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REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS by Susan Sontag

"Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else; they haunt us"

This book was first published in 2003 but couldn’t be more topical. Images of James Foley’s beheading at the hands of ISIS terrorists that briefly circulated via You Tube and Twitter this week are just the latest in a never-ending sequence of atrocities that raise ethical, and politically charged, questions about what the media should show in print, online or on TV.

It is human nature to be torn between fascination and repulsion when confronted by such images. The late Susan Sontag understood that deciding whether or not to view such graphic representations of man’s inhumanity to man makes us either spectators or cowards. Being neutral is not an option.

Regarding The Pain Of Others is both a companion piece and an updating to Sontag’s 1977 collection of essays On Photography. In it, she explores how still photographs come to influence and, in some cases, define the way we regard war and conflict.

Her starting point is the Three Guineas essay published in 1938 in which Virginia Woolf wrote of the horror and disgust she felt at seeing photographs of victims of the Spanish civil war. These  forced Woolf to conclude “War is an abomination, a barbarity, war must be stopped”. This outrage is perfectly understandable, even praiseworthy, but also naive.  Sontag asks pointedly: “Who believes today that war can be abolished?” View full article »

AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead books, 2013)

khaled-hosseiniSeparation, both in physical or psychological, is one of the recurring themes of this absorbing novel . Khaled Hosseini shows how individuals are isolated from their past when they don’t remember important details or because they simply choose to forget. View full article »

tasteofulster“Our food. So good” is the subtitle of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board‘s free booklet listing a selection of “handpicked” cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels.

“It’s an exciting time for food in Northern Ireland” the authors gush in the introduction but the options are far from exciting if you are vegetarian and positively desperate if you are vegan.

Having just spend a week in Belfast and County Down, I can confirm that there are plenty of reasons why it’s a great country to visit but would also give warning that healthy and ethically correct food is not one of them.

The page of symbols used in the guide’s entries is the first thing that alerts you to this problem. There’s an icon to indicate which places have parking, conference facilities, disabled access or are child friendly and there’s also one for those looking for gluten-free meals. However, there is no symbol for patrons seeking meat free alternatives.

In the Belfast section there are 42 listings, a page for each, and only one of these seems to genuinely acknowledge that not everyone wants to stuff their face with sausages, steak and meat burgers. Take a bow The Salt Bistro  which offers up a “superfood salad” as well as a “lentil and bean burger with tabasco mayonnaise”.

Elsewhere “veggies”, as we are chummily called, find very slim pickings indeed. The Beatrice Kennedy restaurant  has “meat, fish and game on every menu” so the final sentence – “veggies will be pleased too”- seems to be something of a puzzling afterthought. How? and Why? I ask myself. View full article »

Just when digital artefacts threaten to take over our cultural heritage entirely, Birmingham’s new library in the heart of the English Midlands makes no bones about the fact that the physicality of the printed word still matters. View full article »

BOYHOOD directed by Richard Linklater (USA, 2014)

boyhood changes

"Don't grow up - it's a trap" - T-shirt slogan.
 "So be it when I shall grow old, / or let me die! /  The child is father of the man" - William Wordsworth - My Heart Leaps When I Behold (1802).

What a marvel of a movie this is!

12 years in the making, shooting for a few weeks each year, it follows the growing pains of Mason Jr from the age of 6 to 18. Over the course of 166 minutes, the movie shows this boy becoming a man through selected episodes that function in much the same way as memory does, through a gapped linear narrative.

Some reviewers have criticised Ellar Coltrane’s acting prowess which seems to me to miss the point of the project by a merry mile. To realise his role as Mason Jr, Coltrane is not required to get into character; he just needs to be himself. This means we see him as an ungainly, mumbling teenager and empathize with his discomfort as he reaches puberty. Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei plays his older sister and steals the show in the early scenes but it’s this boy’s life that takes centre stage. View full article »

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