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Arts and Culture, History, Literature

The real St. Valentine

Beheadings, Roman brutality and a Parliament of Fowls — doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? The truth is that Februarys’ celebrated holiday — St. Valentine’s Day — has a complex and varied history.

The truth is, little is known about the origins of Valentine’s. Like many of the highlights of history, the titular Saint Valentine is shrouded in mystery. There are at least three contenders for the title — all Christian martyrs named Valentine or Valentinus. Saint Valentine of Rome perhaps has the most attractive story, being both romantic and tragic in equal measure. During the Roman Empire, Claudius ii ordered that young men be forced to become soldiers. He believed that romance and marriage weakened a man — binding him emotionally to his wife and family — and that the best way to equip the army with fitter, more resilient soldiers was to outlaw marriage. Like many things that are outlawed — be it the prohibition of the early 20th century, or novels such as Nabokov’s Lolita — they tend to take on a shiny new allure that makes the ban almost impossible to enact in reality. Thanks to Valentine, young men discovered that they could have the best of both worlds: to become excellent soldiers and marry their sweethearts in secret. For Valentine, performing these secret marriages was not just a means of helping young men, but was an act of restorative justice — he was giving back what should never have been taken away in the first place. Sadly for Valentine (and the young people he performed the ceremonies for) Claudius soon discovered his actions, and ordered that he be beheaded. It’s also thought that Valentine may have been involved in emancipating Christians from the brutal prisons of the Roman Empire — yet another reason for his execution.

If you’ve ever wondered why people send Valentine’s greetings to each other, Valentine’s story might be responsible for that too. Whilst Valentine was imprisoned in the run-up to his execution, rumour has it he feel in love with and began a romantic relationship with his jailor’s daughter. In one of his many notes to her, he signed himself off as ‘Your Valentine’: and therein a centuries-long tradition began. Whether this particular Saint Valentine is truly the inaugurator of Valentine’s Day may never be known, but perhaps this doesn’t matter. What is important is that he embodies a heroic and self-sacrificing figure — someone who fights for what they believe in. Surely far more romantic than any Hallmark Valentine’s card or candle-lit dinner?

Geoffrey Chaucer (C:1343-1400) — best-known for The Canterbury Tales — is probably not the first name that springs to mind when we think of Valentine’s Day. Yet the earliest reference that I’ve heard to Valentine’s Day in literature was found when studying Chaucer’s dream-vision poem, The Parliament of Fowls. Some believe that it is indeed the first Valentine’s poem ever written and the first reference to the day in English literature:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make.

Chaucer establishes Valentine’s day as the courting season for his Parliament of Fowls and the poem is full of the kind of picturesque imagery we associate with the modern Valentine’s Day: ‘A garden saw I full of blossoming boughs…Where sweetness evermore bountiful is’ to name but a few. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season — which may have given Chaucer the imaginative spark he required to write The Parliament Of Fowls.

Yet the idea that Chaucer popularised Valentine’s Day is still up for debate — it’s thought that the celebration of spring in the poem means that it is likely set later than mid-February. This corresponds with the theory that Chaucer wrote the poem for King Richard ii (1367–1400) during negotiations over his marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1380. This perhaps makes the denouement of the poem — where the birds opt to defer the choosing of their mate — as much of a political statement as a domestic one. One theory proposes that Chaucer is actually referring to May 3 — and this speculation is bolstered by the fact that this was the date that Richard’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia was announced.

We’ll probably never know whether Chaucer’s poem was intended to be set in winter or spring. Perhaps like the festive season, part of the reason we have Valentine’s Day in the middle of February is to give us something to celebrate in the midst of the otherwise bleak mid-winter. The conclusion to Chaucer’s poem may endorse this interpretation:

Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake,
And driven away the longe nightes blake.

Much like the first glimmers of spring, perhaps Valentine’s Day is a reminder that we too can find solace in the darkness. like the first glimmers of spring, perhaps Valentine’s Day is a reminder that we too can find solace in the darkness.

