Angel and Greyhound
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The Oxford pub crawl, week 1: Angel and Greyhound

A pub that can barely justify its claim to be a Cowley local, the Angel and Greyhound sits on St Clements, just off the Magdalen roundabout. The unremarkable outside, littered with picnic tables and clad in unattractive red brickwork, is drab enough that we came perilously close to beating a hasty retreat. The hanging Young’s sign, with its promise of sterile mock-antiquity, did little to dispel the impression. The judgement was too hasty, however; this is a fine example of a well done suburban pub with a solid selection of drinks, a pleasant atmosphere, and enough unique features to hold interest.

Despite the time (2pm on a Tuesday, a damning indictment of our work schedule), the Angel and Greyhound had one of its two fires roaring and a surprisingly young clientele cosied on the tweed and leather armchairs. The bar itself was spacious, well stocked and warm, with a friendly, professional but laid-back landlord buried in the crossword as we entered. In classic Young’s style, there was a drink for everyone here: as well as the brewery’s standard ales, there was a unexpected selection of European lagers, some exceptional spirits that included a particularly fine port and a pretty good wine list. It’s even one of only four pubs in the UK that serves Young’s chocolate stout. Being a particularly vile drink, this isn’t entirely surprising.

This was essentially a nicer, cheaper King’s Arms. The same olde worlde photos of an Oxford that is far past, or perhaps never existed, including a particularly strange series of grocery murals; the same unclassifiable wooden panelling and expensive upholstery that fulfills the cliché of what a British pub should look like. There’s more here, however, including a bizarrely wide selection of board games, a peculiar baize-based cross between billiards and pinball that slightly defeated us and a particularly strange selection of banjo playing guinea pig models nestling among the wines. These eclectic additions remove the drinking-society pretentiousness that pervades the KA.

The space is well laid out, affording private areas without being oppressive or constrained; the sense of a cosy inn was here in force. You were naturally led through to the large beer garden (really more of a patio). At first extremely uninviting in the bucketing rain, this grew in promise as the afternoon sun lengthened and the second pint sunk in. This coincided with the pub beginning to busy, until – by 4pm – the atmosphere was pleasantly jovial.

There were a few downsides to the Angel and Greyhound. The bar snacks were overpriced and Dickensianly gristly, palatable only when dowsed in mustard. A particularly ugly ATM seemed an entirely unnecessary addition, and, positioned between two games machines, lent a slightly arcade-esque feel to the back of the pub. The bathroom facilities slightly gave away the game of a commercial pub dressed up, as they certainly clashed horribly with the clean and welcoming bar.

This is an ideal pub for a lazy Wednesday afternoon, where a superior option to work is a couple of pints and a catch up with an old friend – though we do suspect it busies significantly with locals and students in the evening. It’s not angelic, but it is a worthy alternative to Oxford’s better known establishment.

 

The Verdict

Beer: 3/5

Value: 4/5

(£6.80 for two pints)

Atmosphere: 4/5

Food: 2/5

PHOTO/grahamc99

Delhi
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“Dalit rights are human rights”: Working with the NCDHR

A banner flashing the words ”Dalit Rights are Human Rights” caught my eye as I walked through the maple doors into the Central Secretariat of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) that is located in an area of Delhi called South Patel Nagar. Immediately next to the banner I could spot a large portrait of B.R. Ambedkar, the famous drafter of the Indian constitution, who had himself been a member of the so-called ‘untouchable’ community in India and coined the term Dalit (broken, suppressed) to refer to those who belonged to it.  Today, fifty years after his death, Ambedkar is still the incontrovertible hero of the ‘untouchable’ community and the champion of Dalit rights.  His photograph remains as ubiquitous in Dalit political institutions as the pictures of Gandhi elsewhere in India.

In fact, many contemporary NGOs, activist groups and even Think Tanks specialising in issues of Dalit discrimination and marginalisation, such as NCDHR or the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS), continue to draw much of their inspiration, as well as specific strategies from Ambedkar’s writings.  Yet, there is also an increasing acknowledgment of the fact that new historical circumstances, the changing political and economic face of India, and processes of globalisation call for a more time-tailored type of Dalit activism; a kind of activism that can successfully tap into popular discourses and utilize new linguistic and conceptual tools. One notion that becomes particularly important and useful in this context is the idea of human rights.

