Nanowrimo 2018

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Nanowrimo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The aim is to write a 50,000 word draft in 30 days.  The project provides an incentive for aspiring authors to overcome writer’s block and set up a consistent writing routine.  Achieving the 50,000 word mark requires an average of 1,666 words a day – no small feat.

To ‘win’ Nanowrimo you must write 50,000 words – it doesn’t matter whether or not your narrative is finished. The project relies on an honour system where you don’t need to submit your manuscript or even have anyone read it. To compete you make an account and update your word progress on the Nanowrimo website. While there is no reward, you do earn the satisfaction of achieving a personal goal and getting more writing done in one month than many do in years. Nanowrimo is the perfect opportunity for writing the book you’ve always wanted to write but never found the time.

The key to winning is to not look back. Nanowrimo is not about creating a polished and succinct story ready for publishing but getting words down on a page. No first draft is good, after all, and to make a compelling story requires coming back at a later date, editing and redrafting. All this is impossible, however, if you have nothing to work with.

Nanowrimo began in 1999 with a group of 21 writers in the San Francisco Bay Area. November was chosen for its poor weather. The following year it moved online and grew in popularity every year since. In 2017 over 400,000 people from across the world participated. Many schools and libraries offer public write-ins where Nanowrimo participants can work together and discuss ideas while a wide range of forums and pep talks are available online.

Since 2006 over 200 Nanowrimo projects have become fully published novels. Countless more have been self published. Big names include:

  • Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgunestern
  • The Beautiful Life by Alan Averill

As promised in January, this month I will attempt to write a 50,000 word novel.  This project will consume most of my creative energy so there will be few blog posts until December.  When the 30 days are over I will share what I have learnt from the process. Wish me luck!

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Wild Wild Country

Image result for wild wild country netflixWild Wild Country is a Netflix documentary series on the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram, a utopian experiment in rural Oregon by the followers of Indian mystic Osho.  The Duplass Brothers’ six part series was released in March 2018 and currently holds a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So strange and compelling is this ‘forgotten moment in American cultural history’ it’s hard to believe it really happened.

In 1981 followers of Indian mystic ‘Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’, (later Osho) transform an isolated ranch into a self-sustaining commune based on meditation and free love. At its height Rajneeshpuram is 7,000 strong and includes its own hospital, sewerage system and runway. Tensions with the local town and a terrorist attack lead to an SMG armed ‘Peace Force’ and a prosecution effort escalate things further. Countless twists and turns follow result in a incredible turn of events, federal investigation and nationwide scandal.

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Wild Wild Country uses archival footage from the 1980s and interviews from the present day. This includes the key players from both sides of the story, notably:

  • Ma Anand Sheela: Bhagwan’s secretary and Rajneeshpuram’s de facto leader. Her  Machiavellian personality is central to the story. (Pictured).Image result for rajneeshpuram sheela
  • Jane Stork (Ma Shanta B): Australian Rajneeshee and member of Sheela’s inner circle.
  • Philip Toelkes (Swami Prem Niren): Bhagwan’s personal attorney and devoted follower.
  • Jon Bowerman: local rancher and militant opponent of the Rajneeshees. Son of Nike founder Bill Bowerman.
  • Robert Weaver: Assistant to the US Attorney and a leader in the Rajneeshee’s prosecution.

Osho died before the documentary was filmed. Wild Wild Country doesn’t delve into his teachings, or life inside Rajneeshpuram, focusing instead on the characters and politics surrounding the commune. Though Osho does speak in the documentary, for most of Rajneespuram’s existence he kept a vow of silence.

Conversely the guru’s teachings are widely available today and under ‘Osho International’. You may have seen ‘spiritually aware’ friends share his quotes on social media. Osho International omitts the Oregon chapter from its namesake’s official biography and criticised Wild Wild Country for ‘not giving a clear account of the story’.

Osho International claims:

“[the scandal surrounding Rajneeshpuram] was a U.S. government conspiracy, from the White House on down, aimed at thwarting Osho’s vision of a community based on conscious living.”