Fitness, Literature

Running Away those January Blues

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Photo by JESHOOTS.com from Pexels

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with running and exercise. On the one hand, nothing quite beats the feeling of knowing you’ve just completed 10 k. Running is also good-quality thinking time. I’ve made some pretty important — if not life-changing — decisions whilst running. It’s also a great time to be creative, to work out how you’re going to get that great idea off the ground, have that important conversation or simply get over a hurdle that has been hindering you personally or professionally. Sometimes running is none of those things though. Sometimes it’s just you and a great playlist, enjoying each other’s company. The best runs are when you feel that burst of energy and excitement, it ebbs and flows as time goes on and the run gets harder, but it’s always there, pushing you forward. And afterwards, you feel great. Runner’s high is real, but it’s easy to forget this on the occasions when you feel overwhelmed with fatigue and you just want to get the whole thing over with. Haruki Murakami even wrote a book about the combined agonies and almost sublime joy that accompany life as a runner. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running ‘chronicles Murakami’s training and completion of 62 miles or an ultra-marathon. It’s a sweeping and highly visceral love song to running — one that reminds us of the innate connection between physical competence and the power of the mind.

What I do know is that running is an important part of my life — and the health benefits, mental and physical, make the aching feet all worth it. Having had something of an exercise hiatus since the summer — and feeling about as unmotivated as it is possible to feel after the delectable indulgences of the festive season — I decided that I needed something that forced me to take action. A few years ago, in a desperate bid to get more active and lose some pounds, I came across an activity app (or game as its devotees prefer to call it.) StepBet is part of a slew of new accountability apps that make you put your money where your mouth is in order to ‘win’ the game. Other useful accountability apps that I’ve recently come across include Beeminder. With Beeminder you pledge a certain amount of money in exchange for the promise that you’ll complete or work on a certain task. The app gives you gentle nudge along the way and lets you know if you’re close to veering off track. It’s helped people lose weight, get their dream job, and even build businesses from scratch.

So back to StepBet, how does the app work? Step bet’s algorithm works out the number of steps you should take for the challenge by using your chosen device (in my case, a Fitbit Charge) and measuring your current activity level, then increasing this level to ensure the challenge is suitably challenging. I’m quite active anyway, running a few times a week and walking wherever possible, so my goal was set at 14,621 on ‘Active’ days and 17, 678 on ‘Active Days.’ Quite the challenge indeed.

So, what’s the driving motivation for signing up to StepBet? The obvious conclusion is that people just want to get fitter, lose a few pounds and start building better habits as we begin a new year. But desire alone is not enough — and this is where the genius of StepBet comes in. What people generally like is money. What people generally dislike is losing money. StepBet takes advantage of this human proclivity by making you bet on yourself and taking your money off you if you fail. If you win, on the other hand, you get back your original bet and a cut of the whole pot (including some of the losers’ money!)

Your winnings will not be particularly substantial — perhaps £10. But for those of us who are more motivated by the stick than the carrot, I think it’s the thought of losing money that is the ultimate motivator. In the game I have just completed, DrizzleMeSkinny’s Stepping In the New Year the bet is $40 or approximately £30. Not enough money to bankrupt you if something went wrong and you did lose it, but just enough money to hurt a little if you did lose it. £30 is enough money for two cinema tickets and a few drinks, a new outfit or maybe even a cheap meal out for two. It’s just enough money to stop you thinking ‘Sod it, I can’t be bothered anymore, I’ll just lose the money.’

Starting the five-week challenge in January, I probably picked the worst month of the year to start a challenge that involves lots of outdoor activity. January is for hibernation, long luxurious baths, cosy weekend lie-ins and hot chocolate, a time for lounging around and just coddling ourselves a bit. Not anymore. This challenge has seen me run and walk in rain, hail, ice, and snow. It became even more difficult when I started a new full-time job at the end of January and had to find increasingly creative ways to get my steps in. I found that eating lunch at my desk and spending my lunch break marching around the streets, going to the upstairs loo in the office, walking into the city centre after work and then walking around the streets (or sometimes the shops if it’s too cold) just about does the trick. If I didn’t get enough steps in during the day, an after-work run was the way to do it. I’ve no doubt looked ever so slightly insane to the staff in shops ranging from John Lewis to Topshop as I’ve marched up and down the isles — the bigger the shop the better. The challenge does provide a good opportunity for window shopping.

