Tag Archives: Alasdair Dick

Books: Pure by Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller makes a strong case for the continuing popularity of historical fiction, with his novel set in pre-revolutionary France…



With books like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and The Maid by Kimberly Cutter, historical fiction is riding a wave of popularity at the moment. A genre that was once seen as (quite literally) passé is coming back with a vengeance and Andrew Miller’s book Pure can be seen as part of this revolt.

The work, which is set in pre-revolutionary France, follows a young engineer who has been commissioned to oversee the destruction of a Parisienne church and its cemetery. The engineer, Jean-Baptiste Barratte, encounters many obstacles in this project of progress and the tension between the past and the present, the spiritual and the rational, is a constant feature of Miller’s work. We are persistently reminded of this as one world (the cemetery) is destroyed and another is created. Miller’s Paris is beautifully depicted and, as you read it, you join Barratte in making this cemetery your new home.

From a fictional point of view it is a brilliantly crafted tale which vividly depicts the grime and filth of eighteen-century Paris and Miller’s morbid obsession with death shines through his writing. The characters are all engaging (if a little stereotypical) and the organ player, Armand, is one of the treasures of this piece of fiction. Miller’s style seems to have adapted many ideas from later French writers and it is easy to see the influence of Zola, Flaubert and Maupassant echoing throughout. The danger, with historical fiction is, as William Skidelsky wrote in the Guardian,

even as it strives to inhabit an earlier age, it makes you aware this is what it’s doing, by straining to ape a period style, or advertising its research.

However with this book the reader is unaware of any ‘straining’ or ‘advertising’, and what Miller has created is a true piece of fiction rather than a History book. By oversimplifying the historical context of eighteenth-century Paris and focussing on one particular tension (past/present) Miller is able to engage readers within this very foreign context. He does not obscure the fiction with unnecessary History and, although historians may turn their noses up at such works, for the wider audience it provides a very vivid and interesting story.

Historical fiction is a balancing act and Andrew Miller has proved to be a master of the scales. However Pure is not without its weaknesses and some areas of the plot are notably weaker than others. Whilst some areas of the storyline are analysed with depth, he barely scratches the surface of others. Similarly, characters like the prostitute, the crazy clergyman and the drunken Frenchman are not novel inventions. However despite these minor criticisms, Miller’s work has raised important issues whilst weaving a story of great intrigue and fascination.


Alasdair Dick has just completed his MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge and is currently undertaking a TEFL Course in Toronto. He writes about anything from European politics to the importance of Jurassic Park. You can read more at his blog here, and find him on Twitter @AlasdairDick


Time for an organ opt-out?

The UK should seriously consider opt-out organ donation…


Do we need a nudge in right direction?


In a recent edition of PMQs organised by The Guardian, the entrepreneur Richard Branson asked David Cameron:

Will you support the opt-out organ policy?

In response, the Prime Minister said that:

It’s very difficult to have a policy that basically says if you haven’t filled in the form, your organs can be harvested without your permission.

Cameron’s response seems to be innocently defending British liberty but his words expose a man who is at odds with his own ‘great ideas.’ Let me explain.

Like many other readers, including myself, David Cameron was profoundly affected by Richard Thaler’s work Nudge. The book essentially says that if we offer people the right choices (nudge them), they will make the right decisions. For instance, in an Amsterdam airport, misdirected urine in the gents was reduced by 80% by painting a housefly on the porcelain that users could aim at. Little nudge, big difference for airport cleaners. Thaler has termed this notion: libertarian paternalism. A term that would make J.S. Mill turn in his grave. Nevertheless Cameron, upon becoming PM, installed a ‘nudge-unit’ in his government. Over the last few years, the unit has attempted to improve economic behaviour, health and general wellbeing through choice architecture. The nudge theory is very convincing and indeed it does, I believe, have the potential to improve societies but I fear, like Aditya Chakrabortty, that Cameron has corrupted this grand idea. In the Nudge, Thaler extols the virtues of opt-out organ donation but Cameron, that apostle of nudging, shies away from it. Like a child in Woolworths, he is picking out the bits of the theory he likes and I fear it may be more of a show for the press than a commitment to choice architecture.