Image result for oshoWild Wild Country’s forte is its objectivity. It is hard to pick a side in the multifaceted controversy, where the story is being told from all angles and moral lines are blurred. Osho may be benevolent spiritual leader, but he also boasts America’s biggest collection of Rolls-Royces. The conservative townsfolk who just want to be left alone also come across as intolerant stick in the muds. For legal enthusiasts it is an excellent case study in land rights, bigotry and the separation of church and state.

A wealth of information is available online for those wishing to go down the rabbit hole after viewing. Wild Wild Country may only touch on part of the controversy, but does so with insight, tact and flair that Google can never match.

The World’s Strongest Militant Groups

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What follows are the ten strongest militant groups, paramilitaries, narco armies, terrorist organizations and rebel militias active in 2018. Whether you consider them terrorists or freedom fighters, militant groups are involved in every conflict in the world today. Some are shadowy insurgencies while others control states in their own right, complete with civil services and standing armies.

This post assesses the strength of a rebel army by number of fighters, military effectiveness, funding and territory controlled. Being difficult to ascertain the true strength of these organisations, I have used the most up to date estimates by official sources I can find.  Please note the number of fighters reflects active personnel only. Many militant groups can call on larger pools of reservists and militia. As many groups change their names frequently, for the sake of clarity I will use the monikers favored by western media.

Honorouble mentions: Naxalites (Indian communists), Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Iraqi shi’ite militia) Shan State Army – South (Burmese separatists), New People’s Army (Filipino Communists), Nuer White Army (South Sudanese rebels)

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10: Kachin Independence Army

  • Official name: ShangLawt Hpyen (Kachin Independence Army)
  • Founded: 1961
  • Ideology: Kachin nationalism, separatism
  • Goals: independence of Kachin state
  • Area of operation: Burma, China
  • Territory controlled: Kachin State, Burma
  • Estimated strength: 12,000 (Myanmar Peace Monitor, 2018)

The Kachin are the Christian people inhabiting Burma’s northernmost region, a mountainous land rich in jade, gold and amber. The KIA has fought the Burmese government for independence since 1961, save for an 17 year ceasefire that ended in 2011. They are disciplined and effective guerrilla fighters, who fund themselves through the sale of natural minerals. Currently the Kachin Independence Army leads a coalition of ethnic rebel groups against the Burmese government.

Image result for hamas9: Hamas

  • Full name: Harakat al-Muqawana al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement)
  • Founded: 1987
  • Ideology: Palestinian nationalism, Sunni fundamentalism, anti-zionism, jihad
  • Goals: destruction of Israel, establishment of an Islamic State in Palestine
  • Territory controlled: Gaza Strip
  • Area of Operation: Palestine, Israel, Egypt
  • Estimated Strength: 25,000 (Counter Extremist Project, 2017)

Hamas is the faction which controls the Gaza Strip – one half of the Palestinian territory.  Though 136 UN members recognise Palestinian statehood, Hamas’s military wing owes its allegiance to the party, not the Palestinian Authority. They are considered a terrorist organisation by the US, EU, Australia and New Zealand. Hamas claims “all types of legitimate resistance are practiced to end the oppression and injustices imposed by Israel”. This includes rocket attacks and suicide bombs against both civilian and military targets.

Hamas arose in the Second Intifada (uprising).  They have since replaced the secular and more moderate PLO as the main resistance against Israel. Blockaded by its neighbours, Hamas survives on Qatari and Iranian aid.

