Review: Stephanie Conn “The Woman on the Other Side”

Conn’s 2016 debut book of poetry sees her employing somewhat of a scatter gun approach as she writes with a polychromatic range of styles about a kaleidoscope of different themes. In “The Woman on the Other Side”, Conn writes about travel, Art, the passing of time, family, Christmas and being a mother amongst a plethora of other motifs. Conn certainly has the gift of language and there are some sublime moments in this collection. However, I am left with the unescapable sense of there being more to come from this emerging talent. Conn has established herself as a poet and indicated her future promise.


“The Woman on the Other Side” deals largely with the sense of wonder that can be found in travelling to foreign countries, with Conn capturing that exuberant sense of soaking up the experience a new country has to offer. In “Sue is de Vrouw on de Overkant?”, she writes about learning Dutch and visiting the vowel heavy cities of Groningen, Maastricht and Utrecht.  In “Dutch bridges”, she articulates the awe of  a “simple thing” like taking shank’s mare, “across the canal to the market stalls”. This sense of getting deliberately lost in a different country is explored in “Wadlopen” when she articulates “how a fog can lead tourists, / like us, off course”.


Visual Art beguiles Conn. In “Maria Annastraatje, Leeuwarden”, she is mesmerised by how “Vermeer’s viewpoint draws the eye”. The Dutch artist is referenced frequently throughout. In “Vermeer’s Nether Land”, Conn reveals how inspired she is by his Art to go on and create Art herself. Conn clearly appreciates music too, elucidating her enjoyment of it in various poems in this collection.


Conn maps out some literary influences too, opaquely referencing Plath in “Blinking in the Dark”, “we were totally unaware of the instant we sent you ticking” is a nod to “Morning Song” by Plath. Her poems about motherhood are also similarly inspired by Plath. Elsewhere, her inspiration surfaces more directly as she writes about the Russian Bolshevik poet Marina Tsevtaeva on “The Metronome”.


Conn shows her creativity in “The Ds Have It” with an overuse of alliteration, “deltiology is best left / to holidaymakers.” I must admit I had to look up what deltiology is, what a fascinating pursuit!


The font and spacing of “Painting Light” give it a visual importance on the page. Conn very much considers how words look and not just how they sound. At times, this can come across as slightly gimmicky, if intriguing and experimental. Conn also writes poems that look like essays on the page. “Blinking in the Dark” and “Inca Ice Maiden” being prime examples. Furthermore, “Absconders beware”, is written like a text message.


Unquestionably, Conn is most convincing when she writes about the personal. “I hear their laughter from another room”, is the finest poem in this collection. Here, Conn tells us about a father’s interaction with his daughter, “rising in stature under her gaze. / His wine untouched / He will drink from her eyes”. The image is powerful and evocative. In “Canadian Christmas”, she combines her twin loves of travel and family.


Conn observes the passing of time throughout. In “Abacus”, she writes of, “June. Again. / There have been too many / birthdays and deathdays”. Direct and effective. In “Cutting lemons”, Conn catapults the reader into a strong memory, “thinking of nothing but the chop / I am suddenly back in my grandmother’s flat”. In “Eclipse”, Conn philosophises about time passing by, making her well up as the “tears came quickly”. A Similar event from her childhood is described in “Halley’s Comet” and the contrast between the two lunar events is notable.


Conn’s debut is a charming book of poetry with a vast array of different themes and writing styles on display. The use of so many varied approaches leads me to conclude that, in this collection, Conn has not completely found her own style. It is the collection of a budding young artist. There is more to come and I look forward to reading her next collection.

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Review: “The Crossing. My journey to the shattered heart of Syria” by Samar Yazbeck






“Death was so straightforward here, so close and intimate” wrote Yazbeck of her three trips through rebel held areas of Syria in 2012 and 2013. Yazbeck’s prose whilst addressing the post-Revolutionary Syrian landscape is elegant. She had personal access to areas that were beginning to be subsumed by Islamists and, in this regard, “The Crossing” is an excellent artefact of this very process itself. Yazbeck interviewed regional commanders of local Jihadi groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham before they had taken complete control in certain areas, although the majority of her trips were mainly within areas controlled by the independent and uncoordinated battalions of the secular Free Syrian Army, who receive an honest evaluation here. Too often, journalists and writers fail to acknowledge the genuine weaknesses of the rebels and the reasons why the Revolution failed. “The Crossing” is devastatingly accurate on why Assad remains a totally unacceptable leader for the majority of Syrian people. Reading it in 2017, after Assad has regained control over large parts of Syria makes for a poignant analysis . That this tyrant can be allowed to run Syria is a global travesty.


“I despaired that the outside world didn’t want to see the truth of what was happening. They wanted to see us as groups of savages who they could not bring themselves to describe as intelligent: they wanted to describe everything as religious extremism. And this meant that governments and people around the world could be content to let this dangerous savagery continue to play out between the rival parties”. There is probably no better summation of the Syrian civil war than this paragraph. Yet, Western “leftists” such as Blumenthal, Khalek etc. continue to smear the entire Syrian opposition as all being members of Al-Qaeda. It is vile and it has been left to the hawkish US Senator John McCain to defend the FSA these days. Had McCain have won the 2008 election, I wonder how many lives would have been saved in Syria. I highly doubt that the world would be having to deal with the prospect of Assad remaining in power after 2017. I am not advocating McCain in a wider sense but I do think that one particular thought experiment is an interesting one.


“The Crossing” is an example of why it is important to read authors who have been there and have spoken to ordinary Syrians on the ground. Yazbeck manages to capture the spirit of ordinary Syrian people, “They never stopped laughing these men, and it was as though they had inhaled laughter like an antidote to death”. The dignity that the Syrian people have shown, and continue to show, in the face of non-stop barbarity is humbling and admirable.










“The only victor in Syria is death: no one talks of anything else”, asserts Yazbeck of the continuous and unbearable suffering experienced by the Syrian people. No sooner had the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or al-Nusra “liberated” an area from the regime after the Revolution, then government jets would immediately began indiscriminately bombing said areas. A vile tactic which is in contravention of International Law. When Assad’s assorted henchmen, the Shabiha, blitzed through the town of Mastuma, “they massacred entire families”. This relentless bombing and massacring of innocent families, turned civilians against Assad and was also part of why we saw large busloads of people leaving Aleppo in December 2016. Ordinary inhabitants just absolutely refused point blank to live under Assad ever again. Reading Amnesty International’s report on what happened to the prisoners in Saydnaya, one can easily see why the Syrian people rejected any proposal to be ruled by him. If I had a family member tortured and killed like those in Saydnaya, or any of Assad’s prisons, I would be of the same opinion.


Yazbeck describes how government forces would cut out people’s eyes and cut their fingers off which had the effect of forcing people to move, literally, underground and culminated in what she described as “an unparalleled vision of hell”.










Yazbeck recalled an encounter with a man during a frontline battle in Marat al-Numan who had recently learnt that his three children had been killed. Lost, desolate, and howling at the insane injustice in Syria, he shouted, “That’s Bashar’s reforms for you…we just wanted a few rights”.


Yazbeck first noticed the increased trend of Islamisation when she discovered that the beheaded statue of the Poet Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri had been chopped off by al-Nusra fighters who considered her to be an apostate and a symbol of a secular Syria.