So, today, as these five long weeks have come to an end, and I’m declared a StepBet champion, what am I taking away from the experience? Well, like anything worth doing, there have been positive and negative aspects of the challenge. On the negative side, doing the challenge can be exhausting, it zaps a lot of your leisure time in the working week — time that I could spend reading that book that’s been on the shelf for months, working on my writing or, let’s be honest, binge-watching episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. It also does make walking a bit of a chore — when you’re walking to achieve something, it seems like time slows down and every step becomes an effort, a formula that you must follow in order to succeed. It makes you miss the kind of walking you do in the majestic countryside or on a warm summer’s evening. The kind of walking where I look down at my Fitbit and have magically achieved over 20,000 steps with what feels like no effort at all. That’s the kind of walking I love and the kind of walking I look forward to getting back to. The challenge also hasn’t helped me lose any weight — the main reason I signed up for StepBet. After the delicious indulgences of Christmas, I expected that by getting my diet in check and upping my activity level — I typically needed to run for over an hour a day or walk for two in order to achieve my steps — would pay dividends. Not so.

Yet, in spite of the frosty walks, the painful feet and the static scale number, the benefits of doing the challenge have been overwhelming. My fitness levels have increased drastically. My resting heart rate has completely normalised — given that I have had tachycardia most of my life, this is an incredible bonus — and I’ve saved about £15 in bus tickets.

It’s also made me reflect on the positive habits and behaviour that the challenge encourages and which I hope to continue with. Walking through the peaceful gardens near where I work is an energising experience. Time away from my desk where I can think, relax, and contemplate. It allows me to return to work in the afternoon feeling calm, balanced, and ready to be productive. Sitting at your desk and watching re-runs of The Office is just not the same. It also encouraged me to run 13.3 k — that’s a half marathon! I haven’t signed on any dotted lines yet, but it has made me consider taking my hobby up a notch and perhaps signing up for a 10k.

StepBet Challenge half-marathon
Hitting that elusive 13.3 k

The challenge has been difficult, and if I’d been working full-time since the beginning of the challenge I think it’d have been a lot more likely that my money would have ended up in the losers’ pot. I don’t think I’ll be ready to sign up for another game until the spring or summer — because the challenge does interfere with and, to some extent, rule your life while you’re doing it. I’m not ready to give up all my autonomy to a fitness app quite yet — I worship at the altar of the StepBet gods who sign up to challenges back-to-back. What StepBet has done for me has pulled me out of the apathy I was feeling — that stay-in-bed-all-day and drink buckets of tea in your dressing gown kind of apathy. That has its time and place and is a wonderful treat when done sparingly, but it shouldn’t become a habit. StepBet got me back into gear, feeling motivated, energised, and enthusiastic again — and for that, it’s worth the £30 entry fee alone.

I look forward to the challenges and triumphs that my next StepBet game brings, but in the meantime, I’m off for a weekend jog.

NOTE: this article was written the day I completed my StepBet challenge 09/02/2018, but because of life, it wasn’t published until today.

Arts and Culture, Irish Authors, Literature

The Best of 2018: Roddy Doyle’s ‘Smile’ 

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Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

Rewind back to the spring of 2018 and celebrated Irish author, Roddy Doyle, is being interviewed by Stephanie Merritt as the celebrated Hay Festival enters its 30th year. The topic is Doyle’s latest offering: a harrowing story of childhood trauma, secrets, and self-revelation. The date of Doyle’s interview is significant: the 25th of May 2018, the day of the historic Irish abortion referendum: the people of Ireland voted by a margin of 66.4% to repeal the eighth. For Doyle, the victory was not just political, but deeply personal – as a young teacher, he often landed himself in trouble when leafleting to repeal the eighth. Ireland, for Doyle, is not just his homeland, but the physical and political tapestry onto which many of his best-selling novels are woven.

