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@MrUlster

Book review – The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Alain de BOTTON)

I have read most of de Botton’s books, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work took me the longest to finish, partly because I am a slow reader, but I blame more on the editing. The chapters are his brief immersions in ten jobs, across the professions.

While absorbing his philosophical reflections was at times illuminating, often his presentations was one of the mundaneness of it all.

Yes, work can be mundane. But for many (if not most), it provides an important sense of worth.

de Botton didn’t ask workers what they enjoy about their work, if they derived any pleasure, even if only social.

Because most work brings people together — colleagues we call them — and for some the proverbial water cooler gossip or post-day pint makes the toil bearable.

Indeed, I would have liked to learn de Botton’s thoughts on the increasing remoteness of work — hot desking, meetings in coffee shops, virtual meetings via Skype calls.

Here, the first two chapters — on cargo shipping and logistics — speak to the physical dimension of our consumption.

But they also provide scope to ponder about how we make those purchases, frequently from our beds tapping an iPad rather than a journey to a town centre.

de Botton serendipitously finds himself in a graveyard of jumbo planes, and he uses the metaphor fittingly to conclude the chapter and the book.

Perhaps this was his intention all along — to make the reader endure the tedium, to learn that our jobs are just ‘matchstick protests’ in the wave of life.

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Essays Photography

Book review – Failed It!

Failed It! by Erik Kessels is an easy read of his encouragement of embracing failure as a means of revealing a better discovery. He intersperses his quips with visual inspirations, from both the intentional (by seasoned artists) and the unintentional (by reconsidering the work of some amateurs).

The strength of this short book is demonstrating how play — and a sense of humour — can create something unique, breaking away from the mundane.

I appreciated his sharing of the work of Heike Bollig, André Thijssen, Kent Rogowski, Ruth van Beek, and Joachim Schmid.

But how far does one live with such an approach?

For example, Kessels writes, “Children learn by trying and failing … But children also live in a dream world of play, where mistakes have no consequences, nor are they burdened by the terror of self-consciousness.”

“So why shouldn’t adults do the same?” he asks.

Perhaps because as adults, some mistakes do have consequences. And I would argue that overcoming the terror of our environmental conditioning (finish school, get that job, marry that person, have a family) requires more than acting like a child.

Being a failed parent or spouse may enrich your own life, but there’s a difference between the discarding of literal scraps of paper versus human relationships.

So I’ll take Failed It! for what it is — don’t seek perfection when exploring your own creativity.

But the learning process for emotional intelligence is a harder read.

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Essays Photography

Book review – Une Visit chez Magritte (Duane MICHALS)

René Magritte was the first artist that I identified with — particularly his sense of humour yet thought provoking presentations of surrealism.

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Audio Essays Photography

Surrendering one’s identity to the internet – Home Instruction Manual

What happens when you ask an online chat room how to make a home?

In an interview-style format with about 50 people attending, Belfast Exposed Curator Ciara Hickey asked artist Jan McCullough to share her journey.

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@SharedFuture

John Hume: Irish peacemaker. Discuss.

John Hume: Irish peacemaker. Discuss.
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
15 December 2015

Sean Farren and Denis Haughey have edited a new book, John Hume: Irish Peacemaker, published by Four Courts Press. As part of this book launch, there is a series of panel discussions, for which this event took place at the Canada Room, Queen’s University Belfast.

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Essays Photography

Book review – Frank Browne: A Life through the Lens (David and Edwin DAVISON)

God can sanctify photography. With a poem by Pope Leo XIII, Colin Ford explains the basis for how Irish Jesuit Frank Browne acquired a camera from his bishop uncle, at the age of 17, and kept making images throughout his priestly life.

Browne took his camera everywhere. His early trips to Europe were the apparent source of his self-teaching of technique, analysing the works of Masters’ painters in Venice and Florence.

He travelled widely, to the front lines in France and Flanders during World War One (serving as chaplain) and further to Australia (where he went to recuperate after suffering mustard gassing).

Yet I would argue that it is his persistent images of Ireland over the decades, emerging as a new republic, that leaves a significantly valuable legacy. Photos of countryside life are complemented with ones of industrialisation.

20150127 Frank Browne - Titanic Cobh

Browne is known primarily for photos that he took during the maiden voyage of the Titanic. His first class ticket was only for Southampton-Cherbourg-Cobh (his uncle never intended for him to emigrate to America!). With the sinking of the ship, his precious images were in highest demand by newspapers.

