Category Archives: Society

Water Charges: Inefficient and Ineffective?

Water Charges Protest
Water Charges Protest


Colliding with water seems harmless – it’s soft and gives way easily. Usually.

Hit it hard enough though and water becomes as tough and unforgiving as concrete.

An estimated 150,000 people protesting on Irish streets this weekend against water charges  suggests something similar has happened with the Irish public.

After bearing over six years of austerity cuts, high unemployment, rocketing emigration, and greatly reduced social services with nary a whimper, finally a reaction.

Who would have expected this to happen because of water charges and not the major issues that came before? And why now when recovery seems to be in the air? Just as the Government seemed to have negotiated treacherous waters unparalleled in the history of the state, what started as  a low rumble of dissatisfaction transformed slowly but surely into a full-throated roar of dissent.

Poll numbers for both parties in the Coalition make grim reading – translated into seats after the next election, one estimate suggests Labour might have as few as 2 TDs.

Fine Gael’s Mayor of Drogheda, Kevin Callan, has resigned from the party in protest and Fergus O’Dowd, the (former) minister who oversaw the creation of Irish Water, now opposes his own legislation. It may well not be a coincidence that these two men are in the same constituency as the next election approaches, but apart from this tactical jockeying for position, these events suggest the ramifications of hostility to water charges – and being associated with water charges – may be far-reaching. Puns involving rats and sinking ships have already surfaced.

The car crash aspect of the whole affair continues to become clearer with closer examination and raises the question of why such close scrutiny was deemed unnecessary by the government earlier.

Details of the charges have been vague and slow to appear; rumours and paranoia have outpaced fact and rationality, not difficult when the latter have been in such scarce supply.

A scheme premised on investment in Irish water infrastructure has been revealed as planning to spend a huge share of its funds on Irish Water insiders instead – giving birth to an overstaffed, overpaid, overweeningly arrogant Leviathan with its boot on the parched throats of its ‘customers’.

Every effort to counter this impression has been a dismal failure – a comical carrot interspersed with a flaccid stick, sound and fury signifying nothing.

Except perhaps the end of the Government.

The much quoted Frenchman, Alexis De Tocqueville perhaps sums up this state of affairs in Ireland best; he might have been writing about this very situation, and indeed his words may be the best insight into why such vehement protests are happening now – at the end of the crisis. They will give little comfort to this government:

It is almost never when a state of things is the most detestable that it is smashed, but when, beginning to improve, it permits men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate their thoughts with each other, and to gauge by what they already have the extent of their rights and their grievances. The weight, although less heavy, seems then all the more unbearable.

(Letter to Pierre Freslon, 23 September 1853 Selected Letters, p. 296 as cited in Toqueville's Road Map p. 103)


All Ireland Hurling Final 2014
All Hurling Final 2014: Kilkenny versus Tipperary – two counties used to success


Last Saturday evening I was lucky enough to have been in Croke Park at the All Ireland hurling final – a spectacular occasion to decide the winner of what is probably Ireland’s national sport.

The Washington Post, a New Zealand journalist and British Sky Sports viewers have all lauded the game in recent weeks – the best quote describing it as ‘a cross between hockey and murder’! [A line borrowed from a Jason Statham film, unlikely as that might seem – Blitz (2011)]

The two teams going head to head for victory were both seasoned winners; Kilkenny eventually became champions for the 35th time on Saturday, while Tipperary have won 26 times previously – both counties together nearly accounting for half of the 126 finals ever played.

For fans from both counties anything less than ultimate triumph is a major disappointment. They win: if not this year, then next, or at the very worst in the next decade. With such traditions and legacies of success on both sides merely reaching the final and being there is really nothing special – taken for granted almost.

I’m from Carlow, one of the smallest counties in Ireland, which has a very different outlook on the world. In 126 attempts we have never won an All Ireland in hurling (or Gaelic football). To make matter worse we’re right beside Kilkenny; we can see what the promised land looks like, but as that renowned sports pundit Tina Turner might put it victory is a second-hand emotion.