Enough about DC, what about the rest of us? Well to put it bluntly we are lazy and irrational. Just because we know we have to save for our pensions, doesn’t mean that we won’t go out and buy new clothes. Also just because we want to donate organs, doesn’t mean we will bother calling up to get ourselves on the list. In England at the moment, there is a shortage of organ donations with around 7,000 people on the waiting list at any one time. The majority of organs are donated by patients who are determined to be ‘brain dead’ and permission is granted by their next of kin. The organ opt-out system will reduce the need for such difficult decisions and, if you do indeed feel strongly about keeping your organs, you can of course opt-out, hence the name. If people can easily opt-out from donating organs then the system is not encroaching on liberty but providing you with the freedom of choice. However, does it work? I will leave you with the startling figure from Thaler’s book. In Germany, which operates an opt-in system only 12% of citizens gave their consent whereas in Austria, where there is an opt-out system, 99% did. Opting-out is truly the only option.


Alasdair Dick has just completed his MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge and is currently undertaking a TEFL Course in Toronto. He writes about anything from European politics to the importance of Jurassic Park. You can read more at his blog here, and find him on Twitter @AlasdairDick


The battle for Flanders

Can the new Belgian Prime Minister unite the country?


© Francisco Osorio


Language invites unity, without, however, compelling it.

Ernest Renan spoke these words during his famous speech on nationalism at the Sorbonne over a century ago but issues of language and nationalism are still tangible today. The question of how to unite two linguistically diverse groups will be preoccupying the mind of Elio di Rupo as he begins his term as the new Belgian Prime Minister.

After the country’s record parliamentary impasse of 541 days, the new French-speaking Prime Minister has vowed to unify the country which is divided between French and Dutch speakers. Hailing from the southern Wallonia region of Belgium, Elio di Rupo has the support of the 4.5 million French-speaking inhabitants of that region but has failed to win over the Dutch-speaking north. The 6.5 million Flemish inhabitants of Flanders are unimpressed with the election of Di Rupo who speaks only elementary Dutch and will rule more than 11 million Belgians without winning a single vote in Flanders. Di Rupo, it seems, will be facing an uphill struggle despite his promise to travel though Flanders and to improve his Dutch.  As former Prime Minister Yves Leterme comments:

the leader of a government who finds it difficult to speak the majority language has a problem.

As Renan emphasises in his 1882 speech, a common language is not a necessity for nationhood and he instead emphasises the importance of collective experience. Yet even collective experience is an issue of dispute in Belgium. The nation could unite behind the suffering of World War One but still today the Flemish remember how Flemish conscripts were given orders in French and the experience actually enhanced Flemish identity rather than helped Belgian unity. The task for Di Rupo is to find a common thread that can unite these diverse groups and the European crisis may in fact help him in doing that.

Brussels is not only the home to the European Union but Belgium itself is a microcosm of Europe. Within this small country there are Dutch, French and German speakers all trying to live under roof. Similarly Europe is trying to get through this crisis by bringing diverse cultures and nationalities into dialogue and, hopefully, action. The Belgians may not have many past collective experiences to draw upon, but the collective experience of the Euro crisis may help modern Belgium to enter into  a new, unified, era.


Alasdair Dick has just completed his MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge and is currently undertaking a TEFL Course in Toronto. He writes about anything from European politics to the importance of Jurassic Park. You can read more at his blog here, and find him on Twitter @AlasdairDick 


Sectarianism in Afghanistan

Afghanistan needs a common national identity to overcome cultural and religious differences…


Shura Khakerez, Khandahar Province, Afghanistan © Dvidshub


When it comes to Afghanistan, words are thrown around like empty mortar shells. Terms like ‘Shi’a’ and ‘Shiite’ are emptied of all meanings and thrown by newspapers at unsuspecting readers.

People may understand that they are Muslim sects but our understanding should go deeper than that. How can one understand the abuse Neil Lennon recently received without understanding the importance of Catholic and Protestant divisions in Northern Ireland and Scotland? If we, as a country, are so keen to be involved in Afghanistan we should understand how the country operates and what divides it. Without doing so, I fear that Great Britain may repeat one of its historic failures: conflating religion with nationalism. In dividing India into Pakistan and India in 1947, the British caused half a century of bloodshed and violence. Let’s not do the same in Afghanistan.