Kodak thanked him by offering a lifelong supply of film. Yet Browne was responsible for developing the film and paying for any prints. Consequently, many of his photos remained unpublished, until Father Edward O’Donnell discovered a large trunk, long after Browne’s death.

Father O’Donnell proceeded to publish a series of Frank Browne photo books, including Frank Browne’s Titanic Album. More recently he has written a full biography in The Life and Lens of Father Browne.

20150127 Frank Browne - At Keem Beach

But Frank Browne: A Life through the Lens, by Donald and Edwin Davison and the subject of this review, is a more artistic critique of his best work, copiously illustrated and drawn from his trove of 42,000 images.

In a chapter titled “Father Browne photographer of the twentieth Century”, Donald Davison explains how Father Browne was influenced initially by pictorialism but also with modernism.

Browne was not constrained by any particular photographic style, though reportage-style stands out. Even here, he didn’t always obey the decisive moment – sometimes he would get children and take off their shoes and socks for his more desired, rustic look of the countryside.

One could argue that because Browne did not concentrate on any particular method, he never mastered his craft.

But I don’t believe Father Brown was ever seeking photography perfection; his formal training was spiritual, remember.

Instead, we’ve been blessed with the vision of a man who understood tone and mood, natural and human, who recorded the matter of life wherever he found himself.

I highly recommend Frank Browne: A Life through the Lens, by Donald and Edwin Davison, for its approach to the subject from a photographer’s perspective.

Frank Browne: A Life through the Lens accompanies an exhibition at the Andrews Gallery, Titanic Building, Belfast, 14 January-31 March 2015.

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#TeamBev

Book review — Touching Distance (James CRACKNELL)

20131001 Touching Distance

Reading this book was always going to have a special meaning to me, as my wife had a stroke about two years ago. Like James and Bev, my wife and I are writing a book together about our experience. We honestly came up with the same chapter layout as them — alternative narrations.

In these types of post-tragedy biographies, there are introductory chapters of the characters’ backgrounds. A get-to-know-you before the injury sequence. This is fine, but in Touching Distance, the full first half of the book is a repetitive account of Cracknell’s numerous athletic achievements. He is a very competitive individual; I get it.

At the moment of his near fatal injury, the engagement with the reader much improves, perhaps because both Bev and James are describing their separate perspectives of the events unfolding before them.

I write as a carer for a stroke survivor, so I have an empathy with Bev’s words. But I can attest that my wife would sympathise with James’s.

Bev describes learning the new vocabulary of brain injury as “taking bullets” that she would have to carry for the rest of her life. This is true.

And this unwelcomed circumstance reflects the wider dimension of changed lives. At times Bev tells James, “You’re not the man I married” and “I still miss James.” James has told the world, “I’m no longer James Cracknell.” His description of how the injury has affected his outlook is very honest and in my opinion, the most compelling part of his story.

Both mention how it’s the invisible dimension of brain injury that is more difficult to deal with. This is true, too.

Case in point was James’s description of neuropsychologist and psychiatrist tests:

“They only knew me as a patient post-accident but not the person I was or what I was capable of before the accident. So how could they impose these ceilings on my recovery based on results from generalised tests?”

We have the same complaint. In fact, neither of us were ever asked about our personalities or habits pre-injury. I still don’t understand scientifically how anyone could make predictions without examining what made a person tick before an injury.

James also recalled a qualified compliment he received after giving television commentary: “That was really good,” he was told, “especially for someone with a brain injury.” Like anyone with a disability, James said that he wants to be judged as a person, not someone with a brain injury.

With me present, a specialist once told my wife that before speaking she could tell strangers that she has had a stroke (to explain why her voice isn’t as clear). I counter-suggested that she should not, to reduce the likelihood of her being patronised. Unlike James, my wife is not famous, so it has been easier for her to present herself as herself, and not someone with a brain injury.

Both James and Bev are told that the majority of marriages fail when one has had a brain injury. It is easy to see why. Bev describes how the dynamics of a marriage of mutuality changes to one of physical and mental dependency. It’s not easy to deal with, I know. And James acknowledges this, in describing his marriage now as more of a business partnership. Both want their relationship to move back towards the centre.