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8: United Wa State Army

  • Official name: Wǎbāng Liánhéjūn (United Wa State Army )
  • Founded: 1989
  • Ideology: Wa nationalism, separatism
  • Goals: independence of Wa State
  • Area of Operation:  Burma
  • Territory controlled: Wa State, Burma
  • Estimated strength: 25,000 (Myanmar Peace Monitor, 2015)

The UWSA is Burma’s most powerful ethnic militia. Formed from the remnants of the old communist movement, in the 1990s the Wa replaced Khun Sa’s Mong Tai army as the Golden Triangle’s premier narcotics smugglers. Though independent of the central government, they are loosely allied with the Burmese military against the Shan rebels. The UWSA control territory along the Burmese and Thai borders, where they fund themselves through the trafficking of amphetamines.  The UWSA allegedly purchases its arms from China, making its soldiers better equipped than its rivals.

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7: ISIS

  • Full name: ad-Dawlah al Islamiya (Islamic State)
  • Ideology: Sunni fundamentalism, wahhabism, jihad
  • Goals: establishment of a global caliphate
  • Area of operation: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Nigeria, Caucasus, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines.
  • Territory controlled: small parts of Syria, Libya, Nigeria and Afghanistan.
  • Estimated strength: 33,000 (United Nations, 2018)

Were this post written two years ago ISIS would have topped the list.  In 2014 their self-declared caliphate spanned almost half of Iraq and Syria, but, since the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, has to diminished a few pockets in the Syrian desert. ISIS is far from finished however. As well as an extensive network of terrorist cells, ISIS subsidiary groups still fight in the wartorn regions of the Muslim world. This includes Abu Sayyaf in the Phillipines, who briefly seized the city of Marawi in 2017, and a Libyan affiliate around 4,000 strong. ISIS militants are also active in Egypt’s Sinai province and Afghanistan.

Their strongest branch is Boko Haram. In 2015 this rebel group declared itself the caliphate’s West African province.  Their war against the Nigerian government has cost over 20,000 lives and they still control much of the country’s north.

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6: Al Qaeda

  • Full name: Al Qaeda (The Base)
  • Founded: 1988
  • Ideology: Sunni fundamentalism, wahhabism, jihad
  • Goals: establishment of a global caliphate
  • Area of operation: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Burma, Djibouti, Ethiopia, France, India,  Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia, United States, Yemen
  • Territory controlled: parts of Yemen and southern Somalia and  Idlib province, Syria
  • Estimated strength: 34,000 (Council on Foreign Relations, 2018)

The terrorist group responsible for 9/11 benefited immensely from the Arab Spring and the wars that followed. Under the leadership of Bin Laden’s successor Ayman Al-Zawahari, Al Qaeda’s is no longer a just shadowy terror group, but a network of affiliated militias with thousands under their command. This includes Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who operate in Libya, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsular in Yemen and Tahir Al-Sham, the strongest group still fighting Assad in Syria.

Al-Shabaab, who joined Al-Qaeda in 2012, is their strongest branch, with around 9,000 fighters engaged against the Somali goverment and their African Union allies.

Like its breakaway rival ISIS, Al Qaeda is committed to the creation of a global caliphate. It sees Israel and the USA, in particular, as its greatest foes. It is the most internationalised of the groups listed.

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5. Taliban

  • Official name: Ansar Allah (Supporters of God)
  • Founded: 1994
  • Ideology: Sunni Jihadism, Deobandi fundamentalism, Pashtun nationalism
  • Goals: Overthrow of the Afghan government, restoration of Taliban rule
  • Area of operation: Afghanistan, Pakistan
  • Territory controlled: Helmand Province, Afghanistan
  • Estimated Strength: 60,000 (Counter Extremist Project, 2014)

The Taliban were among US backed Mujahideen fighting Afghanistan’s Soviet backed government in the 1980s. In 1994 they seized the country and enforced their strict interpretation of Islamic law. Though the 2001 US invasion toppled the Taliban government, they retreated to the mountains and licked their wounds. Employing new strategies of suicide bombing and drug trafficking, the Taliban launched an insurgency in 2006 and now operate on both sides of the Pakistani border, a constant threat to peace and stability in Afghanistan. Stronger than they have been in years, the Taliban now threaten 70% of Afghanistan.