It has been well documented that Assad released thousands of Islamists and Salafists that were in Syrian prisons after the Revolution began in April and May of 2017 to create a verisimilitude that Assad was exclusively fighting against the extremists. This was absolutely not the case at the time. For example, there were peaceful marches with up to one million people protesting the Assad regime. If you buy the Assad propaganda, you need to believe that millions of people were marching for a Jihadi society.


Yazbeck interviewed one of the founders of Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Ahmed, who confirmed the narrative by detailing how another Emir, Hassan Aboud Abu Abdullah, a founder of the group, was released after the Revolution began. Later, she interviewed Abu-Hassan of al-Nusra, whose brother was freed around the same time, “Salafists and Islamists were released by the regime during the months of April, May and June 2011… (While) peaceful activists were being tortured”. Definitive proof that the story that Assad projected, and continues to project, to the world about how the Syrian civil war was Assad’s peaceful, secular regime fighting against extremists was, and is, a gross lie. Assad’s strategy backfired to an extent, and he ended up with a civil war on his hands. Please, though, spare us the balderdash about the secular Saint Assad. You cannot release thousands of Islamists and Salafists and expect the world to believe that you are fighting them at the same time.


Yazbeck also detailed her first contact with Islamic State fighters in 2013 and identified that they all seemed to be non-Syrians, coming from places as far away as Chechnya. When ISIS and al-Nusra increasingly began to control Syrian territory, Yazbeck realised that she could not go out in public without a veil. In fact, men began to tell her that it was not safe to be outside at all. During her third crossing, she spoke to women who complained about how their children were only being taught the Quran in Islamist held rebel areas. Consider too the editor of the Zaytoun newspaper in Saraqib who said that the “most dangerous thing is the way the Takfiri’s, the Islamic extremists, are edging their way in, and controlling people’s lives”. Reading it in 2017, elements within Yazbeck’s book are horribly prophetic. Sadly, the Islamists and Salafists have all but taken over the last remaining strongholds such as Idlib. There are reports of Syrian citizens inside these areas fighting the Assad regime and the Salafists.





Free Syrian Army




I often wonder how neutral authors are when writing about the rival factions within Syria. Thankfully, Yazbeck is relatively objective and critiques the FSA throughout, identifying their failure to coagulate smaller battalion’s as a leading factor in the local group’s being forced to go to al-Nusra to protect themselves against the regime, again underscoring how violent and illegitimate the regime is. Syrians chose Salafists, whom they did not like or agree with, as the least bad option.


The tragedy is that the corruption and lack of joined up thinking in the FSA also resulted in people joining al-Nusra and other Islamist groups.  Local, organic battalions of the FSA defended people against the regime in 2011 and 2012.


Yazbeck documented multiple accounts of how soldiers in the Syrian army defected to the FSA, one especially brutal example chronicled here was when one soldier was told to rape a young woman in front of her family. He refused and was shot in the crotch. The commanding officer got another soldier to rape the girl in front of her family after the man had refused. He joined the ranks of the FSA the next morning. This is another crucial point. The brutality that Assad levelled at innocent people drove them to defend themselves. 


Similarly, Yazbeck tells the story of Hossam in Kafranbel, who wanted to be an Arabic professor. He was shunned when the government gave it to the daughter of a friend of the regime. There were countless examples of Assad sorting people close to him out. Hossam initially joined the FSA and then returned to civil activism due to their corruption. When he was first conscripted in the Syrian Army, a senior officer told him to detonate a car bomb in the middle of a square of innocent protestors. He deliberately rigged the bomb so that it would not explode, and defected to the FSA the next day.


Sadly, Yazbeck recounted multiple stories of corruption within the FSA which lead to a breakdown in trust between them and the civilians.



It was not just the FSA that was corrupt. During Yazbeck’s second crossing in 2013, “there (were) more thieves in the revolution now than rebels. It’s one family against another. Mercenaries against mercenaries”. The FSA was incapable of filling the gap left by the Syrian government.





Women’s rights in Syria:




As the rebel held areas became increasingly Islamised in 2012 and 2013, it became difficult for Yazbeck to travel freely, “whenever I travelled back to Syria, most men couldn’t resist mentioning the fact that I’m a woman”. During her second visit, they saw a house that had a “family matriarch” which sadly stood out as a beacon in an increasingly male dominated society.


Somewhere between 2012 and 2013, women were forced into wearing Khimars and not headscarves. Yazbeck encountered some truly awful misogyny. “I told Abu Waheed about Abu Mostafa stealing his wife’s aid money. He laughed. I could not laugh”.


Things took a serious turn for the worse when ISIS began searching houses in rebel controlled areas in order to abduct foreign journalists and crack down on any women who were out by themselves. Yazbeck wrote of a terrifying encounter when ISIS came to the door of a house she was residing in and nearly killed one of the men at the door. They were searching for people like Yazbeck and targeted any non-Muslims. ISIS seemed to be made up of mainly young non-Syrian fighters. Tragically, local families were so destitute after the ravages of war that they were forced to sell their daughters to ISIS fighters as slaves. During her third visit, al-Nusra have declared that “any interaction between the genders (is) prohibited”. The implementation of Sharia Law in certain rebel held areas was to have disastrous consequences for the women living there.










Yazbeck does a tremendous job of highlighting how even a disastrous civil war could not stamp out the wonderful creativity of the Syrian people, “No sooner were towns liberated than their walls were turned into open books and transient art exhibits”. In 2013, the walls in Saraqib began to be covered with Ahrar al-Sham & al-Nusra slogans, highlighting the change in society.  In FSA controlled areas, houses and buildings that were virtually destroyed were slowly rebuilt with paintings that were lying around in destroyed houses. Frequently, songs were sung by the rebels to keep their spirits up under the grimmest conditions. One thing is for certain, when Syria finally gets a chance to become a democratic and secular country, it will be beautiful. I cannot wait to visit.











“We started the revolution and it’s being transferred to them” pleaded Ahmed, an artist in Idlib city, articulating how the Islamist militants had hijacked the Revolution since its inception in 2011.


“The Crossing” is Yazbeck’s peregrination through the rebel held areas in Syria in 2012 and 2013. Violence had become so endemic and normalised that it numbed the Syrian people, “Nothing meant anything anymore. My head felt like a nest of scurrying ants”. Human beings existed, like animals, only to survive, “The sound of humans screaming is the same as that of animals howling”.


Yazbeck is correct when she refers to the Syrian conflict as the “Greatest tragedy of the Twenty First Century”. The apathetic reaction in the rest of the world has been pathetic. Yazbeck, currently residing in France, is well placed to observe why this happened – we consume Syrian news and then discard it “like trash”. The US suffered from a form of confirmation bias. Having being disastrously wrong about going to war in Iraq, Obama did not want to engage the moderate rebels to a serious degree. This was a mistake and the vacuum was filled by Russia in 2013.  Published in 2015, “The Crossing” gets to the nub of the fact that “the political opposition didn’t care about equipping the armed battalions on the ground, and wasn’t interested in forming a unified command structure”.