Bev tells of the experience of a new friend whose marriage came undone three years after her husband’s accident. Bev asked what was the final straw? “His lack of confidence. It killed me. I couldn’t live with it.” Bev said that she knew what she meant.

Thankfully, my wife still has confidence: “If we’ve survived this, we can survive anything … it’s the ultimate challenge.”

So although Touching Distance isn’t the best written prose, like dealing with an unwanted challenge, it is worth persisting with to reach a positive conclusion and hope for a better future.

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@MrUlster

Book review – To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper LEE)

20120403 To Kill a Mockingbird

Somehow I escaped reading this essential school text, with its story of racism in 1930s American South. Living in Northern Ireland, I draw parallels with sectarianism, with its similar bigotry and prejudice.

To Kill a Mockingbird was part of a Unite Against Hate campaign event at Parliament Buildings in Northern Ireland, which I’ve written about separately.

There is one passage that directly deals with religious difference:

Miss Maudie settled her bridgework. “You know old Mr Radley was a foot-washing Baptist –”
“That’s what you are, ain’t it?” (says Scout)
My shell’s not that hard, child. I’m just a Baptist.”

I particularly like the lesson imparted by Scout’s father Atticus, on whether he was right or wrong to take on the doomed case of Tom Robinson:

“Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
“Atticus, you must be wrong…”
“How’s that?”
“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…”
“They’re certainly entitled to think that … but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to be able to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscious.”

That made me think of anti-Nazi campaigner Sophie Scholl’s exclaim, “We are your conscious!”

Indeed, after a classroom lesson on democracy, dictatorship and Hitler, Scout asked her older brother:

“[Miss Gates] went on today about how bad it was him treatin’ the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? I mean have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?”
“Gracious no, Scout. What’s eatin’ you?”
“Well, coming out of the court-house that night Miss Gates was … talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home?”

So, it’s fine to agree what you deem wrong wherever it happens, but harder to address your own moral hypocrisies.

It’s clear why To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading for all, and why it has stood the test of time for over 50 years.

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@MrUlster

Book review – Paperboy (Tony MACAULAY)

20100901 Review Paperboy

Tony Macaulay is a respected professional community relations and youth worker based in Belfast. For example, he has written independently, “A discussion paper proposing a five phase process for the removal of ‘peace walls’ in Northern Ireland”.

This book is his story of being a 12-year-old paperboy, living in the Shankill area of West Belfast. I, too, was a 12-year-old paperboy, but that’s where my shared experience starts and ends.

Tony so well tells his story. It is actually difficult for adults to write in the prose of childhood. The retrospective voice is usually readily apparent. But here in Paperboy, you really do see the world from this boy’s experiences.

It’s a world of not quite comprehending the sectarianism and violence around you, and doing your best to get on with what really matters to most 12-year-old boys — your mates, your music, and earning some pocket money to spend on your girlfriend.

And just like a youngster, there are key words that regularly reappear in the dialogue — Sharon Burgess, “the only pacifist paperboy in Belfast”, Bay City Rollers, “so I was”.

Indeed, Tony writes in the local vernacular so well that the only criticism could be that he didn’t include a glossary! This Yank has lived here long enough to not need one for Paperboy (!), and some phrases like, “God love the wee dote” probably pass without translation, but me thinks Tony should provide one for the American edition (“Och, ballicks!”). And/or subtitles when the film comes out!

Amidst all the humour, though, there is the reality of the environment that Paperboy grows up in. He notices more and more “peace walls” — “… we were brilliant at walls in Belfast — they were going up everywhere, higher and higher, all around me”.

It’s actually his dad who says to a neighbour who is demanding even more walls, “Did you never think that it might be our side that’s bein’ walled in?”

And 35 years on, we have made little progress on dismantling our walls in Northern Ireland, whether physically or metaphorically. May Paperboy encourage more of us to put more effort into this.

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@MrUlster

Book review – Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know (Tim JUDAH)

20100319 Kosovo cover
I was once asked if I thought the Northern Ireland conflict was difficult to comprehend. Not really, I replied. What confounded me was that as so many people within Northern Ireland understood the various factors involved, why work towards any resolution took so long.

Put another way, I found comprehending the geo-political situation of former Yugoslavia more difficult. For most of its former republics, resolutions were via the bloody wars of the 1990s.