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4. Houthi Movement

  • Official Name: Ansar Allah (Supporters of God)
  • Founded: 1994
  • Ideology: Zaidi revivalism, Shia fundamentalism, anti-Zionism
  • Goals: establishment of a Zaidi state in Yemen
  • Area of operation: Yemen
  • Territory controlled: Western Yemen
  • Estimated strength: 100,000 (CNN, 2011)

The Houthis are an alliance of Shi’ite tribesmen fighting in Yemen. Starting as a revivalist group among the Zaidi sect, the Houthis rebelled against Yemen’s Saudi backed, Sunni dominated government in 2004 in a bid to preserve their culture and rid the country of western and Saudi influence. In 2014 the Houthis seized the capital, San’a, which prompted the intervention of Saudi Arabia and a prolonging of the conflict. The Houthis are bankrolled by Iran and face bombing by Saudi, Emirati and US jets. Their banner translates to ‘God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse upon the Jews! Victory to Islam!’ Despite this, the Houthis do not directly threaten either Israel or the US.

 Photo from Vkontakte, Konstantin Gorelov3. Pro-Russian Separatists

  • Official name: United Armed Forces of Novorossiya
  • Founded: 2014
  • Ideology: Russian nationalism, seperatism
  • Goals: independence of Luhansk and Donetsk from Ukraine
  • Area of operation: Ukraine
  • Territory controlled: Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts, Ukraine
  • Estimated strength: 40,000

The United Armed Forces of Novorossiya consist of the Donestk and Luhansk People’s Millitias – armed rebels fighting the government of Ukraine. In June 2015, the Ukrainian defense minister claimed the rebels had an army ‘sufficient for a mid-level European state’.  This includes infantry, Russian supplied IFVs, tanks and anti-aircraft missiles. An indeterminate number of Russian ‘volunteers’ fight in their ranks, though the Kremlin deniesofficial involvement. Controlling a functional state in Ukraine’s Russian speaking regions, the separatist forces have the structure and discipline of a highly organized fighting force.

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2. Syrian Democratic Forces

  • Official Name: Hezen Suriya Demokratik (Syrian Democratic Forces)
  • Founded: 2015
  • Ideology: Democracy, libetertarian socialism, federalism, secularism
  • Goals: creation of a democratic federal system in Syria
  • Area of Operation:  Syria
  • Territory controlled: Rojava, northern Syria
  • Estimated Strength: 70,000 (SyrianCivilWarMap, 2018)

The Syrian Democratic Forces is the armed forces of the self-declared ‘Democratic Federation of Northern  Syria’ (Rojava).  Though the core of their force is the Kurdish Peoples Protection Forces  (YPG), the SDF ranks also include Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrians and Armenians.  Because they are sworn enemies with ISIS and other Jihadist groups, the SDF enjoy aerial support from the US and an uneasy peace with the Syrian government. Unlike other factions in the Syrian Civil War, the SDF includes units of women fighters.  Due to links with the Kurdistan Workers Party, they are enemies of the Turkish government.

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1. Hezbollah

  • Full name: Kata’eb Hezbollah (Party of God)
  • Founded: 1985
  • Ideology: Shi’ite fundamentalism, anti-zionism, jihad
  • Goals: destruction of Israel
  • Territory controlled: southern Lebanon, southern Beirut, Bekaa Valley
  • Area of Operation: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq
  • Estimated Strength: 65,000 (Southfront, 2016)

Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shi’ite militia and political party closely aligned with Iran. During Israeli occupation of the 1980s, Hezbollah emerged as the strongest force in Lebanon, of which it controls a third. Although not the largest, Hezbollah is by far the world’s most powerful non-governmental army. They boast a well-funded and conventional military not only more powerful than Lebanon’s but arguably the best in the Arab world. More so than any other militants, Hezbollah soldiers are battle hardened, motivated and disciplined. Their Iranian supplied arsenal includes rockets, tanks, drones and up to 65,000 missiles.

Hezbollah currently fights alongside the forces of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria but their real enemy is Israel, whom they pledge to destroy. Their long term leader, Hassan Nasrallah, claims Hezbollah is more powerful than the IDF.