To be honest it’s unlikely Carlow will ever win anything; barring events more unprecedented than the Vatican City winning the World Cup I’ll never be in Croke Park to see a Carlow team compete or witness our ridiculously colourful jerseys causing eye strain on Dublin’s streets. It was a little poignant to mull over that for a moment on Saturday while watching the noise and hullabaloo of both sets of supporters.

Carlow's colourful jersey
Carlow’s colours

Then again does it really matter? Maybe perennial defeat brings its own lessons? (I very nearly wrote ‘lesions’, Freudian slip anyone?!)

Perseverance, tenacity and resilience? Being fairly non-partisan? Perspective? An appreciation of the little things and the small victories?

That the world needs ants and elephants?

Colourful, irrepressible ants.









Infusions of wisdom: ‘The Zen approach to sheep control in 1970s Ireland’

Picture of sheep in Ireland
Sheep – philosophers of the field?

I always enjoy Michael Harding’s ruminations on rural Ireland – he doesn’t miss much of what goes on around him and all that he sees comes on many levels.

This piece is an insightful and rueful reflection on the lesser-spotted-Irish-life – how much of what goes on all around us do we never realise everyday?

Dawn of Planet of the Apes

Ape not kill ape
Ape not kill ape

It might seem strange or facetious, or even downright perverse, to connect this movie – ostensibly  a science fiction film about talking monkeys – to the dark events of the last few weeks on the world stage, war, death, destruction, suffering, but it is particularly resonant on all these scores, perhaps precisely because so much blood has been spilled to no good end and no conceivably justifiable purpose in real life.

The core theme and message of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is how similarities transcend and unite, even across apparently wide gulfs of difference.  Basic emotions are shared despite class, colour, and creed. Like our simian cousins humans are social animals, most often choosing to live in groups. How we organise those groups though can to lead to problems.

How do we make decisions? Who gets to make decisions? What outcomes do we want? Which outcomes are best? How do we judge? How do we achieve them? By consensus? By domination? Peacefully? Violently? Are some things important enough to die for? To kill for? What’s life for anyway? Love? Power? Plenty? Happiness? Dignity? Control? Duty? Responsibility? Belief? Me? Mine? Ours? Us?

All of these questions in one form or another have arisen in the last few weeks – and are at the centre of events in Gaza/Israel, Ukraine, Syria,  and Ferguson, USA. As well as each of lives and all of our homes.

Power and Control, Pain and Death, Conflict and Sorrow.

Or another way?

An unlikely place to seek ruminations on all these questions concerning the foundations of the human condition perhaps, but nevertheless this is what this film does, and does it very well and even somewhat poignantly.

Thought provoking and well worth a watch.


Arthur and Mike: running away from yourself so fast it hurts

Arthur Newman, Golf Pro
Arthur and Mike: Life’s no picnic


Do you ever think about dropping everything and disappearing into the wild blue yonder?

A new name, a new backstory, a new personality even – a new life! Just like that…..

That’s what Wallace Avery (Colin Firth) does in ‘Arthur and Mike’. Fakes his death and disappears. Not randomly or haphazardly; he has a plan – maybe more of a quest – and a place to be. As Arthur Newman – old pent-up, buttoned-down staid Wallace doesn’t do imaginative, even with his reinvention as a new man – he’s on his way to be a golf pro in Terre Haute Indiana. Goodbye past, hello possibility. Simple.

Except he’s not the only one fleeing his demons. Staggering or collapsing into Arthur’s path comes a mysterious woman (Emily Blunt), sprawled on a sun lounger seemingly on the way out of not just her old life but out of  life entirely. An unlikely hero but an honourable man, Arthur gets her to a hospitable and saves her life. The two – the stray and the waif – forge a bond, brittle at first but gradually deepening.

Over time and a series of adventures – what road movie doesn’t have adventures and escapades – the role of saviour and consoler switches back and forth, as both Arthur and Mike acknowledge and confront their demons.