And then there’s Kosovo, with its independence declared in 2008, but how much resolved?

For the sake of my day job, I had to get a good grasp of the situation of Kosovo. A good friend endorsed my short-listed choice of Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Tim Judah, Balkan Correspondent for The Economist.

In the Author’s Note, Judah says that his book is to give general readers a straightforward introduction. He well achieves this. But a “general reader” who has some education in international relations, or at least is an avid reader of The Economist, will find the introduction that much easier to absorb. This is not because Kosovo is not easily accessible; it is. But there is a good amount of history and culture to take in the book’s concise 160 pages.

Judah does well in the first two chapters to provide cultural and historical overviews of Albanians and Serbs. Of course, this has to be a little superficial in such a generalist book. But an important highlight is that for Albanians, and particularly for those residing in Kosovo, it was language more than the role of the church that influences their nationalism. This contributed to a delayed nation-building — surrounding peoples and places having several hundred years’ head start — with its own consequences.

We are told how the Serbs see Kosovo as their Jerusalem (p. 18), with the full poem provided, “The Downfall of the Serbian Empire”. What interests me is that this is not the only contested place in the world with a Jerusalem-status, the sense of birthright and/or redemption.

The chapters are the right length, covering the essentials while moving you along to the next episode.

As in other contested places, the education system plays an important, often crucial role. For some decades, Albanians enjoyed an Albanian-language education (but while still needing to learn Serbian). However, when Serbian authorities clamped down on this in 1991, an underground, parallel system was created (p. 73). The consequence was that hereafter young Kosovo Albanians would be instilled with more nationalist thinking than under the “brotherhood and unity” era of Yugoslavia. For me, the significance is whether ethnic-based education is part of a wider whole or a particular sect.

Likewise, Judah describes the re-establishment of the Kosovo police service, one of the notable achievements  (p. 95), moving from no service at all in 1999 to one comprising over 7,000 officers (6,082 Albanian; 746 Serbs; 414 others) in 2007. However, with Kosovo independence, retaining an integrated, singular police service has become more of a challenge. Here, I hope there are applicable lessons from the recent years of the reform of policing in Northern Ireland.

Judah explains one particularly curiosity — multiple international calling codes (p. 99). Essentially, in the break up of Yugoslavia, Serbia retained code +381. For cell/mobile phones, new Kosovo wasn’t going to use that nor the Serbian +063, so it acquired underused Monaco +377. I can attest that in areas such as Mitrovica, individuals who need to contact both Albanians and Serbs will carry two mobile phones/SIM cards.

There is a good description of the Ahtisaari Plan (setting out Kosovo’s future, sans independence but with “supervised independence”) (Chapter 10). While this plan was blocked by the UN Security Council, all EU members backed it and proceeded to establish an International Civilian Office (ICO), to deal with matters of law and headed by an International Civilian Representative (ICR).

Then, after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, the EU replied by providing a Special Representative (EUSR), responsibilities which include “promoting overall EU coordination and coherence in Kosovo”.

The thing is, the ICR and EUSR are the same person: Pieter Feith. On one hand, Feith’s remit is to the EU’s unanimous consent to the Ahtisaari Plan, while on the other hand he serves as EUSR even though not all EU members recognise Kosovo’s independence. This conundrum is not lost on the local population.

Judah also succinctly puts the Kosovo situation in a global context of international relations (Chapter 12). Barring the wars that took place in the region in the 1990s, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, for the most part, reflected the disintegration of the Soviet Union, in that there was a reverting to previously existing republics (the “R” in USSR). Except Kosovo, which was not a pre-existing republic. Its declaration of independence, or at least EU semi-protectorate de facto status, is an unprecedented situation for the EU, which must proceed intelligently as other nations/subregions express their self-determination.

There’s clearly more to say on this matter, and Judah’s book is not the place for it. Indeed, while those with deeper knowledge of any particular dimension of the Kosovo scene won’t find sustenance by Judah’s overview, I found it an ideal primer and very useful in my subsequent visit. I sincerely recommend Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know as the first book to read in the path of unravelling the threads of politics and history in Kosovo.

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@MrUlster

Book review – The Storm (Vince CABLE)

20090612 The Storm cover
Vince Cable is the chief economic spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, and his lucid explanations of the credit crunch and overall current parlous global economic situation has seen him well sought after by mainstream news media outlets. For good reason — his analysis has been proven spot on.