This September I spent six weeks with the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights in Delhi, conducting fieldwork for my Masters thesis. Despite the fact that I had done a fair amount of background research on both Dalit activism and on the organisation itself, I was unsure what to expect. Working with academics, activists and policy makers alike NCDHR did not clearly fall into any institutional category, notably successful in its national but especially international advocacy efforts NCDHR is a registered NGO that uniquely combines elements of grassroots community organisation, policy lobbying on the state, as well as the national level and an awareness raising campaign.

The central office in Delhi coordinates four separate and clearly targeted sub-campaigns: The National Dalit Movement for Justice, the Campaign for Dalit Economic Rights, The Movement for Dalit Women’s Rights, and a disaster management initiative called National Dalit Watch. Each of these specialized sub-campaigns collaborates with state-level Dalit NGO’s, which in turn provide resources and capacity building to community advocates. In this way skills, as well as financial assets filter down to the grassroots, while, simultaneously, important insights from the community level are translated up the chain to the central office. There regular staff members, many of which hold Masters degrees or even PhDs integrate this information into their recommendations to Indian policy makers or their reports to international bodies, such as the UNDP.

During my initial days at NCDHR I focused much of my time and energy on the attempt to understand the precise institutional character of the organisation. Yet I soon realised that maybe I was asking the wrong question altogether. As I began to interview the campaign administrators in the central secretariat, attended meetings with grassroots activists and participated in debates on current issues of marginalisation it became clear to me that what NCDHR’s members were truly concerned with was contributing strategic innovation to an ancient struggle.

Over tea one day, Abhay Xaxa, the programme coordinator for the Dalit Movement for Economic Rights (Dalit Arthik Adhikar Andolan), frankly informed me that he thought I was missing the point. “You keep trying to figure out in what ways NCDHR is an activist campaign or a research organisation,” he said shaking his head. “We are all those things, but that’s not what’s important. What is important is how we differ. We try to beat politicians at their own game.  We are the new activists.”

Now we can all agree that self-assessment is a tricky thing, and even more so when it comes to an organisation with a clear mission in the fight against injustice.  Therefore, whether or not NCHDR’s work actually represents a uniquely new approach is questionable.  However it is undeniable that the organisation’s line of attack lives from the mobilisation of distinctly modern discourses, such as that of economic analysis and Human Rights. Mr. Xaxa’s campaign has set itself the task of addressing the issue government funding for Dalits and other marginalised groups like tribals (politically referred to as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes respectively) by performing a meticulous investigation into the patterns of money allocation revealed in annual budget reports.

What is important is how we differ. We try to beat the politicians at their own game. We are the new activists.

Paul Diwarkar, the General Secretary of NCDHR summarised this strategy for me during a team meeting one day. “People tend to think about Dalit activism merely in terms of identity politics. You know, people demonstrating, talking about everyday untouchability and discrimination. While all these things are crucial we realise that many people across India prefer to be blind to the continued discrimination we face. Therefore we need to convince them with numbers and charts and reports. We need to present them with tools they are familiar with and believe in.”

It is for precisely this reason that NCDHR has chosen to frame its demands in terms of human rights. Although as an anthropologist I can confirm that there continues to be much discussion about the universal applicability or the ideal formulation of human rights, the idea that we need general moral guidelines of this kind has become widely accepted.  Through the ratification of various UN charters countries around the globe have made human rights their responsibility.  “By saying that Dalit Rights are human rights, we are making this everyone’s issue, and everyone’s responsibility,“ Beena Pallical, the National Convener for NCDHR told me. “It’s all about the way you frame it.”

It is difficult to assess the extent of NCDHR’s success as a human rights organization or even an awareness raising campaign after the brief time I spent working there this summer.  NCDHR is a young initiative, merely 20 years old and evaluating its work would require a close look at its achievements on the local community level, as well as in national and international advocacy over an extended period. Yet I am convinced that NCDHR has managed to tap into a crucial insight: even if certain demands for justice remain constant they need to be articulated in the political and linguistic tools of their time to be heard.

Making people see and acknowledge discrimination is not simply a matter of pointing it out but a question of how one points it out. In this sense activism is and always needs to be new.

PHOTO/Arian Zwegers

Julia Golding
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The many talents of Julia Golding

With over 20 books published and a collection of pen names to match, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Julia Golding’s sole career has been as a hugely successful author of children’s and young adults’ literature. Not so: Golding has also worked as a foreign diplomat, graduated from both Cambridge and Oxford, and been an Oxfam lobbyist. Nowadays you can find her in the city writing for her next book, or talking at schools, bookshops and festivals.