In Smile one of Ireland’s most troubling associations is cast into the spotlight: the sexual abuse scandals that have, and continue, to plague the Catholic church. Yet Doyle does not attack the Catholic church as a whole, despite his criticism of institutionalised religion. In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2017, he said:

There is great comfort in the notion of the few bad apples. There are a few bad Christians, there are a few bad priests who, if you like, made the whole institution seem rotten, and it’s not, it’s fine.

Though Doyle’s novel does possess what he calls an ‘autobiographical spark.’ As a child, he was a student at the authoritarian Christian Brothers’ school. A school where discipline and sickening violence were at the top of the menu.  The novel’s title, Smile, was conceived from an encounter Doyle had as a teenager with one of the Brothers: ‘Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile’, he said. Inevitably, ceaseless taunting and torment shadowed Doyle through much of his secondary school life. It was only much later in life that Doyle found out that he had got off lightly – over a discussion with old school friends, he discovered that a significant number of his friends had been sexually abused or assaulted whilst attending the Christian Brothers’ School. And so, the premise of Smile was born.

That’s not to say that the sexual abuse scandal took Doyle by surprise. In his conversation with Merritt he recalled how certain boys would be asked to ‘stay behind’ with the Christian brothers after school. Eventually, the other boys insisted on staying behind collectively to prevent the abuse from happening – safety in numbers proving key to preventing the abuse or at least making it more difficult for the Brothers to continue undetected.

Yet Smile is not just a novel about abuse, in the same way, that Two Pints isn’t a novel that’s just about two Irish blokes in a pub. It could be described as a meditation on memory and its unreliable, labyrinth-like nature. Smile portrays memory as not just a photograph, capturing a moment in time, but as an image with fuzzy, indistinct edges, where figures loom in the background, contorted and unfamiliar. When we first meet the newly single Victor Forde, he seems quite satisfied with what middle-age has handed him. He lives in a tiny apartment in Dublin and frequents his local, Donelly’s pub, where he sinks a pint or two whilst absorbed in his book. It seems like an attempt to bridge the gap between the solitary and the social, by doing an activity that involves a little of both.

Victor feeds us snippets. As a youngster, he was a wannabe music journalist, who enjoyed moderate success. He recalls how he met his wife (now ex)- Rachel, who had an ambition of her own: to become a top celebrity chef and television personality. The middle of the novel provides a departure from much of the chaos and confusion, as the storyline gives way to romance. We watch as Victor and Rachel bond over pints of Guinness, have sex and fall in love. For now, Victor has got the girl, but the reader already has the foreknowledge to know that this is not to last. Yet the Victor and Rachel of the past muddle through their poverty and pain for what they want – Victor, a career as a novelist, Rachel, her burgeoning catering business ‘Heels on Wheels.’ As a reader we can’t see what could possibly have gone so wrong – they struggle from day-to-day, but always hand-in-hand.

Fast-forward back to the present, and Victor’s solitary existence doesn’t last long. A man in shorts and a pink shirt, who calls himself Ed Fitzpatrick, interrupts Victor’s reveries one night in the pub. Fitzpatrick claims that he went to the same Christian Brothers’ school as Victor and vividly remembers the taunting Victor encountered: ‘“What was the name of the brother that used to fancy you? … Would he fancy us now, Victor?’” Fitzpatrick seems uncouth and provocative, but ultimately harmless. But not for Victor. For Victor, the sight of Fitzpatrick triggers an irrational hatred: ‘“I wanted to hit him. I wanted to kill him.”’ For Victor, Fitzpatrick embodies the uncanny: that face in the crowd that you can’t quite place, the nightmare that threatens to engulf the quotidian nature of life. Victor has no recollection of the man who claims they were at school together; whose sister apparently had a ‘thing’ for Victor. But isn’t that just the nature of memory? It’s slippery, half-formed and prone to rusting with age. Yet Victor also finds himself drawn to Fitzpatrick in a way that he can’t explain: he is repelled and intrigued in equal measure.