So, whilst the US should have ousted Assad, the failure of the FSA to unify itself and create a viable political alternative to Assad was critical to why the Revolution failed. However, be under no illusions, the Syrian civil war is the fault of Bashar Assad, one of the great monsters of the Twenty First Century. The entire Revolution could have been prevented if he had of agreed to loosen his grip on power and transition Syria to a democracy. Moreover, if he had of kept the thousands of Islamists and Salafists locked up, it also would have stymied the Islamisation of rebel held areas.


It is tough to read Yazbeck write about the relentless and indiscriminate bombing of rebel held areas. The burden on anyone deciding to use violence is extremely high. In this case, it would have been justified. There were people in the West, Hillary Clinton for example, who called for a no fly zone. Yet, supposedly peaceful, anti-war leftists in the West branded her a “Warmonger”. Another hangover from her support of the Iraq war. A no fly zone would have saved thousands of lives. I am not suggesting that the US is in any way a benevolent State, they are not. Look at their record in 2017 in bombing Raqqa and Mosul. They employed virtually the same tactics as the Russians and broke International Law at every turn. The big mistake was letting the infamous “red line” to be breached. Once Obama let this go, Assad knew he could act with impunity. It also incentivised the Russians to begin supporting Bashar Assad. This will result in another Revolution at some stage in the future. No human has the divine right to rule over the Syrian people. The only way forward is for it to be a democracy.


The Syrian civil war also highlights the deep flaws within the UN. With Russia vetoing every anti Assad sanction, it rendered the assembly virtually useless. Allowing Assad to run his brutal dictatorship that tortures innocent people is doomed to fail. More than likely, it will mean that a future generation of Syrians will have to recount another tales of yet another bloody Revolution. I only hope that this does not happen. For an account of what happened in 2012 and 2013 Syria, look no further than the brave and writing on Samir Yazbeck’s “The Crossing”.

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Review: Xu Hongci “No Wall Too High: One Man’s Extraordinary Escape from Mao’s Infamous Labour Camps”



Xu Hongci met Chairman Mao in June of 1953. Had the event been captured on film, it is highly likely that Hongci would have appeared like one of those people you see in the old propaganda films clapping and enthusiastically celebrating their great ruler. By the time Mao had passed away in 1976, with the blood of, minimum, 45 million people on his hands, Hongci was exiled in Mongolia and had a slightly less benevolent attitude towards the great leader.

Hongci was a member of the Chinese communist party in college and fully bought into their ideology before being branded a “rightist”. This cultish obsession with having to be morally correct and “purer” in your left-wing beliefs has continued to this day.  In my view, it is a strategy that is always doomed to fail. It is not possible, or indeed even desirable, to always be morally purer than the next person. There will always be a more ethical human being. Taking the moral high ground results in relentlessly judging people and ostracising those with different political views. It is a potentially toxic mix, especially when you add violence into the equation.

“No wall too high” is Hongci’s journey through Mao’s labour camps from East to West China, beginning around the time of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, which starved millions of innocent Chinese people to death.

The edition of the book that I took out from the library was extremely well printed and included an excellent map of China which outlined Hongci’s movements throughout, a boon for anyone who is as interested in Chinese geography as I am. Special credit must also go to the translator Erling Hoh here too. I have discussed in previous blogs what a key role translators play.  Originally wanting to write about life in Mao’s camps himself, Hoh discovered Hongci’s account and changed his objective to translating his incredible life story for a Western audience. Hoh has also included copious amounts actual documents, such as newspaper clippings, from the era. It is a gripping read, one I could not put it down for two days.






A youthful Hongci declared himself willing to “sacrifice myself for the liberation of mankind” in 1948, at the tender age of 15. He was a fully paid-up member of the communist party and wanted to implement its ideals. However, it did not take long for him to realise the potential drawbacks to having such a narrow ideological mindset. After being sent to Shanghai, he “became aware of the communist party’s peasant origins and authoritarian, closed, narrow-minded, and factional character, which ran completely contrary to my ideals of democracy and freedom”. Despite this, “my motives were pure, and I was prepared to dedicate my life to the glorious cause of communism”. Hongci truly believed in the ideology of equality. He was tasked with helping with the redistribution of land, “In November 1950, we arrived at the agricultural committee for northern Jiangsu province in Yangzhou, where a local cadre by the name of Shi Ping reported that the masses have many misgivings regarding the redistribution of land and fear future retribution from the landlords. To strip the landlords of their prestige, we must execute some of them. Otherwise, the masses will not rally to the cause”. Alarm bells began ringing for Hongci at this point and he became uneasy and uncomfortable with the casual introduction of violence that he saw all around him.

To this day you still hear people espousing the potential virtues of taking over the means of production. Practically speaking, this means that you take the implements and land from workers with the vague promise to redistribute their produce equally.  People in society will always resist the State taking away their “means of production” and will fight back. There is no way to force communism on people without being violent.

Moreover, once the State legitimatises violence to further its economic agenda, it normalises officers of the government to act with brutality on its own citizens. Hongci notes that, “when I was dispatched at our second assignment in Taizhou, not far from Yangzhou, the land reform movement was in full swing, and landlords and rich peasants were being killed in droves”.

By 1952, four million communist party members were ruling over 580 million people. Despite a frosty relationship with Stalin before he died, the influence of the Soviet system could be seen in the universities in China. While Hongci was studying medicine, all the medical books that they used to learn with were all in Russian.   In 1956, Chinese Vice Premier Liu Shaoqi met with Khrushchev in Moscow to discuss whether the use of force was justified in Hungary to enforce communism. Hongci observed the mood in the Chinese communist party at the time, “A heated argument ensued. If Hungary was lost, what would happen in the other Eastern European satellites? The whole communist bloc would unravel, and the imperialists would be standing on Moscow’s doorstep”. I always find it deeply hypocritical when the Soviets decried Western imperialism whilst forcing a sovereign state to submit to its rule. It was around this time that Hongci was outed and arrested for being a “Rightist” after he put forward some democratic proposals for the party. He would go on to be branded a Soviet and US sympathiser, depending on how relations between China and each of those countries were at any given moment in time.



The individual in communist China:



Chinese communism destroyed the individual and their rights in society. The party monitored and recorded who each of their fellow party members socialised and had relationships with. When Hongci began seeing Ximeng, he was scolded on multiple occasions because she was classed as “bourgeois”.  This is the danger inherent in trying to create a “classless” society. It does not account for the differences between people. Citizens in China were tarnished, usually with little or no evidence, of being bourgeois or rightists and then carted off to the labour camps.

During an infamous speech in 1957, Mao admitted that 780,000 people had been killed by taking over the means of production from 1951 to 1953. Mao agreed to democratise and liberalise China and sought suggestions from the people on how to achieve this aim. However, it was a ruse and, when Hongci put up a “Dazibao” in his university, he was sentenced to spend time in a labour camp.  Hongci was one of between 550,000 and 3 million Chinese people that Mao would deem traitors, spies or rightists.

Hongci’s account of Maoist China is the closest real-life version of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” that I have read. Due to his incomplete medical training, Hongci became what was known as a “barefoot doctor” in some of the labour camps that he was imprisoned in. These were unskilled and unqualified doctors, but they were the best that a lot of camps could manage.