It seems appropriate to discuss Golding’s authorship first, and I ask about the beginning of her career as a full time writer of fiction. It isn’t the usual nightmarish tale of the slush pile for months on end. “Well I’m unusual in that I had a very smooth journey from sending in a book to getting it published. What happened was, I’d been writing beforehand but I’d never sent anything serious off to a publisher… and I was on maternity leave with my third child and I wrote a book, as you do.” The book was sent straight to the very local Oxford University Press, who immediately expressed their interest. However delays meant that the wait for publishing was lengthy, so much so that Golding had time to write a second (unrelated) book, and send that to an agent. Again, the response was swift. Taken on by another top publisher, in 2006 Golding had her first two books published merely months apart, something that must have felt frustrating at the time but came good in the end. “So the first book I had published isn’t so much a first book and that’s worked out really well for me because that’s the one that won prizes and set me firmly on the way to making it a career as opposed to just having a book published,” Golding explains. “People say getting a book published is difficult but actually the really difficult thing is keeping going and it’s particularly difficult now. It’s carnage in publishing at the moment, total carnage.”

It’s carnage in publishing at the moment, total carnage

In the world of publishing, Golding is known by three names. I ask why the need to write as different people; as herself, and by two pen names, Joss Stirling and Eve Edwards. “There’s a creative answer and there’s a practical answer. So the creative answer is that I see them as three different kinds of expressions of what I do.” Julia Golding is mostly children’s literature from ages nine to thirteen; Joss Stirling is the name she then created for her teenage paranormal romances. Despite the description however, Golding definitely does not write books about love triangles or supernatural boyfriend issues. “I suppose I got fed up with seeing [my daughter] walking round with the Twilight books. I wanted to write something for her not in that heavy duty paranormal stuff, because I couldn’t seriously write about people turning into werewolves.” Her final pen name, Eve Edwards, is who she reserves for more historical fiction, in the vein of “a teen Philippa Gregory”.

To make enough money you have to do more than one book a year, unless you’re stratospherically famous

There is also a business side to Golding’s multiple identities. “It’s a very good strategy relating back to what I said about publishing being difficult at the moment, which is bookshops are reluctant to take more than too much of any writer. If you split up your load you can do more than one book a year, and to make enough money to live on you have to do more than one book a year, unless you’re stratospherically famous.”

In terms of her publishing schedule, Golding’s latest book has just been released. There has already been a phenomenal response from readers online to number four in the hugely popular Savant series, Misty Falls. However it almost didn’t happen, due to the publisher’s uncertainty about the future of the series. Sales of the previous instalments in a wide array of countries, as well as fan demand for more, changed their minds. “They then decided that maybe we hadn’t come to the end of the Savant series, because they’d packaged it as a trilogy, and they said can you do another. This is when you get the author creativity butting up against the publisher,” Golding tells me. “I said, ‘Well yeah, course I can, but I want to do another trilogy so I can finish off sorting out the brothers that I’d lined up’. I had it in mind to do that anyway. Because things are flaky out there they prefer to go book by book, but what I have in mind – what I’m going to do, I’m sure they’ll follow me in this one – is another three.”

Writing wasn’t always on the agenda, and while in her last year at Cambridge studying English, Golding began to cast around for future options. A master’s degree and a dream of radio production were both high on her list, but where she ended up was completely different from either. Desperate to get some interview experience, Golding signed up for the civil service exam. Totally relaxed about the whole affair, Golding came out of her final year with a degree and a job secured in the Foreign Office. The plans for the BBC had sadly fallen through, but the government was keen to employ her. “I was a bit more nervous by the time it came to final interview, and it wasn’t helped by the fact it was just a week before my finals, so I wasn’t sure which to be more nervous about. Whatever I did worked and I got selected for what they called then the fast-stream.”

Three years were spent in Poland as a diplomat, but Golding explains to me that not having had a year out, and too young for a promotion, it was time to try something new. “Also I wasn’t keen on the idea of being a nomad for the rest of my life, and if you work for the Foreign Office you’re a nomad,” Golding continues. “So I decided to do a doctorate and have children for a bit whilst I did a career break and then I’d decide if I’d go back or not.”