The shocking conclusion of Smile forces the reader to completely re-evaluate everything that has come before. We’ve had clues along the way – Victor reveals towards the end of the novel that Rachel was not his wife, after all, but that he found it easier to refer to her as that. In one intense scene, in the middle of their blissful relationship, he awakens in the middle of the night and tells her everything: ‘I exploded. I’ve nothing to describe it. No picture or sound. I burst apart.’

This ‘bursting apart’ is Victor’s revelation of the sexual abuse he experienced during his time at the Christian Brothers’ school. Victor’s mask is starting to slip – and this is just the beginning. The climax of Smile is sure to divide readers – but since when is that a bad thing? Literature that denies us a tidy ending – think JB Priestly’s An Inspector Calls or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – has often been praised for its verisimilitude and experimental nature. Doyle provides the reader with a twist that is surreal, outrageous, perhaps even dissatisfying, yet it also, oddly, feels like the only conclusion Doyle could possibly have written. With Smile, love it or hate it, Roddy Doyle is entering new territory and pushing the boundaries of his own genre. If memory is a tapestry, in Smile, Doyle proves himself a supreme craftsman.

Tourism and attractions

Shoes on the Danube Bank

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The city of Budapest is steeped in a rich, yet volatile history. From its beginnings as part of the Roman Empire in the First Century BC to its contemporary reputation as a city of resplendence and astonishing beauty, this tale of two cities has always had a unique story to tell. Behind the neo-gothic architecture and gilded parliamentary buildings remains the stain that fascism and communism left on the city, its people, and much of Central and Eastern Europe.

The memorial entitled ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ is located on the Pest side of the Danube Promenade and pays tribute to 3,500 individuals, the majority Jews, who were killed by Arrow Cross Militiamen on the Danube between 1944 and 1945. The memorial was created in 2005 by the Hungarian sculptor Gyula Pauer and award-winning film director Can Togay. The installation captures the whole spectrum of human life: the shoes of everyone from businessmen, to wartime women and tiny toddlers is represented by the iron shoes, with everything from comfortable pumps to workmen’s boots offering us a glimpse into the identities of the individuals whose lives were destroyed by the inhumanity of Nazism. The shoes themselves tell a horror story – that of the deaths of Hungarian Jews, who, in the winter of 1944 to 1945, were captured by members of the Arrow Cross Militiamen from Jewish ghettos, forced to strip naked and remove their shoes, before being ordered to turn to face the river and being shot. The idea being that the captives would fall straight forwards, their bodies being swept away by the river, the apparent removal of what the late Jewish author Phillip Roth would call a distinctly ‘Human Stain’. The shoes, being a valuable commodity in World War II, were removed since they were thought useful and profitable. As T. Zane Reeves recounts in Shoes along the Danube: Based on a True Story, shoes that were thought too damaged or worn would have their laces removed and be used to tie victims together before they were shot. It wasn’t unusual for members of the Arrow Cross to tie together individuals or families with children, before shooting just one victim so that everyone tied together would fall into the water simultaneously, causing the remaining victims to drown.

 

Pauer and Togay’s memorial consists of iron- sculptured shoes modelled after real 1940s footwear. This particularly moving tribute displays the shoes of Jewish toddlers and children.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Pauer and Togay’s monument is its arresting simplicity. Set against the sweeping, panoramic views of the Danube river and Buda Castle, the ‘Shoes on the Danube’ offer us an opportunity for solitude, quiet and deep reflection away from the throbbing heart of the city. Like the relics of Budapest’s Roman past that are found in attractions such as the neo-Roman Fisherman’s Bastion and Buda Castle, the shoes offer us the chance to connect with Budapest’s past in a way that is individual to us – using our own imaginations to empathise with the terror and pain experienced by people whose lives were so distinct from ours, in culture, lifestyle and history, yet connected by a common thread: something as simple, necessary and universal as shoes. In a sense, the shoes themselves are a symbol of defiance against the idea that such an atrocity can be forgotten by the washing away of hundreds of bodies. The plaques that are in three different locations along the Danube river read: ‘To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944–45. Erected 16 April 2005’. Written in English, Hungarian and Hebrew, the plaques are a testament to the universal nature of remembrance and grief.