There are some uncomfortable scenes along the way, some genuinely funny, a few very sad, and not a small number of rather sweet vignettes.

It’s not a prefect film by any means, and it doesn’t set out to be a blockbuster; the tale of two imperfect people probably never could be. It is intriguing enough to stay in the memory and provoke some reflective thoughts on what’s just played before our eyes.

One question that kept distracting me from the film was why were the two lead roles in the story of two Americans in America both filled by British actors. I’m not suggesting that roles be allocated on any kind of strict passport criteria – the key skill of acting after all being able to portray someone else who is not you – but casting of this kind can cause difficulties with believability. Relatively unknown actors can sail under the radar, and both film goers and critics may see and hear what they expect to see and hear from an American character.

But Colin Firth is too big a name and far too well-known as the quintessential Englishman not to invite, even demand, closer scrutiny, and unfortunately in this film at least his accent is not always up to scratch so as to pass muster. In fact it might be the case that his usual intonation and diction are so well-known and so familiar that no matter what he tries to do, what comes to mind will always be the distinctive voice of King George, Mr Darcy or Bridget Jones’ caddish boss.

Emily Blunt on the other hand – with a burgeoning career but not one defined, yet, by a single role, much less a specifically English/British one – carries off American tones with aplomb. Her performance is the best thing about this film by a country mile. Looking like a cross between the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Chloe from 24, she makes the screen her own as the kooky, impulsive, perhaps irredeemable Mike.

While it is flawed, there’s enough here to satisfy film goers who like a film a little off centre, neither sickly saccharine nor gratuitously bitter, depicting lives stained with darkness and constrained by dread, that ultimately perhaps asks as many questions of the audience as it does of the characters. As to where the answers lie, well that’s question for all of us, isn’t it?

Elections 2014: Fallout and the Future

Election posters local and European Ireland 2014

Well before the last count had been completed in the Irish local and European elections it was obvious we were witnessing a major sea change in Irish politics.  The difficult question though is what exactly is that change and what does it mean for the future?

Sinn Fein’s gains are the biggest story of the election and, at first glance, perhaps appear the easiest to analyse, as well as the easiest to project as regards what their success will mean in the longer term. With a dramatic increase nationwide in the number of local councillors to c. 150 and an MEP elected easily in each Euro constituency, their long-expected big breakthrough has arrived.

However, this undoubted success is not without complications and contradictions.

Short term, such a big influx of inexperienced politicians will quickly have to learn the ropes to fulfil the expectations underpinning their election. The perceived success or otherwise of Sinn Fein councillors will inevitably impact on the prospects for the party in the next general election. Given that contest will be relatively soon, less than two years at the longest, it leaves little time for much in the way of signature achievements at local level. Equally, in initiating and implementing policy Sinn Fein will be very much at the mercy of other parties.

The most serious problems are long term. Much of Sinn Fein’s vote at these elections has been attracted by their anti-austerity stance – opposition to water charges, other cutbacks and the legacy of the bank bailout; essentially a left-wing platform. However an important, indeed the most important, plank in Sinn Fein’s agenda as an All-Ireland party is working to end partition and bring about Irish unity. It’s why Sinn Fein exists as a party. The big conundrum though is how many southern voters actually have much interest in this question, especially the drove of new supporters who cast their ballots last week.

It’s certainly not a major magnet for voters, most of whom care little for Northern Ireland, but how off-putting might it be in future if Sinn Fein make it a practical priority in government? People may be ready to indulge the odd ritualistic mention of the Peace Process and the North, but ultimately after nearly a century of separation the population of the Republic has little appetite for much more than that – especially if it comes at a cost . This lack of focus on what happens in Northern Ireland has spared Sinn Fein from close scrutiny of the polices it implements there, and also meant that Gerry Adams’ arrest had very little effect down south.