It wasn’t to be, and Golding never returned to the Foreign Office. Instead, after completing a doctorate in Romantic literature at Oxford and building a family, she went to work in the policy department of Oxfam, a process that involved lobbying at a high level. “It was a really good job, better than being in the Foreign Office, because it was on conflict issues it meant going round the UN; Brussels, governments, lobbying on the various things that were going on at the time including the war in Afghanistan. It was all about the protection of civilians in war and the delivery of aid.”

You’re always an author, but whether or not you’re published is open

When Golding had her final child, she decided to see if she could make something of writing. Describing herself as “frazzled” by a family and a job in conflict zones, she settled into the demands of authorship. Over 20 books and three pen names  later, this seems to be very firmly her career, and when I ask if that is the case Golding agrees.

“The difference between the other things I’ve mentioned and this is I’m the only one who can write my books, whereas somebody else could do the role I was doing in the organisations. But the thing about being an author is it’s not so much your choice about how long the career lasts but for how long you have something which is commercial. You’re always an author but whether or not you’re published […] is open. I’m trying to make it last.”

 

PHOTO/Julia Golding

PHOTO/Simon & His Camera
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A country bumpkin confronts city life

I’ve been in London this week, one of the few times I’ve been there. Or any other British city, for that matter. This in itself goes a pretty long way to introducing myself, and only a tenth of the way through my column – so ideal. Alternatively, I could have told you how I encountered my first kerb: slap, bang in the middle of my forehead, an unwelcome find for the keen and freshly stabiliser-free cyclist. Confused as to why a grassy verge, or at least a cowpat, hadn’t broken my fall, I was greeted with a worms-eye view of an absurd twist of concrete, which had appeared to writhe out of nowhere. Bike bucking in panic, me tumbling down to meet it: “Welcome to the city,” it sneered.

But then I realised that the latter was a necessary addition anyway. Fifteen minutes ago I was a sardine, packed into a tin and cartwheeling beneath London. And during that time I learnt more than just the working population’s hygiene habits, or what my neighbour’s music ‘jam’ was. I learnt more than what I would during a week languishing in my country retreat (ahem – equivalent to a convent, really). Perched royally beside me, the poor victims to many an aching-legged jealous glare of the standing, was an elderly man, kindly wrinkles pinching round wide eyes. Next to him a cleanshaven, coiffured, younger. So, the older man was playing Candy Crush. On an iPad. Very thoughtfully and earnestly, bent over the screen in complete concentration. Next to him, his neighbour, was knitting. A complex little red and white number. It was just so refreshing. And so welcome between those sweaty-bodied breaths.

I’d never seen these things before. Welcome to the city.

 

PHOTO/Simon & His Camera

ISIL Response
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There are no easy answers to Isis

Due to technical errors, the publication of this article was delayed by two weeks.

 

Faced with grizzly videos of beheadings and massacres, the demand that something must be done about the so-called Islamic State (Isis) is a natural reaction.  Moreover, given the hundreds of billions of dollars the west spends on defence, it seems reasonable to think that doing something should be possible.  After all, what’s the point of all our expensive weaponry (The F-22 Raptor, on its first combat missions in Iraq, costs the US $150mn apiece) if we can’t achieve something with it?  It is a mistake to think this is the case: western intervention carries no guarantees of defeating Isis in any meaningful sense, while bearing a significant risk of worsening the situation.

Public and political opinion has shifted in favour of intervention, but it is hard to say what for – we are rushing headlong into a conflict against an ill-defined enemy with an ill-defined mission.  Airstrikes can certainly hamper Isis’ ability to make war by preventing their forces from moving openly and striking their command structures and heavy weaponry, but airstrikes alone cannot defeat the group.  Even with ground support, defeating Isis is as much about creating a society that rejects the group as about victory on the battlefield.  This is where the plan comes unravelled, and the bigger question appears: what is our endgame?  What does mission-accomplished look like?

The west has intervened against many undoubtedly disagreeable regimes in recent years – most recently in Libya – but western leaders have often found winning the peace to be much harder than winning the war.  In Iraq, the US-led coalition forces were able to defeat Saddam’s army in six weeks, but after eight years of occupation and reconstruction the mission to build a stable, inclusive liberal democracy has clearly failed.  It is hard to say with any confidence that Iraq today is any better off than if the 2003 invasion had not taken place.

Similarly, in Libya the western military campaign was a success – Gaddafi’s regime was brought down with few civilian casualties.  But the unpleasant regime has not been replaced by a desirable one, but rather by what looks increasingly like a failed state and a civil war.  Time will tell if Libya develops into the sort of state the west would like to see, but the signs do not look encouraging.