 

The atrocities that occurred on the Danube and elsewhere in Jewish ‘Ghettos’ throughout Budapest finally began to come to an end in February 1945. Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish secretary, played an instrumental role in liberating Hungarian Jews. Wallenberg began his work in 1944, with his efforts ultimately preventing the deportation, and deaths, of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Other victories ran almost parallel with Wallenberg’s efforts. In January of 1945, members of the Arrow Cross broke into a building on Vadasz Street, forcing all the inhabitants out and leading them to what appeared to be certain death. Yet this is where events took an unexpected turn. On that winter’s evening in 1945, the police, armed with bayonets, broke into the Arrow Cross house and all the victims were rescued. This was not the final chapter in the liberation of Hungarian Jews, yet it marked the beginning of a radical change: something resembling hope. Survivors included Lars Ernster, professor of chemistry, pioneer, and prolific author, who later joined the board of the Nobel Foundation – proving that virtue sometimes has its own way of rewarding the good.

The ‘Jewish quarter’ of Budapest now forms part of Budapest’s famed ‘party district’ – a refreshing and invigorating antidote to its associations with Jewish ghettos in the 1940s. Of course, Budapest is not somewhere to forget or ignore its history – and alongside the quirky architecture, street murals and shabby-chic Ruin Bars, you’ll also find the ‘Great Synagogue’ on Dohány Street: the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. It seems to me that Budapest’s Jewish Quarter acknowledges and mourns the horrors of the past, whilst celebrating its cultural heritage and the capacity for transformation and progress.

Sources: 

Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center 

T. Zane Reeves, Ph.D., Shoes Along the Danube: Based on a True Story (Durham: Strategic Book Group, 2011), p. 190.

Curtis, Michael (14 May 2018). “Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East”. Transaction Publishers. Retrieved 14 May 2018 – via Google Books.

Arts and Culture, Philosophy, Science

Jeremy Bentham: the man behind the auto-icon

Jeremy Bentham UCL exhibition

For those of you who don’t know, Jeremy Bentham is something of a name around the Campus of University College London, in Bloomsbury. The moral philosopher turned-spiritual founding father of the university is perhaps less well known for his moral philosophy and writings on legislative reform than his eccentricity and peculiar perspective on mortality. His auto-icon – otherwise known as his straw-stuffed skeleton – has recently been on display at the Met Breuer Museum in New York. Bentham was featured in an exhibition called ‘Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body, 1300-now.’ But lest UCL students fear that they have lost him forever as he finally achieves his dream of travelling to America, be reassured that Bentham will return in time for UCL graduation selfies in September.

Who was Jeremy Bentham?

Jeremy Bentham was an English Philosopher and social reformer, considered as the founder of Utilitarianism – the principle of ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’ Born in Spitalfields, London on 15 February 1748, the young Bentham was a child prodigy. By three he was studying Latin, and at twelve he attended Queen’s College, University of Oxford. If you’ve just graduated from university and are feeling like an underachiever, Jeremy Bentham is probably not the man to compare yourself to! Yet despite his prolific intelligence, Bentham was something of an oddball – he fondly referred to his home as ‘the hermitage’ and himself as the ‘hermit,’ he had two walking sticks that he named Dapple and Dobbin and spent many years of his life sharing a bed with his pet pig. As you have probably guessed from this information, Bentham was a fan of his solitude, although he occasionally allowed friends to dine with him, provided that he could create a list of conversation topics beforehand.

Jeremy Bentham’s moral philosophy

‘Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove.’

Prior to the appearance of his auto-icon at UCL, complete with the matching pub, The Jeremy Bentham (now regrettably turned into a branch of the Simmons chain, though they’ve retained his head), Bentham was best-known as a moral philosopher, social reformer, and jurist. His utilitarian principle has spawned a series of fascinating thought experiments, such as this one by Harvard Lecturer Michael Sandel, that bring into question the ethical implications of the principle. Bentham was also the inceptor of the famous Panopticon – the model of a prison where inmates could be seen at all times by a single watchman. Bentham’s panopticon went on to inspire the design of prisons the world over: Presidio Modelo prison in Cuba, is one such example. Commenting on the prison’s design, Bentham said:

The building circular, a cage glazed…By blinds and other contrivances, the inspectors concealed […] from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipotence.