Ironically then partition has been an important factor in Sinn Fein’s current success in the Republic – a success that might shortly place it in a position to seek an end to partition. How Sinn Fein deals with the contradiction will determine its future – in southern politics and as a party. Gerry Adams is 65 and close to retirement, as is Martin McGuinness. Will new younger southern-focused leaders such as Mary Lou McDonald or Pearse Doherty, seasoned in viewing the political landscape from the Dail, really seek to prioritise an activist ‘United Ireland’ policy that is anathema to southern voters according to opinion polls? Or will they subtly reorientate the party’s focus? And if they do, will Sinn Fein face another moment of crisis as in the late 1960s, when a similar situation of a left-leaning Dublin leadership distant from Belfast issues led to a northern breakaway? Success in 2014 then may be a poisoned chalice.

Relative success was also enjoyed by Fianna Fail – not a triumph along Sinn Fein lines, but survival as a party. They retained almost exactly the same share of the vote, c.25%, as at the last local elections in 2009 and come out of these elections with the largest numbers of councillors. Having faced the wrath of the Irish electorate three years ago and diced with annihilation these results can be seen as representing a form of victory.  Compared to the fond remembered days of dominating elections with 40% of the vote and forming single party governments, the new normal for Fianna Fail is a big come down though. The question that they and their supporters have to face is what happens to them next?

Current polls put Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein as likely to receive roughly 20% of the vote in the next election, with Independent/Others making up the rest. Fianna Fail are likely to fall behind Sinn Fein in seat numbers given the cut in the number of TDs overall to 158, Fianna Fail’s notorious lack of success in Dublin and the party’s decidedly transfer unfriendly status.

Numerous permutations for coalition governments are possible but none seem viable without Fianna Fail participation. Paradoxically that involvement could well spell not the rejuvenation but the obliteration of the party.

A Sinn Fein/Fianna Fail alliance is apparently favoured by 40-50% of Fianna Fail, as based on figures cited on RTE Radio, and opposed by roughly the same number. At least a portion of those opposed would be likely to leave the party rather than cooperate on the basis of past history and personal attitudes to Sinn Fein. In that scenario a smaller remnant Fianna Fail organisation might be able to continue in existence, though the possibility if not probability of eventual absorption may be most likely.

On the other hand, the alternative grand coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, with Fine Gael approximately twice and potentially treble the size of Fianna Fail is an option popular with Fine Gael members but apparently unpalatable with a large majority of the Fianna Fail organisation. The grave worry with this scenario is not the difference between the parties but the fact that they are to all intents and purposes almost identical – once the two groups coalesce in coalition, the smaller party will cease to exist, cannibalised by Fine Gael after 90 years  of Civil War electoral politics.

So, in either scenario the future for Fianna Fail, barring a miracle, is bleak.

Which brings us to the ostensible losers of this weeks elections, Fine Gael and Labour. Beyond these bad drubbings for both parties, the future actually seems rather bright.

Certainly, contrary to the gloom and doom surrounding the Labour party, so profoundly devastating as to bring about a leadership change, their days do not appear to be numbered. The party’s identity does require a makeover to re-establish its left-wing credentials but the combination of a growing left vote in Ireland and the final emergence of European-style left-right politics presents a unique opportunity notwithstanding current adversity.

Unsavoury as Labour may be to other groups of the broad left such as the Socialist Party, People Before Profit and the Anti Austerity Alliance, even in a much reduced state it remains a far larger and better organised party – and seems very much certain to retain those advantages. Much then depends on what if any relationship develops between Sinn Fein, Labour, the smaller left parties and like-minded Independents if the electorate cast a majority of votes for this broad grouping. If no understanding can be reached the mantel passes to Fine Gael.

Fine Gael of all parties appears the most securely established, the most stable in policy and the most certain of its own identity. Once the current Reform Alliance rebels make their decision to rejoin or form their own party, there appears to be little in the way of other divisive fissures lingering in the ranks. On that basis Fine Gael would appear to be the standard bearers for the centre-right as the expected new structure of Irish politics develops. Mirroring divisions on the left, they may perhaps face some competition from new smaller groupings on the right – a more conservative Catholic organisation and/or a more economically radical party – though these are, on the basis of polls and these election results, likely to be quite minor groupings.

