done so within weeks of his arrival at Bletchley Park named the Turing-Welchman Bombe, which looked for contradictions in German logical Enigma messages and could then be explored in more detail.  About his time at Bletchley  Park, fellow cryptanalyst Hugh Alexander wrote ‘Turing’s work was the biggest factor in Hut 8’s success…many of us in Hut 8 felt that the magnitude of Turing’s contribution was never fully realized by the outside world’. [1] Post-War in London, Turing significantly helped in the early development of computers, known back then as the developing Automatic Computing Engine, on which a lot of later machines were modelled. The computers he worked on were among the first to store programs and even blurred the lines between science and fiction when he designed the Turing Test which aimed to test for artificial intelligence if it bore certain similarities with Humans.

Alan Turing’s career came to a halt just when it was flourishing. A conviction for indecency in 1952 after admitting a homosexual affair meant that he was to undergo hormone injections to destroy his libido and/or attempt to turn him into a Woman (this perhaps being an undesired outcome) – through the growth of breasts. Needless to say, this pitiful fall from grace led to his dismissal from his cryptographic consultancy. We can scarcely imagine the tattered ruins of Turing’s life at the time of his death in 1954.

This year 2012 has officially been designated the Alan Turing Year, marking 100 years since his birth. Is there much we can learn from the story? Suppositions of the past are simply that and it is naturally hard now to make sense of how a generation could be so cruel to a man who made an invaluable contribution to the War effort (even Gordon Brown apologised on behalf of the Government for the whole affair in 2009).  I believe there are two areas in which Turing made a considerable advancement: the development of computer technology and the struggle for LGBT rights.  A little over a decade after Turing’s death, homosexuality was legalised and I think in part through the openness of the likes of Turing which stressed the fact that gay people were normal people in society and of course, contributed massively. A classic English oddity who should have lived for double his lifetime and would probably now be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts should be remembered this year – his story and his love, never to be a secret – his name, honoured!