Sources: ABC News, Asia Times, Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN, Combatting Terrorism Center, Council on Foreign Relations, Counter Extremism Project, The Diplomat, Euromaiden press, Haaretz, Global Research, Global Security, Myanmar Peace Monitor, National Interest,  Russian News Agency, Stanford University – Mapping Millitants, Southfront, SyrianCivilWarMap, Times of Israel, Tracking Terorrism, United Nations

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White Helmets

Image result for white helmets logoThe White Helmets  are the largest humanitarian organisation in Syria. Founded in 2014, their 3,000 members risk death to aid and rescue civilians in the ‘most dangerous places on earth’.

According to the White Helmet website:

‘Our mission is to save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimise further injury to people and damage to property.’

When the vicious realities of the Syrian civil war caught the world’s attention in 2012, international aid agencies and NGOs offered to help Syrian civil defense volunteers. The Turkish charity AKUT and the British Mayday Rescue Foundation provided training in first aid, rescue and trauma care to Syrians across the border.  In 2014, these volunteer groups formed Syria Civil Defence, or the ‘White Helmets’. Though externally funded, their ranks comprise of Syrians.

Syrian rebel territory, particularly dense urban zones like Aleppo, has been subject to mortar fire, aerial bombardment, barrel bombs and chemical nerve agents.  Unarmed White Helmets rescue civilians from rubble, tend to the wounded and maintain water and electrical services. They claim to have saved over 114, 131 lives since the war began.

Image result for white helmetsSyria’s regime and their Russian allies consider the White Helmets enemies. Saving lives and rebuilding infrastructure in hostile territory is not in their interest, as doing so prolongs surrender. Assad claims the White Helmets are both members of Al Qaeda and agents of US imperialism.  Sputnik, a Russian news agency, describes the White Helmets as ‘busy cooking up lies instead of protecting the human rights of the Syrian people”, stressing that liberal bogeyman George Soros is a major donor. Kremlin propaganda also  pushes a conspiracy theory claiming the White Helmets are American spies who conducted the 2018 sarin gas attack as a false flag operation.

The White Helmets are not without detractors in the west either. Blogger Vanessa Bailey, known for her coverage of Israel and Syria, anti-Israel academic Max Blumenthal, and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd are among the best known, as well as the usual cohort of American alt right figures who buy into Russian propaganda. They claim the White Helmets:

  • are anti Assad
  • operate mainly in Jihadist territory
  • are funded by foreign governments
  • want foreign governments to intervene against Assad

All true. However if volunteers are saving lives does it really matter what banner flies over them? The White Helmets are merely unarmed medical workers. Even so, if you witnessed the ravages of Russian bombardment firsthand, you would probably be anti-Assad too. Maybe you’d even favour intervention. During the height of the siege of Aleppo in 2016 the White Helmets and three other charities accused Russia of war crimes.

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Only in rebel territory are innocents bombed day and night by Russian warplanes. Only in rebel territory are the White Helmets allowed to operate. Before her murder at the hands of a far right terrorist, British Labour MP Joe Cox nominated the White Helmets for a Nobel Prize. If you ask me they are heroes.

In April 2018, President Trump halted US aid to the White Helmets.  In July, when regime forces took the regions of Deraa and Quintera, over 800 White Helmets and their families were stranded against the Israeli border. Israel evacuated 422 of them through the Golan Heights to Jordan. Now Syria’s remaining White Helmets are stranded in Idlib province, the last territory still resisting Assad.

Sources: BBC, The Conversation, The Guardian, Russia Today, New York Times, The Nation, Sputnik, Syria Civil Defense

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What Makes an Animal Domesticatable?

Related imageWhy don’t we farm hippopotamuses for their meat? They are fat enough. Why can we ride horses but not zebras? Why did humans domesticate some animals but fail with others?