Zhao Shiyi, a colleague in a mining camp with Hongci, was blown to bits doing his job and was, “buried hastily without a funeral”. A perfect and dastardly example of how the system did not at all care about people dying so long as the economic and social goals were met.

Similarly, when Hongci’s father sadly passed away, he was reported for having cried. Showing any empathy or compassion meant you were branded a traitor. Chu & Jinxian, two fellow campmates of Hongci were killed for being caught in the act of gay sex.  Hongci wrote of this as a commonplace occurrence. The system drove another of Hongci’s fellow prisoners, Yuan Deli, insane and ended with him pleading desperately to be killed.



Life in the “Labour reform camps”:



The first camp that Hongci was imprisoned in was Laogai, where he observed that there was, “no regards for judicial concepts such as due process and a fair trial”.  “A sarcastic comment or a postal stamp of the chairman pasted upside down was a crime that could send a person to the Laogai for many years”.

During the 1958 “Great Leap Forward”, 550,000 million rural people were divided into 26,000 communes and all private property was confiscated. Any person that tried to keep a spot of land for themselves was labelled a traitor and imprisoned in labour reform camps such as Laogai. This caused a massive increase in the numbers of people being imprisoned. The camps were unprepared for the injection of prisoners and struggled to cope. Inmates were only permitted a daily ration of two bowls of gruel to get through an entire day.

Part of the reasons for the food shortages in some of the ludicrously labelled camps like the “Eternal Happiness Farm”, were poorly made central decisions.  Mao insisted that farmers plant each rice field with three times the previous quantity of rice seeds, which resulted in many of them being destroyed. It is strange that Mao did not learn from Soviet central planning experiments as all these previous attempts to steer an entire economy based on teleology alone had ended disastrously.

This had a knock-on effect in the camps and workers were starved due to the shortages. Naturally, the only response to the crisis was to force the inmates to work extra hard. Hongci regularly worked from 3 am to 10 pm in Laogai.

During the Cultural Revolution, Hongci was transferred to Lijiang prison where he was frequently put in giant iron shackles. The work was backbreaking, “we carried chunks of blasted boulders and rocks split by stonemasons up to the road”.  The overly physical nature of this work nearly killed Hongci. When inmates at Lijiang were not working, propaganda would be played from first light at morning until 10 pm telling the prisoners how great their system was.

The effect of combining the paucity of food and the overworking of the inmates was catastrophic, “every morning around 3 am, I would wake with a terrible stomach ache”. Prisoners such as Dai Chaogang were worked to death. There was no respite either. Initially, the labour camps had made some reading materials available. Hongci recalled reading several types of books before the list of available works was narrowed down to one author: Mao Zedong.


Hongci wrote a moving account of the collective descent into madness, “on death’s doorstep, man can become an animal and abandon every moral principle he has established in the course of his life. In our prison, convicts stole like kleptomaniacs, defecated where they pleaded, fought, squealed, and were capable of every other hideous and despicable act. I saw prisoners run their faces with their own urine in the morning as a kind of self-inflicted punishment. Personal hygiene was almost non-existent, clean clothes even rarer. I too became a savage. During those months, I didn’t wash myself or my clothes one single time”







In the Chinese justice system, while Mao was in charge, Hongci noted that “once it has deprived you of your freedom, it will never restore it completely. Detainees are only marginally freer than convicts and are definitely not considered full citizens”. I made reference to this in a recent review of Kafka’s “The Trial”. The separation of power between the government and justice system had broken down completely. All trials became a Kafkaesque parody where genuine innocence and freedom were unattainable.


After serving his six-year sentence, Hongci was excited to get out, until Liang Manqi, the camp guard, informed him that, “you haven’t reformed your thinking…hard labour is the only way to purge your mind of all those reactionary ideas”. It is important to note that, in communist China, ideas were as dangerous as actions. Hongci complained to Manqi, “you haven’t even given me a trial?” to which the bleak response he received was, “we know everything about your case. There was no need for a trial”.

Fellow camp inmate Shukang was found guilty for writing to Beijing to tell them that 2,000 people had starved to death in Jiuhe during the Great Leap Forward. For this act of honesty, he received an extra 15 years in the camps. He duly killed himself.

Even after he was released from the camps, after Mao had died, it took until 1982 for the Chinese government to rescind Hongci’s wrongful conviction for being a “rightist”.







Whilst ostracised in Mongolia after escaping from the brutal forced labour camps, Hongci reminisced, “I was just sad and angry, confident that sooner or later the Chinese people would rise up to cast off the yoke of Mao’s tyranny and establish a democratic nation. I told myself, on that day I shall return”

Sadly, Hongci never lived to see this moment materialise. “China’s tragedy, I said to myself, is that it will never allow people to speak the truth. For speaking the truth, I have lost my freedom and my future. For speaking the truth, Shukang has paid with his life. And countless more will die for speaking the truth”. The communist system cannot permit honesty as this would mean allowing a multitude of voices to offer differing routes forward in a democratic country. By definition, it must repress opposition and dissent to propagate itself. This is what made Kissinger’s 1972 remark of the Chinese communists being a “holy group of monks” when he met Mao so egregious.

This tolerant, almost playful Western attitude towards Mao still persists to this day. John McDonnell, Corbyn’s number two in charge, brought Mao’s infamous little red book into the House of Commons during a George Osbourne speech. That Chinese communism is still deemed in any way acceptable by Western leftists is beyond the pale. McDonnell and Corbyn’s colleague Diane Abbott also talked up the benefits of Maoism. I am not sure Hongci would share the leadership of the current UK Labour Party’s positive assessment of Mao.

Let us leave the last word to people who lived in the system, “You (Hongci’s friend Yan Hong) said that by the time we were old, China would definitely be a just and fair communist society. Now we are old, but where is the just and fair communist society? Her silence held all the broken dreams of our generation”.

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Review: Mark Kurlansky “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World”




Truthfully, I cannot say that I ever envisaged myself reading about cod. In fact, anything even vaguely scientific is usually beyond my remit. This is no slight on science, you understand. Far from it. I am an acolyte of the discipline, of the theory, of the idea of science. Aim, Apparatus, Method, Results, Conclusion.  I just could never focus what little grey matter that was bestowed upon me to focus on the subject. Physics went completely over my head in secondary school. I can recall trying to understand the various theorems and maths equations. I wanted to be good at it, but…no! We had an excellent physics teacher too, Pat Doyle. The fault was entirely my own. Words were always more my thing. My best friend Brian was my antipode, taking to the scientific discipline from the get go. He is Doctor Hayden now and, over a few Guinness in Paddy Cullen’s one serotinal evening on a recent trip home from his new home in New Brunswick, he recommended “Cod” by Mark Kurlansky. Now, given my egregious past with all things scientific, you can maybe understand my reticence to read such a book. I am not one to stymie my own ignorance.



I try to read books from intelligent people that I meet, no matter what the discipline though, so I duly added: “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” to my ever bulging “to read” list on my Ever Note App. Pembroke library got it to me in no time at all. What a thoroughly charming book! Thankfully, there really is not too much science in it at all.