The division between the Sunnis and the Shi’as is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam and the differences mostly derive from their varied historical experiences, political and social developments, as well as ethnic composition. Both groups agree on the fundamentals of Islam and follow the Qur’an. Similarly, both sects agree that Mohammed was the last prophet but they disagree about who his rightful successor should have been. The Sunnis believe that Mohammed chose Abu Bakr, a close companion, as his successor whilst the Shi’as believe that he chose Ali, his son-in-law and cousin. Thus ‘Sunni’ means ‘one who follows Sunnah (what the Prophet said, did, agreed to or condemned) and Shi’a is a contraction of the phrase ‘Shiat Ali’ which means ‘partisans of Ali.’

Earlier this week, a suicide bomber killed fifty-five people at a crowded Kabul shrine on the Day of Ashura, one of the most important days in the Shia calendar. This was the day of the Battle of Karbala, where Hussein, Ali’s son, was killed by the Caliph Yazid thus sacrificing his life for the survival of Shi’a Islam. Thus the significance of this blast was more than cold blooded murder instead it was designed to stimulate sectarian violence. By picking this day in particular and by targeting Shia’ Muslims the insurgents were attempting to unleash a modern Battle of Karbala in Afghanistan.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami, a Pakistani based Sunni extremist group, has claimed responsibility for the attack and these external forces are a danger to Afghani unity. Whilst in Pakistan there is a long history of bomb attacks on Shi’a Muslims, there has never been such a large-scale attack in neighbouring Afghanistan. These external insurgents – a term that is seemingly paradoxical – threaten the delicate situation in Kabul. According to Martine Van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, the attack:

looks designed to provoke sectarian or ethnic tensions.

This was not ‘just another explosion’ in Afghanistan. This was an attempt to drive the country into chaos and until the fissures between the Shi’a and Sunni Muslims are resolved then the country cannot achieve stability. The religious differences in Afghanistan contribute to the country’s vibrant and colourful culture but what is missing is the Afghani national identity which can be used to paper over the cracks of difference. When Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew up (or butchered) the border between India and Pakistan, he was using nationality to separate religions. Afghanistan has to learn from this error and use nationality to reconcile separate religions.


Alasdair Dick has just completed his MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge and is currently undertaking a TEFL Course in Toronto. He writes about anything from European politics to the importance of Jurassic Park. You can read more at his blog here, and find him on Twitter @AlasdairDick


DRC: Democratic in name only

As voters go to the polls, the “Democratic” Republic of Congo is not living up to its name…


Laurent Kabila mausoleum, Kinshasa © Radio Okapi


In dictatorships the population is bound by fear. We know that in the international community there are people supporting the dictator. We want to awaken the conscience of the population. Tomorrow each Congolese should be responsible for the advancement of the country.  [Etienne Tshisekedi]

Oppressive governments have a tendency to conceal their ulterior motives under the guise of a country’s name. Yet as hard as Kim Jong-il may try nobody is going to believe that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is truly a haven for free speech and democracy. To adapt the famous line from Romeo and Juliet: “A country by any other name would smell as rotten.” Scratch beneath the surface and such superficiality comes away like the opaque covering of a scratch card, sadly there are very few winners.

For a country which is nominally ‘democratic’ it is surprising that tomorrow’s election will only be the second time in Congo’s history where the whole population has been able to vote. Yet as Étienne Tshisekedi and Joseph Kabila prepare to go head to head, the build-up to this election has been far from democratic.

The campaigns have been plagued by allegations of fraud and bribery and the supporters of Tshisekedi, Kabila’s greatest rival, have been targeted with violence and intimidation. On Saturday eight people were injured and dozens injured when police fired bullets and teargas at opposition supporters in Kinshasa in what the European Union has described as “a serious breach of the right to campaign.” Joseph Kabila is clinging on to ‘democratic’ power but his underhand activities will not silent the Congolese people for long.

The Kabila family have ruled the DRC since 1997 and following the death of his father, Laurent-Désiré, in 2001 Joseph Kabila took power and has held the position of President ever since. Under his rule, however, the DRC has looked less like a ‘democracy’ and a ‘republic’ and more like an ‘autocracy.’

This is not the first time that Joseph Kabila has been accused of fraud and intimidation. As in 2011, the presidential election of 2006 was plagued by allegations with the defeated candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba claiming that democracy had been stolen from the Congolese people. This electoral theft looks set to continue and many fear the violence that may result from a Kabila victory. Tomorrow should be a victory for the Congo’s infant democracy but instead the result may precipitate widespread violence and repression.