We cannot be at all sure that any power vacuum left by weakening Isis will not be filled by equally unpleasant groups – as has happened to varying degrees in both Iraq and Libya.  Even if the Iraqi government can restore control, undermine Isis’ support base, and create an inclusive society, continued instability in Syria will permeate the porous border.  Plans to arm moderate elements of the Syrian opposition to fight both Isis and Assad do not appear credible at this point.  Our best likely endgames look like either victory for Assad and stability in Iraq, or continued civil war spilling across the Syrian border, hardly hopeful prospects.

And then, what if the aerial campaign doesn’t work?

This is where the real risk lies – if a combination of western-led airstrikes and Iraqi forces proves insufficient to dislodge Isis, then what?  Large scale supplies of combat equipment to the Peshmerga and/or Iraqi Army seems a likely next step (and indeed has already begun).  This equipment will need to be accompanied by ‘advisors’ to ensure its proper use – any weaponry likely to make a difference will require specialist training, if not outright operation.  From here, how long until these advisors play a combat role – either operating hi-tech weaponry alongside local allies or scouting targets for airstrikes?

There is still little real appetite, even in the USA, for a long and protracted engagement and the body count that implies.  Anything that Isis can spin as a western defeat will strengthen and legitimise the group far more than not intervening.  If the west is not prepared to pay the price in blood and treasure necessary to conclusively defeat Isis, a half-hearted attempt that leads us to an ambiguous defeat and withdrawal is worse than doing nothing.  Our current course may well force us to decide between escalation and ignominious retreat.

Worse still, western intervention on the ground has the potential to turn the perception of the conflict into a war between the west and the (Sunni) Muslim world – as Isis would so clearly like it to be seen.  Nothing will build support for militant jihad more than the presence of yet more western troops in the Middle East – if our concern really is about our own security, this certainly doesn’t enhance it.

Embarking on a campaign to defeat a group of violent fundamentalists and bring freedom and democracy to Iraq (again) sounds like a worthy ideal.  Embarking on a campaign to replace one group of sectarian murderers with another, hopefully less-bad group, all while running the risk of getting sucked into a long and bloody conflict, does not.

 

PHOTO/ US Department of Defense Current Photos

 

fat-pig
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Preview: Fat Pig

I arrive mid-rehearsal of Fat Pig into an intense argument that feels more like a courtroom drama than the scene of a comedy. Yet, the immediate connection I witnessed between characters solidifies what this play is about – human relations and interactions.

Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig has been widely performed since its inception in 2006 from Melbourne to Mexico City. This is indicative of the play’s universal appeal dealing with the endless obsession with weight in society.

Talking to the director/producer/lead actress (and probably more roles than can be listed here) Phosile Mashinkila, she tells me that this universal appeal is why she wanted to put this play on in Oxford. We are bombarded with a constant stream of body shaming every day in the media yet it still remains a difficult topic to talk about.

Fat Pig concerns Tom (Jason Imlach) who falls in love with plus-sized Helen (the aforementioned Phosile Mashinkila) and how his friends and colleagues react to this. Yet, this play with its brash direct dialogue is not pushing morals but instead about confronting this issue head on. The audience may feel uncomfortable, they may not want to hear the horrible things that are being discussed but surely a shout out loud is better than a whisper behind backs.

The Burton Taylor Studio, then, is perhaps a perfect venue for this play. With its not-quite darkness, and closely compacted seats, the will be no space for an audience to hide. This is not to say that the play isn’t an enjoyable watch as LaBute’s writing offers comedy as well as depth that Mashinkila’s clever directorial touches aid – whether it be the sly offering of chocolate or the dramatic dropping of a book.

The scene I was shown was the second scene in the play – a tense office scene where Tom is confronted by both his co-workers – Jeanie (Martha Reed) and Carter (Brian Chandrabose) – asking whether he is seeing someone. Even in this brief extract it is clear to see that the actors have thought a great deal about their dynamics and relationship. As an audience member, you already begin to question your sympathy when the bullied Tom in one interaction becomes spineless in another.

This play is what the best drama is – real people and real situations. Down to its uncomfortable dialogue, bitter sweet ending and comedic moments, this is a play you won’t want to miss.

‘Fat Pig’ plays at the Burton Taylor Studio from 22nd October – 25th October

Photo credit: BT publicity

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