Kurlansky found recipes from as far back as 1375 in France and some from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth centuries in olde English, “take cokkes of kellyng; cut hem smalle. Do hit yn a brothe of fresh fysch or of fresh salmon; Boyle hem well”. I had not read English that olde since the Canterbury Tales. It takes a bit of getting used to. Yet, the idea of humans writing down cod recipes in the Fourteenth Century still resonates today. Recording language like this endlessly fascinates me. On a recent to visit to Marsh’s Library during Heritage week in Dublin, Iseult and I found ourselves in a building with books from the Fifteenth Century. It is quite incredible really. When you think about it, this very recording of our earliest human experiences may just have been the first form of science that we utilised. This ability to communicate is the foundation on which everything is built.



One human discipline that most definitely cannot be deemed scientific is Religion, even if it did drive enormous demand for cod due to it being “food for good Catholics on the days they were to abstain from sex”. Kurlansky unearths the story that it was cod that Jesus used in the tale of the loaves and the fishes. Even more intriguingly, Kurlansky relates how the devil attempted a similar trick, but due to his red-hot hands, the fish was burnt, leaving black thumbprints on it. Hence how it became to be known as Haddock. Elsewhere, we learn how the word cod came to have sexual connotations in the Caribbean. If I may, I would like to enter an Irish variant of the word at this point. Cod has come to mean “fake” in slang Hiberno-English. The best example of this was when that eternal Irish Pangloss, Eamon Dunphy, author of the finest and most honest book ever written about professional football “Only a Game?” uttered to the now sadly deceased Bill O’Herlihy about a young Cristiano Ronaldo, “He’s a cod, Bill!”



I was glad to read that it was not solely Irish people who were regaled with the wisdom about how eating fish makes one smarter. This originated from an Icelandic saying centuries ago and prevails in many places to this day.



The History of Cod:



In 985, Vikings landed on Newfoundland. This fact threw me slightly as I had always understood Columbus’s 1492 voyage to have been the maiden one. Come to think of it, I must not have been paying attention during history class either. The Vikings were met by the native Beothuk tribe, who fought and repelled them, ensuring that the Vikings did not return. Sadly, during subsequent encounters with Europeans, the Beothuk were not to fare so well.


During the 128 expeditions to North America after Cabot’s, until approximately 1550, explorers began to take advantage of the untapped potential that was to be gained from fishing cod. First for self-sufficiency, and later for a profit. Slavery went hand in hand with the trading of cod. So much so, that Kurlansky noted that “in west Africa, slaves could be purchased with codfish”. We treated and traded people like they were fish. This egregious human dalliance with slavery is further chronicled when Kurlansky describes how 12,000 slaves perished in the West Indies between 1780 and 1787, due to trade restrictions.



When the United States was declaring its independence from the United Kingdom, John Adams insisted, where Benjamin Franklyn did not, that they absolutely had to have rights over their fishing waters. This fact was critical to their success and, as such, Kurlansky deems him an underrated founding father.


Later, Kurlansky documents how the emerging Nation States in the new global order decided how to determine who had the right to fish which area. It is a fascinating read. Initially, each country had a three-mile zone off their coast which was exclusively theirs. However, the larger and more technologically advanced countries began to take advantage of the waters outside these relatively small zones.   The “Cod Wars” between the UK and Iceland would eventually lead to each country establishing a two-hundred-mile zone.  It took three of these Cod Wars, from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, to establish these boundaries in International Law. The British, still hungover from their imperial past, believed they could fish wherever they pleased. The Icelandic coast guard began cutting the nets of the giant trawlers that the British fishing boats used to fish the ocean. Iceland briefly cut diplomatic ties with the U.K., before the British eventually began respecting their fishing zones.




Economic History:



“The first biological lesson of history is that life is competition. Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life”, quotes Kurlansky from Will and Ariel Durant’s excellent “Lessons of History”. As such, the author draws a valuable parallel between business and science. The ability to compete with and better each other is critical to our biological makeup. It is a fact many of us have still not accepted as a species, as we try to force equality of outcome and not opportunity on each other. We need to compete. The difference between us pushes us forward. Therefore, regulated free markets are the only way that humans can trade with each other.


This historical lesson is utterly evident when you read “Cod”.  As a species, Cod are omnivorous and will eat even themselves in order to survive. Cod larvae are eaten by older cod and, in turn, baby cod are eaten by adults. Kurlansky identfies how Adam Smith, in his seminal “The Wealth of Nations”, thought of the New England fisheries as the best example of why free market Capitalism worked. He compared and contrasted it with how the West Indies had protected sugar markets which had led to disaster.


By the year 1500, 60% all fish sold in Europe was cod.  In 1508, 10% fish sold in the Portuguese ports of Douro & Minho was Newfoundland salt cod. In 1510, salt cod had become a staple part of Normandy’s Rouen market.  This burgeoning fish trade led to many becoming wealthy and created a “Codfish aristocracy” in the new United States.


Free markets alone did not offer all the solutions as evidenced by the technological improvements that happened when the French government introduced long lining, by subsidising their fleets.  Kurlansky details the change from schooners to steam boats and the enormous benefits that this brought. He also recounts the incredible life of Clarence Birdseye, born in 1886, who employed his new technique of freezing on fish, which changed the industry.  Birdseye was the best example of a free market entrepreneur improving the world through his innovative techniques.  He would go on to improve incandescent light bulbs and took out patents in 250 different areas throughout his lifetime.



By 1989, Norway realised that it had fished its waters so heavily that it had jeopardised its entire fish stocks. This also underscores the problem with unregulated free trade.




Literary History:



Kurlansky quotes a raft of famous authors on the subject of fish and cod. From Herman Melville, who questioned why the milk he drank had a slightly fishy taste to it, only to discover why, “I saw Hosea’s brindled cow feeding on fish remnants” to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom who, “ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slice’s fried with crustcrumbs, fried hen cod’s roe”, via Dicken’s in Oliver Twist, “confined to the limits of field lane are, it has its barber, its coffee shop, its beer-shop, and its fresh-fried fish warehouse”. Alexander Dumas, author of the best revenge story ever told “The Count of Monte Cristo”, observed that if each of the cod’s 9 million eggs that the female laid actually hatched and became fully grown, one could walk across the surface of the Earth on top of them.








Although the last few chapters dissolve into a veritable chowder of standard fish recipe books, the rest of Kurlansky’s “Cod” is an icy jaunt through the history of North America and Europe. Perhaps we will never know if the Old Icelandic adage about whether or not eating fish is beneficial to our brains is true or not. However, reading books about fish most certainly is.



The sad truth is that we have wilfully and systematically attempted the anthropogenic annihilation of our environment. The overfishing of cod is just one symptom of this.  We have nobody to blame but ourselves.



There are solutions. If we did not eat fish, then the demand would stop. If we lowered our demand for fish, fish stocks would increase. We need to reduce our global population to decrease demand. Governments also need to incentivise humans to eat less meat and fish by levying higher taxes on it. Like the use of fossil fuels, it needs to be phased out. If we are serious about fixing the issues, this is the answer. As Peter Singer pointed out in his ground-breaking “Animal Liberation” book, “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?” Christopher Hitchens made a similar point in his essay “Political Animals”, “rights have to be asserted. Animals cannot make such assertions. We have to make representations to ourselves on their behalf”. The fact remains, we need to stop eating fish and animals not just to save them, but to save ourselves.

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Review: “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami.