Analysts have predicted that post-election violence is almost certain, particularly if Kabila is declared the winner of a close race. As one supporter of Tshisekedi said;

We can’t accept a Kabila win. We can’t agree with him. We would rather die.

There is a climate of fear circling around Kinshasa and if Kabila emerges tomorrow with victory, the country may erupt in protest. Kabila will not go quietly and under the guise of democracy, this African autocrat stands in the way of true democracy and progress. In an ideal world tomorrow’s election will precipitate peaceful changes in Congolese government and the country will prosper democratically but sadly, as Kabila’s victims will testify, this is not an ideal world.


Alasdair Dick has just completed his MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge and is currently undertaking a TEFL Course in Toronto. He writes about anything from European politics to the importance of Jurassic Park. You can read more at his blog here, and find him on Twitter @AlasdairDick


What makes a successful protest?

The diverse motives behind current financial protests should not be seen as a bad thing…


Oliver Cromwell © SLR Jester


Like an octopus, the Occupy Movement has spread its many limbs around the world. Yet each individual protest can also be seen as octopine in their nature. Each has many limbs of protest.

Having recently visited Occupy Wall Street what was apparent was the variety of motives and complaints among the protestors. The slogans ranged from the omnipresent 99% to those about climate change, nuclear power and general happiness. Critics have pointed to this variance as the key weakness of the movement. Yet the lack of a central belief is not a weakness but a reality of social change.

In the wake of the Occupy phenomena and the Arab Spring people have succumbed to the idealised image of a revolution as a forward march with one shared belief but whereas such social unrest may occur on cloud nine, here in the real world a variety of grievances catalyses unrest.

Ask any History student and they will be able to tell you that the majority of social upheavals, from the English Revolution to the Spanish Civil War, are the product of many causes. Rarely has one unified voice achieved change. Admittedly Oliver Cromwell was never an avid supporter of renewable energy but whilst he was an ardent Puritan, not all of his followers were so devout. The English Revolution of the seventeenth century was a success not because everyone believed, like Cromwell, that they were leading the country back to the Promised Land, but because each person had their own grievances with the monarchy and this opposition united them. Variety is expected in social upheaval, yet there must be one common thread and usually this has to be one of opposition.

To return to our marinal metaphor: revolutions may have many different limbs but all those limbs must work together against the Great White Shark. The Occupy movement is supposedly united against that Great White Shark of the 1% but who is the 1%? For some it is the bankers, for others it is the David Cameron and his cronies. Some seem unsure as to whether the police are part of the 99% or the 1%. Perhaps it is more important for the Occupy movement to define who they are not rather than who they are. The movement will gain greater support if it defines the 1% rather than if it strives to define the 99%. Nobody wants to be told who they are, but people are willing to be told who they are not.

By trying to find one unified goal, the ardent revolutionaries may ostracise those reluctant protestors but by finding a unified enemy it can bring the two groups closer together.


Alasdair Dick has just completed his MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge and is currently undertaking a TEFL Course in Toronto. He writes about anything from European politics to the importance of Jurassic Park. You can read more at his blog here 


Is ‘Remembrance’ truly remembered?

We should make more of Remembrance Day in Britain…


© CWasteson


Only a week ago, the English people were illuminating the night sky with fountains of artificial lights and blazing bonfires in a day of remembrance. As the saying goes: Remember, Remember the Fifth of November. Flames were ignited around the country to remember how Guy Fawkes’ plot was foiled and our freedom protected.  Yet while we remember this four hundred year old tradition with continuous gusto and panache, another more poignant day of remembrance is largely left in the dark.

For less than a hundred years we have been remembering the sacrifice made by our brave soldiers in the First World War but ask any child and they will be more familiar with the five hundred year old tradition of Guy Fawkes than November 11th. People buy poppies and partake in a few minutes’ silence but people should be taught about how and why these people died. I wonder how many people wearing a poppy realize that it represents the poppies which grew on soldiers’ graves in Flanders. Or how many people even know why the silence is celebrated at 11pm on 11th of November and are simply amused by the palindrome.

In Canada, where I am currently living, the day is celebrated with real passion and it has been made into a public holiday. In the United Kingdom, the thought of shutting a Tesco’s on a Friday is perhaps too much to bear but we should at least try. If it is an issue of having too many public holidays in a year then surely we can drop one of the others. Take May Day for example. Since when did the May Pole deserve its own day. I forget how many Maypoles died in the First World War but I am pretty sure it was none.