The key group and most intriguing outcome of all in the elections is the ongoing rise of the Independents – collectively they hold the greatest number of seats on councils nationwide. Polls also suggest they will have a hugely successful outcome at the next general election, somewhere in the region of 20%. Whoever can successfully woo and maintain an understanding with the greatest number of these Independents will be in pole position when it comes to forming a government after the next election.

Overall then the parties that have done worst in these elections, Labour and Fine Gael, may ironically have the most secure futures in a radically altering political environment. Sinn Fein, the biggest winners, face potential internal re-organisational challenges and a level of dissonance with their southern voters’ priorities and expectations. Fianna Fail  may face the greatest challenge of all, with their very existence at stake unless they can devise a course to a safe harbour of purpose and policy in the evolving new world of Irish politics. Independents seem set to determine the balance of power and assume a centrality in government never before seen in Ireland.

If one thing is certain, it’s that there are interesting times ahead for watchers of Irish politics!


‘Not all men, but too many men’

Yesterday brought news of another terrible mass killing tragedy in the US. Another incident in an all too frequent series of mass murders, this was different and especially appalling in being a targeted and premeditated slaughter of women for being women.

Much could and should be written about what this means and what it says about society, but Chuck Wendig has posted a particularly insightful piece on his blog. It’s well worth a read for the sharpness of the perspective and the depth of empathy:

Terrible Minds blog image

Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. This is his blog. He talks a lot about writing. And food. And the madness of toddlers. He uses lots of naughty language. NSFW. Probably NSFL. Be advised.

‘Not All Men, But Still Too Many Men

A young man felt spurned by women and shot people because of it. He drove up and fired a weapon out of a BMW and committed murder, leaving behind a video and a manifesto about his rage against women. He felt rejected by them. He was reportedly a follower of MRA (Men’s Rights Activism), which is a group of men who are upset because they feel they have an unequal set of rights in a few key areas, which is a lot like a rich guy who is mad at a homeless guy because the homeless guy is standing in his favorite patch of sunlight. (The term “men’s rights” is roughly analogous to the phrase “white power,” and equally creepy.) Yes, we can talk about gun rights and mental health issues because neither are properly addressed in this country. But we also need to talk about the entitlement of men and the objectification of women.

Most of the men who read this blog are, I hope and assume, not entitled piss-bags who think that they are owed affection by women, as if that’s the role of women in this life, to be willing and charitable receptacles for our urges. To be punching bags and accessories. To reiterate and sound the horn just the same: women don’t owe you anything. Whether you’re an alpha male or a wanna-be alpha, some faux bro-dude bad-ass or some repressed alley-dwelling CHUD, it matters little. I don’t care who you are; your maleness does not entitle you to anything.

You may have been told otherwise.

Culture wants us to think that. That being a guy comes with a rider like we’re Van Halen demanding a fucking bowl full of green M&Ms or some shit, but I’m here to tell you, that isn’t true. It’s a myth. You’re entitled to nothing, and yet, ironically, you’re born with this pesky thing called privilege. And sure, someone out there is already mad I’ve invoked that word, that being a dude is hard on its own and privilege is an illusion and blah blah blah something about divorced men and prostate cancer, but just remember that the men go on dates thinking they won’t get laid, and women go on dates thinking they might get raped, punched, maybe killed. Remember that as a man you can say all kinds of shit and add “lol” at the end of it and nobody gives a shit, but as a woman anything you say might be interpreted as antagonistic and end up with rape threats or death threats. Remember that any seemingly safe space — train station, bookstore, social media, city park — is an opportunity for a man to catch a train or read a book, but is also an opportunity for a woman to be the subject of threat or sexual violence.

Remember that men get paid more, get to do more, get to be more.