The true meaning of Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” is entrenched between multiple layers in a seabed of symbolism. Murakami mixes sharp and well written dialogue with long, lyrical, loquacious passages which explore the psychology and feelings of the characters. The true nuance all the while bubbling away gently under the surface. As Nutmeg tells Cinnamon, “He’s not saying a lot…like a big oyster on the bottom of the sea, he’s burrowed inside himself and he’s locked the door and he’s doing some serious thinking”. An apt description of Murakami’s aesthetic.



The disparate themes that “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” covers are too broad to discuss in my review, so I will focus on a few of the key areas that struck a chord with me.  Namely the symbolism of cats, Philosophy, Japanese feminism, Japanese custom, World War Two and life itself. “One thing I understand for sure is that I don’t understand anything” could best sum up my meandering experience through Murakami’s masterpiece. Ultimately, Okada’s peregrination signifies the human search for meaning in life.





The Wind-Up Ailurophile:




Cats are revered, Tom Cox style, in Japan and are important on a symbolic level here. The story opens with Okada searching for a cat. This represents two things. Firstly, his search for meaning in life and, secondly, how his relationship with Kumiko is lost. She herself notes that the cat has been with them since the start of their relationship and insists that he must find it. When Okada cannot find the cat, we learn that he cannot repair their relationship.  Kumiko describes how she had always wanted a cat but that her parents would never let her have one. We then learn that her relationship with Okada was her first long-term one. The fact that they acquire the cat shortly after getting together is revealing. Kumiko and Toru explicitly discuss the memory of how they got their cat in the same conversation as reminiscing over their first sexual experience.


The cat disappears when Kumiko does!


Think how the brown cat appears when Okada gets assaulted by with man with guitar case beside Shinjuku train station. This bizarre storyline symbolises how far astray he has gone in his personal life.


It takes an entire year for the lost cat to return, at which point Kumiko is long gone and Okada is beginning to heal emotionally and open up to the idea of having new relationships with other women.  The cat can be viewed as a sign of fertility.


When Nutmeg purchases some new clothes for Okada, she looks him up and down “like a cat”.

During Okada’s dreams about Malta Cano, he imagines that she has a cat’s tail! This is surreal but the cat again represents a relationship with a woman.


In one of the last letters that Kumiko writes to Okada, she describes her joy at how the cat has returned, “he was always a symbol of something good between us” she says.










I could write about every word, line, and chapter representing the human quest for meaning throughout life. After quitting his job, Okada begins to ask himself some searching questions, “My hands had been full just living”, he muses.  It is an interesting observation that the busier our lives become, the less we think about our real purpose on Earth. This is especially so in Japan where the culture of working overtime is deeply ingrained. A strong work ethic is good, but does it hinder the ability of substantial portions of the population into thinking about life on a deeper level? Freed of this burden, Okada realises that “I could read any book I wanted, anytime I wanted”.






World War Two:





The War left an indelible mark on Japanese society.  Half a century on, and authors like Murakami, are still exploring its lasting effects.  Lieutenant Mamiya remains deeply scarred, claiming that there was no “righteous cause” for the war. He did not think that it was legally or morally justified in any regard, “It’s just two sides killing each other” he decides.


During the war, when Mamiya is at death’s door, the one thought that gives him hope is that his parents had a daughter, so at least she would not be conscripted. A stark reminder of how bleak society had become. Are you a man? The percentage chance that you die is high.


Mamiya chronicles his experience in the brutal Soviet Gulag and his return to Hiroshima where his mother, father, and sister were killed. The link to Hiroshima is important. It will take generations for Japan to overcome one of the worst crimes of the Twentieth Century. Mamiya’s loss personifies Japan’s loss. He mourns how he is left waiting to die as he gets older with no family to care for him. The dropping of the Atomic Bomb has left a deep imprint on Japanese Art and culture, the blazing, blood red sky in “Akira” always comes to mind.


The gruesome scene in Mongolia is tough to read. Yamamoto has his skin slowly peeled off by a member of the Mongol army. The blood-curdling lengths that the Soviets like “Boris the manskinner”, the Japanese and the Mongols went to were truly terrifying.


In virtually every account, fictional or otherwise, I have ever read about war, there is always a reference to how humans end up treating other humans as animals. In the “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”, this transpires in the zoo.  An order is given to kill the animals as they do not have enough food for them. Mamiya ponders the request, “it was so much easier to kill humans on the battle field than it was to kill animals in cages”.


“Megalomaniac nationalism hammered into their skulls” was Mamiya’s reason for the insane levels of violence that the Japanese army went to. “Commanded in the name of the emperor to dig a hole to Brazil, they would grab a shovel and start digging”, he states. I began to read this story on the anniversary of Hiroshima on August 6th. To think that the human species could so wilfully destroy each other on such a devastating scale is tremendously difficult to wrap one’s brain around. We still live with that threat dangling over our heads like a giant sword of Damocles. The fault is all our own. How on Earth did we get ourselves into a situation where Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have access to nuclear weapons?










An entire chapter is dedicated to the fact that Mamiya kept his war past a secret. He carried the scars and shame with him for the rest of his life. Mamiya did not recount the story of the map, as told to him by Yamamoto, when he was debriefed by his superiors in the Japanese army. This is representative of how Japan wished to bury  the memory of the war.


One did not have to be in the military to keep dark secrets in Japan. Okada actively kept his relationship with May Kasahara a secret from Kumiko.


Okada longs for a cigarette to smoke after he is certain that Kumiko is hiding the fact that her lover has given her cologne as a present. In this regard, we can view the fact that there is a secret between them as destructive.


“Certain things will always remain riddles,” says Mamiya. Indeed. 





Japanese custom and symbolism:





I had to periodically check myself to determine whether the characters were dreaming or not as various characters seemed to soporifically drift in and out of dream like sequences. Okada himself has difficulty interpreting the point at which dreams and reality intersect. Take his dream where he sleeps with Creta Cano. This dream becomes a reality when they have sex later in the story.


The “unadorned precision” that Mamiya takes when he visits Okada is telling. He takes forever to…get…to…the…point, bumbling on about not having a name card etc. This is despite the fact that he has some important information to impart.


Perhaps the most Japanese moment is when Okada goes to room 602 of a mysterious, nameless, faceless building. The receptionist does not utter a single word yet, somehow, he communicates effectively with Okada with sheer body language alone. The unspoken is more important than the spoken.


What on Earth is the point of the empty box that Honda leaves his friend? Contact me if you know, please. Was it that everything is pointless?


Water is important.  May Kasahara soaks Okada as he sits on the porch. Access to water is illustrated by wells. May Kasahara’s has water. Okada’s does not, representing how young she is. Mamiya gets trapped in a well in Mongolia, nearly dying. The light that floods the cave at opportune moments is emblematic of life pouring into death. Left in darkness for most of the day, his existence is very nearly extinguished.


It is instructive that Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” is referenced in the “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” as his “iceberg” style of writing is perfectly in sync up with the Japanese aesthetic.











Malta Cano does not press charges against Kumiko’s brother Noboru, who raped her sister. Okada is OK with this, viewing it as less hassle, thus displaying a more than questionable attitude towards women. It is compelling to observe how Murakami messes with the notion of typical gender stereotypes by ensuring Okada stays at home and Kumiko is the breadwinner.  However, it is also instructive that she then leaves him for another man. Japanese society does not permit the transgression for long.  Think also of Noboru’s contempt for Okada for being unemployed and lying around the house.  Okada becomes emasculated.