Remembrance Day is the most important day we have as a nation. The military is held in high regard in British society and the little Wiltshire village of Royal Wooten Bassett is one of the finest examples of that patriotism. It is a day which is devoid of religious connotations and purely nationalistic ones too. This may sound contradictory to call the day patriotic but not nationalistic. However it is a day which remembers soldiers of many different nations who fought and died as brothers and not merely that Glory Britannia.

Perhaps it is time to turn Remembrance Day into a true Remembrance Day and not just a Remembrance Two Minutes. Education goes hand in hand with remembrance. For how can someone remember something they have no experience of? Well the answer is to tell them about that memory and, perhaps more importantly, why it is worth remembering. So I call on people to cut the Maypole down to size and raise up the Cenotaph. Forget about that Catholic terrorist and rewrite the poem as: Remember, Remember the Eleventh of November.


Alasdair Dick has just completed his MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge and is currently undertaking a TEFL Course in Toronto. He writes about anything from European politics to the importance of Jurassic Park. You can read more at his blog here 

The chilly breeze of revolution

Student protesters in the UK should look to South America to see how it’s really done…


© chris corwin


The three Rs have formed an important part of education for generations but a group of Chilean schoolgirls have added another ‘R’ to the triumvirate: Revolution. Whereas student protests in London fizzled out with a knock on Prince Charles’ Bentley window, the schoolgirls at Carmela Carvajal primary and secondary school have occupied their institution for over five months now. Even from a young age, the South Americans really know how to revolt.

In early May the schoolgirls scaled the spiked fence surrounding the Santiagoan school and barricaded themselves inside. Five months later, the students have shown no signs of giving up and are still holding out for their objective of free university education for all. The students have been supported by the locals who have brought food and drink, by professors who have conducted free lectures and by rock bands who have provided live music on the basketball court. In addition, in a wonderful twist of irony the government still has to provide food for all school children, even belligerent ones.

The occupied school functions under an elementary democracy with votes on everything including daily duties, housekeeping schedules and the election of a president and spokeswoman. Similarly the school still relies on rules but these rules are: no boys, no sex and no alcohol. This veneer of legality has kept the students united in the fight for a return to a system of free public university education.

Currently in Chile tuition fees are nearly three times the minimum annual wage and interest rates on student loans are at 7%. Behind the students’ demands is the belief that education is a common right and not a commodity to be sold to vulnerable adolescents. The wave of protest goes beyond the walls of the Carmela Carvajal and over the last few months demonstrations have immobilized downtown Santiago.  Yet within the revolution there is a sense of innocence encapsulated by the kiss-a-thon in which 3,000 couples smooched for fifteen minutes in a romantic stand against the powers that be.

Perhaps this is what the protests in England lacked: a genuine sense of innocence. The students of Carmela Carvajal have not thrown any fire extinguishers off buildings or smashed any windows yet their voices are still being heard whilst our voices were carried off in the English breeze.


Alasdair Dick has just completed his MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge and is currently undertaking a TEFL Course in Toronto. He writes about anything from European politics to the importance of Jurassic Park. You can read more at his blog here 


A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

The story of a child soldier who escaped the brutality of Sierra Leone’s civil war…


A long way gone


A lot of books are possible to relate to. Everyone can appreciate the love of chocolate in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the class differences of Dickens or the feeling of being watched experienced in George Orwell’s 1984.

Yet Ishmael Beah’s memoirs are so removed from Western reality that this book offers an emotional journey into the unknown. Beah recounts his childhood during the Civil War which tore Sierra Leone apart in the nineties and describes how he lost his family and was forced to become a child soldier. One of the most touching things about his story is that it is only one story. So many other children across Africa have experienced similar fates yet their stories remain hidden under the corpses of broken societies.

A Long Way Gone goes some way to rectifying this collective silence but it is only one voice.

The book vividly conveys the brutality of war and how war, in Beah’s own words, ‘forces you to do inhuman things.’ The reader accompanies Beah on his journey through the nineties from the murder of his family to his rehabilitation at the end of the war. The latter is perhaps the most striking part of his memoirs and the pain that these boy soldiers suffered lasted beyond the final gunshots and many did not recover either mentally or physically. The boy soldiers of Sierra Leone did not only lose their families but also their childhood and their innocence.