No wonder Bentham’s panopticon inspired Orwell’s dystopian surveillance classic 1984!

Bentham’s special relationship with University College London was born out of their shared principles. Founded in 1826 and the third oldest English university after Oxford and Cambridge, UCL was the first university to accept those traditionally excluded from education – women, non-conformists, Catholics, and Jews. Bentham’s large estate was used to fund the building of University College London: and thereon began London’s global university.

Jeremy Bentham and death

Despite being a well-respected Philosopher and Philanthropist, where Bentham truly gained infamy was regarding his interest in death and bodily preservation. In 1831 he wrote to the London City Council asking if he could replace the shrubs in his garden with mummified corpses as they would be ‘more aesthetic than flowers.’ Bentham took his fascination with the dead beyond that of the horticultural when he penned a pamphlet titled Auto-Icon; Or Farther Uses of the Dead to the living, inspired by the preserved heads of the New Zealand Maori. Although Auto-Icons of the dead have not exactly become the norm, Jeremy intended his pamphlet to universalise Corpse-preservation – to make death useful, and, to some extent, to normalise it – perhaps not such a bad idea given that society (in the 19th century and now) tends to treat dying and death as a dirty word, often still reduced to whispered conversations and condolence cards.

In order to put his words into action, Bentham left his body to close friend Doctor Thomas Southwood Smith – the preservation involved removing the flesh from his bones, before placing his internal organs in jars resembling ‘wine decanters.’ Bentham’s skeleton was then pinned together with wire and padded with hay, before donning his favourite suite. The only part of the process that did not go to plan was the preservation of Bentham’s head – a mishap on Southwood Smith’s part resulted in Bentham resembling more of a sunburnt Gollum than the magnificence that Bentham himself had envisaged.

Still, all was not lost. In place of Bentham’s real head was a wax (and much more aesthetically pleasing) replacement head, whilst his real head was relegated to a vault at UCL. A whole host of rumours surround the severed head – a rumour that UCL’s rivals King’s College London stole his head and played football with it as revenge for UCL students stealing their mascot persists around campus today. The head itself recently enjoyed renewed attention when it was brought out of its vault and displayed in UCL’s Octagon Gallery, as part of their ground-breaking exhibition on What does it mean to be human? – which explored a topic that would have fascinated Bentham himself: what relationship do the dead have with the living?

Proving that his Auto-Icon has left a legacy beyond that which even Bentham himself may have anticipated, Bentham’s body is still carefully wheeled out to attend University Council Meetings (though sadly he is not thought to be in the right condition to influence UCL’s political future, so he is recorded as ‘present, but not voting.’) It, therefore, seems fitting to leave the final words of this article with Bentham himself, whose voice and presence still appears as canny and knowing as it did over two-hundred years ago:

Twenty Years, after I am dead, I shall be a despot, sitting in my chair with dapple in my hand, & wearing one of the coats I wear now.

Sources:

QI: Quite Interesting
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

Uncategorized

The Tyrant and His Enablers

Wish I’d read this before my Shakespeare final. As fascinating and engaging as ever.

Longreads

Stephen Greenblatt | Excerpt adapted from Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics | W. W. Norton & Company | May 2018 | 14 minutes (3,827 words)

From the early 1590s, at the beginning of his career, all the way through to its end, Shakespeare grappled again and again with a deeply unsettling question: how is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?

“A king rules over willing subjects,” wrote the influential sixteenth-century Scottish scholar George Buchanan, “a tyrant over unwilling.” The institutions of a free society are designed to ward off those who would govern, as Buchanan put it, “not for their country but for themselves, who take account not of the public interest but of their own pleasure.” Under what circumstances, Shakespeare asked himself, do such cherished institutions, seemingly deep-rooted and impregnable, suddenly prove fragile? Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being…

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Arts and Culture, Film, Horror

Film Review: Hereditary – ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ Gone Wrong

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The Following Review Contains Some Spoilers. Avoid if you have not seen Hereditary or wish to avoid spoilers.