I understand that as a man your initial response to women talking about misogyny, sexism, rape culture and sexual violence is to wave your hands in the air like a drowning man and cry, “Not all men! Not all men!” as if to signal yourself as someone who is not an entitled, presumptive fuck-whistle, but please believe me that interjecting yourself in that way confirms that you are. Because forcing yourself into safe spaces and unwelcome conversations makes you exactly that.

Instead of telling women that it’s not all men, show them.

Show them by listening and supporting.

Show them by cleaning the dogshit out of your ears and listening to their stories — and recognize that while no, it’s not “all men,” it’s still “way too many men.” Consider actually reading the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter not to look for places to interject and defend your fellow men, but as a place to gain insight and understanding into the experiences women have. That hashtag should serve as confirmation that women very often experience the spectrum of sexism and rape culture from an all-too-early age. Recognize that just because “not all men” are gun-toting, women-hating assholes fails to diminish the fact that sexism and rape culture remain firmly entrenched and institutional within our culture.

Because if your response to the shooting is to defend men (or worse, condemn women) instead of speaking out against this type of violence and attitude, then you best check yourself.

This isn’t the time to talk about nice guys. Or friend zoning. Or men’s rights. Or rejection.

This isn’t the time to ride up as standard-bearers for the realm of menfolk.

You have privilege, so use it. You’re not a white knight, but if other men try to objectify women or talk down to them — step up or walk away. If you have a son, teach him about consent and drive home the point that the 100% of the fault in a rape case is on the rapist, not the victim. Help other men — you, your children, your friends — reach a place of empathy.

This isn’t about you. Don’t derail. Don’t pull that mansplaining bullshit.

Shut your mouth and don’t speak over them.

Open your ears and listen.

Open your eyes and see.

Thus endeth the lesson, gents.’

X-Men: Days of Future Past

The main characters of X-Men: Days of Future Past in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington


Albert Einstein would be shocked or ecstatic at how the principles of time, space, matter and movement are upended in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Sports stadiums are wrenched from the earth and fly through the air, dimensions are crossed so quickly that the blink of an eye is like the passing of an age, and – giving the film its premise – time travel is not only possible but necessary.

Anyone who hasn’t seen the previous films in the series will be a little bit at sea initially but there is enough back story artfully included to soon get a bearing on the storyline. We begin in 2023, when the world, marshalled by Dr Bolivar Trask [Peter Drinklage], has declared war on those who are different, the mutants. Invincible, impervious machines, the Sentinels, hunt down survivors where ever they are to be found.

The only solution is for old foes, and older friends, Professor Charles Xavier [Patrick Stewart] and Eric Lehnsherr (aka Magneto) [Ian McKellen] to work together and change the past. Kitty Pryde [Ellen Page] can send the consciousness of a person back in time to occupy their earlier bodily selves – provided they can withstand the physical trauma involved. Step forward the near indestructible Logan (aka Wolverine) [Hugh Jackman].

He wakes up in an interesting not to say compromising and very funny situation in 1973, an old head on young shoulders. Acclimatising, like the viewer, to the vintage glories of seventies style and colour, the rest of the film follows his efforts to find the younger versions of Xavier (James McAvoy) and Eric/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and convince them of what the future holds and what they need to do about it.

If all went straightforwardly of course we wouldn’t have much of a story, suspense or spectacular scenes. Needless to say then a cosy little chat over biccies and tea won’t sort things out, and we’re soon watching an elaborate prison break to spring Magneto – a sequence that incidentally contains one of the funniest scenes in the whole film.

With the gang all assembled and briefed, the hunt is on for Raven/Mystique [Jennifer Lawrence] who is the key to all that transpires in the future.  To produce a new reality they have to find her. All the while back in 2023 the last refuge of the mutants, including Xavier, Magneto, Pryde and Wolverine, is under fierce assault by legions of Sentinels. Will Wolverine succeed in 1973? Or will the machines complete the annihilation before he can?