Violence and brutality became engrained into the psyche of these children and Beah’s account of his time in the rehabilitation centre is particularly harrowing. Unable to trust another human being, Beah’s relationship with Nurse Esther at the centre is an extremely poignant part of the book. When violence broke out again in 1997, Beah was one of the ‘lucky’ ones who managed to escape to New York and was cared for by the author Laura Simms. It was she who not only put a roof over his head but also cultivated his literary talents.

The book starts by saying that at the beginning of the war all the reports ‘made it sound as though it was happening in a faraway and distant land.’ For too many people in the Western world, child soldiers exist in ‘a faraway and distant land.’ It is time that people begin to realise that this does not occur in a faraway land but in our own back garden and Ishmael Beah’s memoirs and organisations like Falling Whistles are helping to illustrate this.

A Long Way Gone will open your eyes to the brutality of war and the loss of childhood innocence but perhaps most importantly it will go some way towards curing our Western deafness.


Alasdair Dick has just completed his MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge and is currently undertaking a TEFL Course in Toronto. He writes about anything from European politics to the importance of Jurassic Park. You can read more at his blog here 



The Undefeated

Sarah Palin’s new film sheds light on the strange methods of political campaigning across the pond…


© Discover NYC Campaign


The film The Undefeated should star Christian Bale as the lead in the story of a down and out boxer who comes back to win the Super Double Fly Light Heavy Weight whilst holding down a full time job to support his three young children whose mother died in a tragic combine harvester accident, but sadly it doesn’t. Instead it recounts Sarah Palin’s ‘meteoric rise from hockey mom to political superwoman.’ Luckily her meteoric rise, like the meteor after which it is named, seems destined to fall back down to earth or drift around space for eternity.

The Undefeated consists of a series of interviews which explicitly compare the former Alaskan governor to Joan of Arc. Yes that’s right a woman who was famously burnt at the stake, Palin is perhaps predicting her own future. This two and a half hour documentary has narrowly missed out on a Cannes nomination but her glasses were expected to pick up an award at the ‘Specsavers Cinematic Awards’ despite tough competition from Harry Potter’s circular spectacles and the laser vision of X-men’s Cyclops.

With the 2012 American presidential election looming it seems as if Sarah Palin is gearing herself up as a Republican candidate and her proposed bus tour of New England (which happens to include New Hampshire and Iowa) seems to confirm this. Aside from the disturbing prospect of Palin as President of the U.S., her work does highlight the unusual, and sometimes ridiculous, form that election campaigns across the pond take.

In France presidential elections are also scheduled for 2012 yet nobody can envisage Sarkozy touring the French countryside in a Citroen 2CV or Marine Le Pen starring in a remake of Amelie.  Dominique Strauss Kahn has attempted to appeal to a more misogynist section of the electorate but only time will tell whether such a dangerous ploy will pay off. The political culture of America welcomes big money election campaigns meanwhile Western Europe seems to shy away from such overt displays.  In Britain, politics is not as divisive as in America and overt allegiance to political parties is not as evident. A simple example is the bumper sticker. For some reason many Americans buy a perfectly good car and then decide that the rear of the car really should say something about the owner.

In Britain we call this the number plate and most of us are quite happy to be known by a random conglomerate of numbers and letters. In America however the bumper sticker is a defining part of one’s identity and every four years the derriere of the automobile becomes the site of a political battleground. Politics in America is very overt and people display it proudly on their cars and politicians have election campaigns which dwarf the Rio Carnival. In Britain on the other hand, I was always told as a child that it was rude to ask someone who they voted for and, until the day Mr Ford Mondeo stands for Prime Minister, the bumper of our cars shall remain undefiled by political slogans. I am not saying that either way is better, just that they are different.

The recent Obama/Cameron barbecue in the garden of Downing Street was one example of American politics crossing the Atlantic. The barbecue is where men get closest to their primitive ancestors and, in the case of last week’s barbecue, the women do the salads. It is however an American political tool and it is hard to imagine Ed Miliband and David Cameron discussing politics over a barbecue. Partly because a salivating Eric Pickles would be hovering in the background of every photo and partly because the idea of the ‘Great Outdoors’ hasn’t got the same political resonance in Britain. In America a president needs to be able to cook meat with his bare hands, in Britain there would be uproar that the burgers cost more than £1.50.