Noboru’s mother, Mrs. Wataya, only cared about two things in life, her son’s grades in school and her husband’s ranking. Her daughter Kumiko is unimportant. She represents the patriarchy’s effect on society.


Okada rationalises Kumiko deserting him with the misogynist belief that, “she couldn’t be by herself, she had to be with a man”. Kumiko’s company makes no provision for women to have children. We are told that women must resign if they have kids. Consequently, the rate of abortion is extremely high.


Kumiko is liberated enough to tell Okada that she was bored sexually and was excited by the prospect of a new lover, “this is my problem alone, it has nothing to do with you” says tells him. Oddly, Okada does not seem that bothered about it.


When Ushikawa tells Okada his back story, he reveals that he used to beat up his wife, laughing callously about it. Again, Okada did not reprimand him for it, leaving us in no doubt that the violent treatment of women is prevalent in Japanese society. Twice Okada is confronted with evidence of men assaulting women and he does not even contemplate calling the police. Ok Ada doesn’t react when Ushikawa reveals that he broke his own daughter’s arm.  










Reading Murakami is a joy. As with any translated work, I cannot in good faith testify to how good the writing is. Moreover, there are entire chapters missing from the English translation that I read. I can say that the translation I read is superb though.


Drenched in symbolism and forever beseeching the reader to think, Murakami moves the plot along at an optimal pace. The story is wonderfully unexpected and surprising, at times diverging off in inexplicably opaque, yet welcome tangents. It was at times so surreal, that I found myself wondering if I was off with the Lotus-eaters myself. As Mamiya notes, “life is a far more limited thing then those in the midst of its maelstrom realise”. Perhaps the real lesson Murakami has for us is to step outside of our lives and begin to ask ourselves the important questions in life.


It is impossible to read it without taking account of the strong anti-war message. I finished reading it on August 15th and could not help but think, if every country in the world had a peace treaty, like article nine of the Japanese Constitution, that the world would be a better place. One that would not leave generations of people scarred for life.

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Review: Aldous Huxley “The Doors of Perception / Heaven and Hell”



“That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives that are at the worst so painful…the longing to transcend themselves…is and always has been one of the principal appetites of the soul” wrote Huxley in his manifesto to liberalise the use of mescaline and psychotropic drugs in society. His 1954 novel reads like an extended essay, primarily concerning itself with a day Huxley spent tripping in 1953. Beginning with this life altering experience, Huxley then incorporates a plethora of scientific and intellectual thought to add weight to his argument.  I read the edition that included the follow up “Heaven and Hell”, which is a considerably more erudite affair, where Huxley argues for mescaline as a choice in a free society purely on an artistic and scientific basis. There is an excellent comparison between the beauty and power of colour in Art and how it is similar to the vivid, ethereal bursts of colours that one encounters when tripping on LSD or mescaline. I’m with Huxley. In a free society, with effective regulation, I believe individuals have the absolute right to make their own decisions regarding their own lives.


Once he begins his odyssey, Huxley realises that “the great change was in the realm of objective fact. What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant”. It made me wonder if the Post-Modernist thinkers had their own revelatory dalliances with experimental drugs. Derrida’s “The Rhetoric of Drugs” would suggest this may have been the case. The concept of seeing outside of your own perspective to undermine the notion of an objective reality is critical to the Post-Modernist ethos. Foucault was a fan, “we have to try drugs, they are part of our culture”.   “This is how one ought to see,” continued Huxley when trying to articulate how he processed the world while on mescaline.  He articulated his experience as one of “Egolessness” and “Notself”, again advertising the virtues of viewing the world from a previously unseen angle. Of course, it is possible to maintain a sense of there being some universal values whilst acknowledging that getting outside the “self” can be a revelatory experience.


He referenced Pascal, pointing out how the sum of all evil would be diminished if men could “learn to sit quietly in their rooms” and enjoy their own company. MDMA, which is used to treat war veterans and couples with relationship trouble, has performed a similar role in modern society. It is generally not as trippy as mescaline, but it massively increases the empathy we feel for our fellow human beings and gets us outside our normal realm of reality. For Huxley, the “contemplatives (in society) are not likely to become gamblers, or procurers, or drunkards, they do not, as a rule, preach intolerance, or make war; do not find it necessary to rob, swindle”. At times, he veers off into whacked out, idealistic twaddle, yet there is a point there. In our “inner world, there is neither work nor monotony” he concludes, a place and time where the mind can think and philosophise.


At times, Huxley’s trip was borderline religious, “I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation”. The image is evocative. It is not just Christianity that he references, he discusses the Dharma Body and the Arhat’s quest to exist as a perfect being. Huxley viewed mescaline as being a gateway enabler to transcendent experiences similar of that to which the out of body types that Buddhists may achieve. He writes of “Eden alternated with Dodona, Yggdrasil with the mystic rose”. Huxley points out how prevalent alcohol is in the Christian tradition and tries to imagine what it would be like if priests took mescaline instead.


Huxley wades into the, now well-treaded, question of why drugs are illegal and cigarettes and alcohol are not, advocating that mescaline really ought to be and questioning the double standard. To my mind, it is impossible to refute this. Even if you acknowledge that cigarettes and alcohol would be illegal if introduced now, the question is still, why? Assuming you do not hurt other people, you should  have the right, in a free society, to do what you want.


Huxley conveys the visceral, sensory overload of his mescaline trip, when he described how he viewed the flowers in his vase as the “qualitative equivalent of breathing” before going on to see a “deeper to deeper meaning” in them. Mid-trip, the “mescaline raises all colours to a higher power”. Huxley thinks cogently for large parts of “The Doors of Perception” about how important the processing of colour is to artists and thinkers, understanding that this sensory perception is separate to the intellectual one. However you process the world, heightening one’s senses is a liberating experience. There is hilarious titbit when the mescaline begins to wear off and Huxley saw a blue car outside. He looks at it and “laughed till the tears ran down my cheeks”! This is important. For all the artistic and creative plus points, taking mescaline is fun!


In “Heaven and Hell” Huxley critiques the art of colour and the colour in Art and design at length. It is a fascinating read. Truly, he was an exceptional essay writer. I noted down copious references that I had not heard of, adding a chunk onto my reading list. The vividness that the drug user encounters while taking mescaline is inextricably linked to how the artist perceives colour, “what the rest of us see under the influence of mescaline, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful”. Mescaline can help the rest of us to open the doors of perception.



Huxley believed, with historical logic on his side, that takings drugs were something that the human species has done “systematically, from time immemorial”. It is true. The whole war on drugs farce was doomed to fail when you consider humans have always, and always will, use them. There is a rock solid economic reason too. Supply and demand. Governments can try their hardest to stem the supply, but until demand stops, they will be fighting a losing battle. Safe regulation is the only way to go. We should have the freedom to choose. Leave the government out of the argument, they should not be stopping people from enjoying these experiences. The “Doors” in “The Doors of Perception” came from William Blake’s 1793 work “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and signified how we need to break through the doors in the walls of our mundane lives. Huxley decried that there is “no place for valid transcendental experiences” in society yet beseeched us that there should be. Moreover, are said “transcendental experiences” not merely Art in another guise?  It kind of reminds me of the famous Dali quote when an interviewer asked him, “Do you take drugs?”, to which Dali replied, “I am drugs”. J.G. Ballard, in his excellent preface, analyses how Huxley recognised that, over generations, our subconscious has evolved for mostly utilitarian purposes, and that this closed us off to the sensory wonders in life. He hypothesised that experiences such as those on mescaline could help bridge this gap in our evolutionary cycle.  We are still trying to break on through to the other side in that regard.