In Chapter 9 of Guns, Germs and Steel, Zebras and Unhappy Marriages, Jared Diamond describes the ‘Anna Karenina Principle.’ That is: ‘Domesticatable animals are alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.’ For an animal to be domesticated it must meet a strict set of criteria. Any animal not meeting them cannot be domesticated.

  1. Diet. Domestic animals must be fed en masse for cheap. Carnivores and picky herbivores who cannot eat grass or grain fall short.
  2. Growth rate. Domesticated animals must grow quickly to be worth raising. While elephants and gorillas take 15 years to reach full size, a cow takes 2.
  3. Problems of captive breeding. Many animals refuse to mate in captivity and thus cannot be bred.
  4. Nasty disposition. Aggressive animals cannot be domesticated. We cannot ride zebras, for example, because zebras are wild and vicious. In zoos they bite more people than tigers. Wild hippopotamuses kill more people than crocodiles.
  5. Tendency to panic. Being fast, unpredictable and easily panicked deer and antelope are too difficult to herd. Reindeer are an exception.
  6. Social structure. Domesticated animals need to be comfortable in large groups and a rigid hierarchy which humans can take over. Antelope and bighorn sheep are too territorial and will fight each other instead of cooperating as domestic sheep and cattle do.

Domesticated is not the same as tamed. Many animals can be tamed, that is behaviourly modified to cooperate with humans. Domestication requires selective breeding of a new species which cooperates with and serves humans. It is how a wild boar becomes a pig.  So while elephants and horses can be used for transport and warfare, elephants are too difficult to breed in captivity and therefore can’t be domesticated. Tame elephants have to be captured from the wild.

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Of the 148 species large herbivores which could provide food and/or transport to humans, only 14 are domesticated:

  • sheep (descended from the mouflon sheep, Middle East)
  • goat (bezoar goat, Middle East)
  • cow (aurochs, Eurasia/North Africa)
  • pig (wild boar, Eurasia/North Africa)
  • horse (Ukraine)
  • Arabian camel (Middle East/ North Africa)
  • Bactrian camel (Central Asia)
  • llama/alpaca (guanaco, Andes)
  • donkey (African wild ass, North Africa)
  • reindeer (northern Eurasia)
  • water buffalo (China/Southeast Asia)
  • yak (Himalayas)
  • bali cattle (banteng, Southeast Asia)
  • mithan/gayal (guar, India/Southeast Asia)

Dogs, although not ‘large’ or herbivorous, tick the boxes. Jared Diamond argues like pigs, dogs are in fact omnivores.

The benefits of domestication are many. Some of the above serve as beasts of burden, others a source of clothing or milk. All could be eaten, allowing for bigger populations. Warriors on horseback held a massive advantage over those who lacked them.

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There is a correlation between where these species originated and where human civilization developed. 13  of the 14 domestic herbivores originated in Eurasia and only one (llamas) in South America. Australia, North America and southern Africa had none.  It is no coincidence that 5 domesticatable species originated in the Middle East, the cradle of civilization. However it was not only animals; the distribution of wild grains was also a deciding factor in where the first civilizations were born.

The Dubliners – Raglan Road

 

‘Raglan Road’ was first written as a poem by Patrick Kavanagh in 1946. He dedicated it to Hilda Moriaty, a university student Kavanagh met, and pursued a brief affair with, on Raglan Road in Dublin. After she criticised his poetic skills for their dreary subject matter, Kavanagh promised he would immortalise her in his poems.

Luke Kelly of the Irish folk group The Dubliners put Kavanagh’s poem to music and in 1986. It has since become a well-known addition to the Irish folk tradition. I love the mournful tune and how Kelly delivers. Frances Black sung it at the funeral of IRA leader cum North Irish first minister Martin Mccguinnes in 2017.  It also features on Martin Macdonagh’s ‘In Bruges’ (2008) – one of my favorite films.

The lyrics tell the tale of a man who falls in love with a woman on Raglan Road. He knows the relationship will hurt him, but goes in anyway. Man, I can relate.