In his book, The Storm: The World Economic Crisis & What It Means, Cable reviews both distant and more recent economic history to put the current situation in context. This includes a chapter on the surge in commodity prices in 2008. Here, his professional experience as a chief economist for Shell provides credence to his arguments.

Cable does his best to present the intricacies of international finance and macroeconomics to the lay reader, but having some education in economics does no harm, e.g. appreciating the diference between a trade balance and balance of payments.

My favoured sections were towards the end, when Cable suggests some actions for the way forward:

  • Central bank monetary policy to deal with asset prices as well as inflation (a la Irving Fisher; the Swedish experience)
  • Remove mortgage tax relief (USA) (reduce over-borrowing) and business interest tax relief (UK) (reduce excessive leverage)
  • Replace cash salary bonuses with stock with delayed redemption
  • Agreed international accounting standards and reporting (greater transparency)

More challenging is Cable’s suggestion for a new multilateralism that places Asia “at the heart” of the world economy.

Indeed, The Economist published an excellent article that described the role that China’s gigantic trade surplus had in flooding the American financial markets with funds needing investing (“When a flow becomes a flood”).

Cable calls for a New Bretton Woods, hosted in a place like Singapore, with key participants the USA, China, Japan, the eurozone, and India.

Part of Cable’s motivation is to prevent economic nationalism, or “state capitalism”, which encourages protectionism under numerous guises, including “economic security”. Cable isn’t predicting a repeat of what happened in the 1930s interwar years, but he repeatedly paints an ominous picture of what a failure to properly address the current issues could mean.

Cable has an enduring faith in liberal markets producing wealth and prosperity, which includes public services, and implores with policy makers to take the appropriate actions to ensure this remains the case.

My criticism would only be that I wished Cable had presented more detail on his own suggested actions, as well as on what he would deem as best practices around the world. Perhaps that’s the scope of a future volume.

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Essays Photography

Book review – Eyewitness (Brendan MURPHY)

 

I always wanted this book, Eyewitness: Four Decades of Northern Life, by Brendan Murphy, but the original cover price of £30 was a little steep for me. Thankfully, the Bookshop at Queen’s has it discounted to £8. I only had to wait 6 years.

It is a brilliant book. Murphy’s photographs may not be the polished style of trained photo-journalists — the shots you see in AP and AFP — but they are blessed with sincerity and honesty.

As Murphy admits himself, when he started photography he missed many shots, taking time to learn what he had to do. It is worth reading Seamus Kelters’ text, as it is a truly interesting discovery of Murphy’s thinking behind the camera lens.

Murphy’s accounts reveal truths that make sense for those who live in Northern Ireland, but perhaps others find peculiar.

For example, he explains how the boxing arena is “one of the few truly politically correct places”:

“Nationalist and Unionists, loyalists and republicans, police even, all crush in side by side. Any animosity is left at the door. The atmosphere is no less charged for that … Religion doesn’t matter. All that’s important is a man’s ability.”

And there’s the cross-community protection among fellow photographers:

“Strangers would expect Catholic and Protestant photographers to be at each other’s throats. That was never the case. Nothing was further from reality. Protestant photographers have told me to stick close to them when we’ve been in fiercely loyalist areas. I’ve returned the favour. If they have faults and frailties, local press photographers also have great strength and integrity.”

The book’s title is apt: this is a journey of one man’s firsthand account of what he saw and recorded on film. So much has changed over 40 years — technically with cameras and historically with Northern Ireland politics — but Murphy has remained true to his community-oriented background.

This is demonstrated in Murphy’s coverage of sectarian attacks:

“Few bombing or shootings ever happened in middle-class areas … they usually wouldn’t want the attack highlighted. They would want to get on with their lives. Working class areas are different. Friends and family mostly live in the same area. The entire community was in the same boat. They would insist what had happened could not be swept away with the broken glass.”

Indeed, the last photograph in the book is an otherwise unremarkable photo of a Belfast corner shop, taken in 1974. But then comes the accompanying description: “The corner shop and bar were the hub of a community … More social work went on in these places than a host of government agencies. They were lost to redevelopment and supermarkets. With them went a way of life.”

Thankfully, Brendan Murphy remains a freelance photographer, and his new photographs regularly appear in the Irish News.