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Review: “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf




The story begins in September 1910 in the Hebrides as the “rooks (were) dropping cool cries from the high blue”. “To the Lighthouse” is a Brobdingnagian success. Woolf’s use of words was nothing sort of sensational. This 1927 masterpiece is replete with some beautiful descriptions and comparisons. So much so that, at times, the plot seems entirely superfluous! The vast swathes of stream of consciousness make the novel meander like a gentle old river winding in and out of towns, occasionally dropping its old, brown sediment on the river floor. Each sentence is its own systematically constructed, self-contained jigsaw. Read it for reading’s sake. It baffled me when I read that Woolf dismissed “Ulysses” as “brackish, pretentious, and underbred”. I think of them as kindred spirits. Like Joyce’s works, I always endeavour to read the inner monologue style of writing in one sitting if I can. Clearly, this is not always possible. It took me months to read “Ulysses” for the first time.  It is much more realistic, manageable and rewarding to do so with “To the Lighthouse”.


Primarily, I read this novel as a homage to a bygone era. It is a quintessentially British affair, where society  has rendered the characters unable to articulate their feelings openly. Consider the dinner Mrs. Ramsey puts on where all the guests stare at each other, whilst simultaneously “each knowing exactly what the other felt”. “To the Lighthouse” stands like a sculpture of a reminder of an epoch that has passed. That the novel is set over an extended period of time is important as it explains how Woolf is writing as the definitive voice of her generation. It is surely a positive thing that present day society has liberalised and we can now communicate candidly in a more tolerant and open society. I remain mystified by those dunderheads who convince themselves that this time was a golden period. That they are mostly men is telling.


Leaving aside the pure joy there is to be found by revelling in Woolf’s lyrical flow, the substance of what she wrote about was of equal import. She was on point about the role of women in society, Art and the passing of time. The character development and analysis here is wondrous. Unquestionably, Woolf is one the key voices of the Twentieth Century.








Mrs. Ramsey dearly wishes that her daughters “sport with infidel ideas” that may result in them having “a life different to hers”. Woolf knew that it was too late for her generation to break the cast. Equally, she could sense that change was in the air. I wonder to what extent Mrs. Ramsey is autobiographical. That she passes away throughout the story is revealing- her generation is fading out. Mrs. Ramsey’s function is to spark her children and those around her into action. She imagines, “perhaps a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other” for her female children. She rallies against her role of having to take care of Mr. Ramsey, longing to break free throughout. He is a chauvinistic brute that made her believe that “she was not good enough to tie his shoestrings”.


Of course, it is not just Mr. Ramsey that looks down on women, “there was Mr. Tansley whispering in her ear (that) women can’t paint, women can’t write”. This phrase is repeated multiple times for repetitive effect. So much so that the women begin to hear these misogynist remarks even when there are no men present. The point is deliberate and cuspidate, women cannot write and cannot paint. Tansley is the man who is determined that he was “not going to be condescended to by those silly women”. This was a repressive world for women.


Mrs. Ramsey thinks that men only look at her “for her beauty”. Having eight children means that she never has time to pursue her artistic and creative side. All society requires of her is her “beauty” so that she can reproduce.


After she has passed away, Mr. Ramsey begins to sleaze on Lily Broscoe, “demand(ing) that she should surrender herself up to him entirely”. Lily, being a painter, represents a break in the chain of women being subservient to men. She is not a mere reproductive vehicle and does not feel the need to identify as such. She understands perfectly that Mr. Ramsey “liked men to work and women (to) keep house”. Coupled with the condescending remark that “the vagueness of women’s minds is hopeless” and it furthers the picture of him as a sexist dinosaur. He even derides his own daughter Cam’s inability to work a compass and, in the absence of a new Lily Broscoe like female figure to replace Mrs. Ramsey, expects her to heed “his dominance (and) submit to me”. This attempt by him to dominate his children as much as he did his late wife is Woolf highlighting the patriarchy’s violent need to keep the system in place. The language Woolf used to describe Mr. Ramsey becomes increasingly violent and as the story progresses, we learn that he had previously thrown a plate out the window because he had found an earwig in some milk that Mrs. Ramsey had put on the table for him. He needs women to be subservient to exist. He is the patriarchy.


The lighthouse symbolises a way out of the patriarchy. That is why Cam goes there.


Perhaps the best description of men is when Woolf describes men as being like an “acrid scimitar”!



Writing style



Two of my favourite pieces of prose:


“This admirable fabric of the masculine intelligence, which ran up and down, crossed this way and that, like iron girders spanning the fabric, upholding the world, so that she could trust herself to it utterly, even shut his eyes or flicker them for a moment, as a child staring up from its pillow winks at the myriad layers of the leaves of a tree”. Intricate and beguiling.


“Then indeed peace had come. Messages of peace breathed from the sea to the shore. Never to break its sleep anymore, to lull it rather more deeply to rest and whatever the dreamers dreamt homily, dreamt wisely, to confirm – what else was it murmuring- as Lily Broscoe laid her head on the pillow in the clean still room and heard the sea. Through the open window the voice of the beauty of the world came murmuring, too softly to hear exactly what it said”.


The whole novel is filled with some breath-taking prose and interesting simile’s, “She saw his anger fly like a pack of hounds into his eyes”.






The theme of Art is a constant, playing out neatly against the backdrop of time passing by. Sadly, Mrs. Ramsey “never had time to read (books)”. This is a recurring theme throughout. Recall when she tried to read at night but “there were only a few lines more, she would finish the story l, thought it was past bed-time”. Meanwhile, Mr. Ramsey, via the patriarchy, is afforded the opportunity to read voraciously throughout.


The painting that Mr. Ramsey “scientifically” evaluates is that of a mother and daughter which he is symbolically unable to appreciate. The only picture in his Art collection that is worth more than he paid for it, is the Banks of Kennett, where his wedding had taken place. It seems that he was only capable of appreciating Art if it was in some way relevant to him. 


When Lily Broscoe returns to an idea she had for a painting ten year previous, she opines about her “brush, the one dependable thing in a world of strife”. Roscoe also associates creating Art with the search for the meaning of life, making its importance paramount.






Should one read books twice? My general take on the matter is that life is too short. Yet the older I get, the more I find myself returning to familiar classics. There must be an exceptional quality to make me return though. It needs to have an everlasting appeal and has to exercise my brain. In a sense, the very act of returning to an exceptional novel may be a clue in and of itself. Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” fits the bill. The timelessness and beauty of the prose combined with the delicate manner that Woolf treats the ageless themes of Art and Gender are reasons enough to keep returning.


Mrs. Ramsey did not complete her journey to the Lighthouse. She died trying.

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