Lyrics:

I gave her gifts of the mind
I gave her the secret sign
That’s known to the artists who have known
The true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint without stint
I gave her poems to say
With her own name there and her own dark hair
Like clouds over fields of May.

Spartacus

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Spartacus (1960) is a swords and sandals epic starring Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier. Action, adventure, romance and intrigue abound.  The film follows the rise of the gladiator from the lowest rung of society to the Roman public enemy number one.

Last week my local cinema was showing classics on the big screen. I’d seen Spartacus only once, when I was a boy. This was back before I could tell when a film was dated. Back when I enjoyed every movie I saw. I remembered the battles and the “I am Spartacus” scene, but little else. Naturally the senatorial politics and Crassus’s monologue on liking both ‘snails’ and ‘oysters’ flew over my head. I also didn’t appreciate just how well written, and acted, this masterpiece was.

Related imageSpartacus is the story of a man who challenges the might of Rome. He is born a slave in the end days of the corrupt Roman Republic, and forced to fight his fellow men as entertainment.  But Spartacus has other ideas. During a dispute in the kitchens, he kills his trainer and inspires the gladiators to revolt.  They escape and roam the Italian countryside, ravaging Roman estates and freeing slaves as they go. Using the techniques he learnt as a gladiator, Spartacus builds a formidable army and humbles the legions sent his way.

That much is true. Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who instigated the ‘Third Servile War’ of 73-70 BC, the largest slave rebellion of the ancient world.  When Crassus eventually crushed it, he crucified 6000 rebels along the Appian Way.

Spartacus’s director, lead actors and screenwriter were among the best in history. They made the film at the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when technicolor was new and exciting but before television diminished the movie going audience.

Image result for kubrick trumbo douglasKirk Douglas plays Spartacus. Well-built and charismatic, he fits the role well.  At 45 Douglas was conscious of being upstaged and used his position as executive producer to insist no one younger be cast as a gladiator. Nevertheless, his performance makes up for this.

Stanley Kubrick was chosen to direct two weeks into filming.  As much Douglas’s vision as his own, Spartacus is the only Kubrick film in which he did not have total creative control. With CGI not yet invented, Kubrick used 10,000 extras from the Spanish infantry for the final battle scene, filmed in a plain outside Madrid.

Image result for kubrick trumbo douglasDalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay from behind the Hollywood blacklist. Once Hollywood’s best paid writer, he fell victim to the Red Scare after refused to ‘name names’ of other Hollywood Communists.

Howard Fast, who wrote the book, was also under blacklist. It was only by chance, that his self-published work found itself in Kirk Douglas’s hands and was consequently adapted for the big screen.

Though Trumbo wrote Spartacus in exile under a pseudonym, Douglas insisted he take full credit for his work and personally accept the awards it won. Trumbo did so, at risk of arrest and was exonerated only after a newly elected John F Kennedy defied a conservative embargo to see the film. His endorsement broke the Hollywood blacklist. “Thanks Kirk,” Trumbo said. “For giving me back my name.”

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  • Best Supporting Actor (Peter Ustinov)
  • Best Art Direction
  • Best Cinemotography
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Film Editing (nominated)
  • Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (nominated)

Pictured right: Peter Ustinov as the slave trader Bataiutus

Good quotes:

“You don’t want to know mine. I don’t want to know your name….. Gladiators don’t make friends. If we’re ever matched in the arena together, I have to kill you.” – Draba

“When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” – Spartacus

“I’m not after glory, I’m after Spartacus!” – Crassus

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Part of Spartacus’s draw is the universal appeal of his struggle. He is fighting for freedom. Not freedom in a nationalistic, Braveheart sense, but literal emancipation. His army juxtaposes beautifully with the Romans. While they are scheming and factional, his people are fiercely united. While the Romans buy their love with money and force, Spartacus and Varinia are mutual and pure. While the Romans hold the material advantage, Spartacus holds the moral.

Despite being old, Spartacus is still worth a watch.