This is a controversial opinion: I didn’t like Hereditary. As a big fan of smart and original horror films, the macabre flick that hit cinemas in mid-June has been on my list of must-see Summer films since the buzz surrounding it began. And there has been a lot of buzz. It has a very respectable 89% of positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, The Sundance Film Festival called it ‘The Scariest Horror Movie Ever’ and critics queued up to lavish it with praise. The Vulture’s David Edelstein described it as making the viewer ‘see things you can never unsee and feel pain you can never un-feel’, whilst The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it a ‘brilliant fear machine.’ So it was perhaps no wonder that my expectations were sky-high.

The premise is a very solid one. When the stony and mysterious matriarch, 78-year-old Ellen Taper Leigh passes away, she leaves a chilling legacy behind in the form of an unidentified hereditary illness (I guess the clue is in the title!) Her death leaves her family devastated, but probably not in the way you would expect. You see, Leigh was far from a lovable Betty White figure – we get the impression that her passing is more of a relief than a source of bereavement. She leaves behind her daughter, Annie Graham, played by the ever-sensational Toni Collette, and her troubled grandchildren Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff). Shapiro is wonderfully creepy as Grandma’s favourite – when we see her carefully cutting off a pigeon’s head as though she is merely crafting at school and staring statue-like into the camera, it quickly becomes clear that we’ve got a child villain to rival even The Omen’s Damien. It’s a pity, therefore that Shapiro is underused, as is her fiendish accomplice, Grandma Taper Lee, and although director Ari Aster has very good reasons for this, the result is that it shifts Hereditary from spine-chilling extravaganza to occasionally farcical.

That is not to say that Hereditary does not have some good moments – it’s a cleverly crafted film, with everything from Charlie’s creepy decapitation of the pigeon, to the inscription of Paimon’s symbol on the phone post that kills Charlie, all pointing towards Hereditary’s grizzly conclusion. Charlie’s decpitation which occurs less than an hour into the film has become the most talked about scene in the movie and for good reason. It’s director Ari Aster’s favourite and the whole sequence is simultaneously sickening, brutal and unnervingly real. After going to a party with her pot-loving brother, Charlie has an allergic reaction to chocolate cake containing nuts. Whilst her frantic brother attempts to drive her to the hospital, Charlie sticks her head out of the window to try and gasp for air, before being accidentally decapitated by a phone post. Rather than calling the ambulance or his parents, a shell-shocked Peter simply drives home and goes to bed, leaving his parents to discover their daughter’s horrific death the next morning. The sequence switches between close-ups of Peter’s eyes, Collette’s wailing and finally the image of Charlie’s bloodied head surrounded by insects. Hereditary certainly isn’t afraid to be shocking or ugly – and here it works to brilliant effect. But the rest of the film just cannot sustain this. You do not need to be a first-class film critic to know that Hereditary is intended to be artistic, innovative and, much like Darren Aronovsky’s Mother!, sometimes hideously over-the-top. To read it as a metaphor of and a meditation on the pernicious and often insidious impact that mental health conditions can have on entire families is a smart and compelling idea. All these ideas can be appreciated and admired, without necessarily approving of the way they were executed (pardon the pun!)

I’d also venture that disliking or feeling indifferent towards Hereditary is not a sign that mass culture has infected our ability to appreciate a well-made film. Although many modern audiences undoubtedly lap up the likes of the Saw franchise and its butcher-circus, having never been a fan of gore for the sake of gore, I don’t think Hereditary’s rejection of mainstream horror tropes was what made me dislike it. After all, the film contains plenty of bloody-violence – sometimes well done, as in the aforementioned scene, but sometimes it seemed it was playing a little too much on its ability to shock and show macabre images that other films dare not. The problem at the heart of Hereditary, for me, is that whilst it draws heavily on some of the best horror films of all time – Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist have been two popular comparisons – it fails to leave its audience in awe. It ventures towards an exploration of the paranoia and neuroses that is part of everyday living, but unlike Rosemary’s Baby it fails to deliver the final, gut-wrenching pay-off that could have rendered it comparable to such classics.