The lack of spectacle in Britain is no bad thing, but neither is the overt spectacle of American politics. In the U.S politicians have to do more to get your vote yet at the same time actual policies are overshadowed by propaganda films and bus tours. This difference in politics reflects a difference in national mentality and our reservation is here to stay so don’t expect any upcoming political releases like “Huhney I Shrunk the Kids”, “The Lansley Before Time”, “The (Vince) Cable Guy” or “Fantastic Mr (Liam) Fox”.


Alasdair Dick has just completed his MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge and is currently undertaking a TEFL Course in Toronto. He writes about anything from European politics to the importance of Jurassic Park. You can read more at his blog here

Film review: Senna

Documentary on the driver some say was the greatest ever to grace Formula 1…



At first glance Senna, the biographical story of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, seems like a glorified compilation of YouTube clips.

In fact it is a Shakespearean tale of love, betrayal, rivalry, and finally death. Formula One merely provides the setting for this film and there is no need to be an avid fan of motorsport. For instance, even if you don’t like lions it is still possible to enjoy Lion King and very few of us have experienced life in prison yet Shawshank Redemption remains one of the most popular films of all time. Likewise, just because the sight of any sort of car brings you out in a cold sweat, it doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy Senna.

The death of Ayrton Senna was a defining point for my generation and although I am old enough to remember it, I was too young to remember the details. This film really looks at the man behind the wheel and this collection of real footage highlights his mistakes, his rivalry with Alain Prost, his love life and his relationship with his beloved Brazil. The latter is particularly poignant and the elation when he finally wins the Brazilian Grand Prix is truly palpable.

The film touches on the politics of Formula One and the portrayal of Jean-Marie Balestre makes Bernie Ecclestone seem like Mother Teresa. As for the death itself the film illuminates many interesting facts that I had been previously unaware of. For instance I had no idea that another driver died in the qualifying of the same race and Senna, when he died, was carrying an Austrian flag that he was going to wave at the finish in order to commemorate the deceased driver.

By the end of the film you share Brazil’s grief for the loss of not only a great driver but also a charismatic individual. He was a driver who looked back nostalgically at his karting days where “there was no politics, just racing.” Like so many sports today, I fear that politics has overshadowed and obscured the skill and beauty of Formula One.


Alasdair Dick has just completed his MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge and is currently undertaking a TEFL Course in Toronto. He writes about anything from European politics to the importance of Jurassic Park. You can read more at his blog here

J’Accuse: The works of Emile Zola

Alasdair Dick looks back at the literary legacy of French writer Emile Zola…



This summer turn your backs on the modern bestsellers and transport yourself back to nineteenth century France, to a world without the Eiffel Tower. The novels of Emile Zola have everything from murder and revolution to romance and deceit. His writing uses realism to express the social transformations of nineteenth century France and the result is a variety of works which engross you in different ways.

His novel Therese Raquin explores ideas of treachery and adultery whilst Pot-Bouille analyses the rise of the middling classes through the micro-environment of a Parisian apartment building. Germinal offers a breath-taking account of the birth of a revolution amongst miners in the coal mining town of Montsou. Whilst L’Assommoir explores the perennial problem of alcoholism and its degenerative qualities. Others like La Terre explore the lives of the French peasantry and issues of rape, theft and family disputes. In fact this last work was seen to be so graphic and violent that the publication of an English translation led to the prosecution of the publisher Henry Vizetelly.

Zola’s novels reflect the turmoil of the Second Empire, the modernity of Paris and the social anxieties which were a product of this modernising society. His works not only offer an insight into nineteenth century France but can offer a prism through which we can reflect upon our own society.

Murder, treachery and revolution are consistent themes in the history of the human race and the issues addressed by Zola are as relevant now as they were a century ago. For instance the marauding crowd Germinal who ‘swarmed at every storey in the midst of furious gestures and cries’ would not have been out of place in last week’s riots. Similarly the working class alcoholism explored in L’Assommoir conjures up images of the binge drinking which plagues modern society.

Classic literary works should not be neglected because they have gathered dust because they still have lessons to teach. So discard Richard and Judy’s latest recommendation and take a whirlwind trip back through the boulevards of Paris and into the mind of one of France’s greatest writers.


Alasdair Dick has just completed his MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge and is currently undertaking a TEFL Course in Toronto. He writes about anything from European politics to the importance of Jurassic Park. You can read more at his blog here