It’s a testament to the success of the film – and the assemblage of acting talent on show – that the audience in the cinema where I was stayed glued to their seats all the way through, and tensed ever more on the edge of those seats as the resolution of events approached.

Mixing the fun, including some great one liners, with the serious and artfully blending in real life characters – Richard Nixon turns up at a crucial stage of the plot, complete with a knowing nod to tape recorders – X-Men: Days of Future Past has an emotional depth not always or even often seen in films of this type. A spectacle with substance.


Almost all of the audience stayed in their seats when the credits started rolling, which puzzled me somewhat. Obviously I was in the presence of informed fans. That or I’m a bit dopey. Or both. Anyway, those who stay till the very end will see a fleeting glimpse of the next instalment in the series: X-Men: Apocalypse.

Reblog from Quartz: The reason every book about Africa has the same cover

I’d never really noticed this pattern before but like many things once it was pointed out it seemed obvious:  the almost ever present acacia tree and a savannah sunset on the cover of books about Africa. Why?

Acacia tree on an African savannah
The tree that launched a thousand books (Reuters/Ed Harris)

In short,” the post said, “the covers of most novels ‘about Africa’ seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.”



Image by Simon Stevens


What makes the persistence of these tired and inaccurate images even worse is that we’re living in an era of brilliant book design (including this lovely, type-only cover for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah; her novel Half of a Yellow Sun begins the collage above). So why is it so hard for publishers of African authors to rise beyond cliché?


I asked Peter Mendelsund—who is an associate art director of Knopf, a gifted cover designer, and the author of a forthcoming book on the complex alliances between image and text—to help me understand how the publishing industry got to a place where these crude visual stereotypes are recycled ad nauseam. (Again and again, that acacia tree!)


He points first to “laziness, both individual or institutionalized.” Like most Americans, book designers tend not to know all that much about the rest of the world, and since they don’t always have the time to respond to a book on its own terms, they resort to visual clichés. Meanwhile, editors sometimes forget what made a manuscript unique to begin with. In the case of non-Western novels, they often fall back on framing it with “a vague, Orientalist sense of place,” Mendelsund says, and they’re enabled by risk-averse marketing departments.


“By the time the manuscript is ready to be produced, there’s a really strong temptation to follow a path that’s already been trod,” he says. “If someone goes out on a limb and tries something different, and the book doesn’t sell, you know who to blame: the guy who didn’t put the acacia tree on the cover.”


He adds that the underlying issue can be more pernicious: “Of course, there are the deeply ingrained problems of post-colonialist and Orientalist attitudes. We’re comfortable with this visual image of Africa because it’s safe. It presents ‘otherness’ in a way that’s easy to understand. That’s ironic, because what is fiction if not a way for you to stretch your empathetic muscles?”


That’s a reasonable diagnosis. But how to solve the underlying problem? Certain books are allowed to stand on their own; others—too often those by African, Muslim, or female authors—are assigned genre stereotypes. Mendelsund suggests that designers should start by initiating conversations with editors about what makes a book unique, so that they have something to respond to visually. And if that fails, and designers are pressured to use an offensive stereotype, Mendelsund says, “We can tell them that it’s racist, xenophobic, whatever.”


But change comes slowly. One day, Mendelsund predicts, there will be a best-selling novel by an African writer that happens to use a different visual aesthetic, and its success will introduce a new set of arbitrary images to represent Africa in Western eyes. “But right now, we’re in the age of the tree,” he says. “For that vast continent, in all its diversity, you get that one fucking tree.”’

‘Good Books Cheap’ – the Pelicans Return

Image of the first three new Pelican books
The first of the new Pelican books


Great to hear that Penguin Books are bringing back their Pelican imprint – pale blue covered non-fiction books at relatively cheap prices.

They’re also originally commissioned from authors, so good news for aspiring non-fiction writers as well as readers!

The Guardian has more as well as a short history of what was, and might be again, a cultural icon…