The Descent of Man (Review)

Several months ago when hosting a moderately successful open mic on Masculinity, I was struck by the number of young men who wished to contribute but feared ridicule. One pointedly referred to the event as a ‘trap’, obliquely accusing me of coxing out male vulnerability for spectacle. So pervasive is this crisis of masculinity, that Grayson Perry the author of The Descent of Man exasperatedly reassures his male readers that “no one dies of embarrassment”.

I can quote Margaret Atwood till I’m blue in the face but the stubborn resistance of masculinity has tuned out most women reducing their legitimate concerns to white noise.

Grayson Perry, an artist and once overtly masculine man with a penchant for cross dressing, takes on the burden of educating his fellow men on ingrained patriarchy. In the first third of the book he takes the masculine ideal of “the Default Man”, white, middle-upper-class heterosexual man, and demonstrates its irrelevance to the majority of its gender, and why it is unwilling to forgo the advantages it has violently wrestled from others.

Grayson, puts together a helpful primer on gender. Alluding to how male privilege being largely unchallenged in the modern era has paved the way for the election of Trump, the perfect embodiment of the illogical assumptions of toxic masculinity.

Since men appear reluctant to forgo their dominion, Grayson appeals to the inevitable existential crisis if men continue to cling to outdated gender roles, whilst forward thinking women adapt and learn new skills developing male traits if necessary. The Descent of Man is almost guaranteed with automation in the fields of finance, engineering, medicine, law and accounting, with men only dominating in computing and janitorial services.

The toll of masculinity on men makes up the core of the book. Its vice-like hold on emotional intelligence, stunting men into believing in a pecking order dominated by “alpha men” and their emblems of success. Despondency at failing to achieving masculine ideals is endemic, and the absence of emotionally outlets provide fertile ground for violent movements ranging from white supremacy to ISIS. What does one say in the face of statistics that prove suicide is the lead killer of men under 45? He honestly navigates the assumption that a feminised man is a sexual turn off, removing another stumbling block for the progressive man.

Grayson has higher aspirations for men he wants for us to stop seeing them as cardboard brittle, inflexible and unable to change. As he says “ they pretty much have the same brains as women”.

The Descent of Man is an accessible must read for men everywhere and will go some way in eliciting empathy for those caught in the unforgiving and unreasonable expectation of masculinity.

Aysha Raja

Another Day in the Death of America (Review)

Forget everything you think you know about gun violence and pick up Another Day in the Death of America. Whilst we are regularly assaulted with mass shootings emanating out of the United States we are rarely pushed to discover the origins of the violence. The second amendment is the explanation we most readily reach for, but to rely on that solely is to avoid the cruel truths underpinning society in the United States.

My entry into Lahore came in the wake of a brutal shooting in the house I now live in and if you wrack your brain, you or someone you know would have been affected by gun violence too. To some degree we have a separate set of conditions underpinning our reality, but it’s still a phenomenon that deserves a lot more attention.

So what is the true cost to society if guns become an accepted reality? Gary Younge’s meticulously researched Another Day in the Death of America takes us through the deaths of ten children and young teens during one calendar day. He combs through public records, newspaper reports and social media to build a profile of the victim which come to life through interviews with those they leave behind. Each chapter bears the name of the victim, and where they live. As you read on you realise the location has as much to do with their death as the firearm itself. Some communities are in shock after the violent death; some respond with grief stricken resignation, some are torn apart, whilst others move on under a heaving cloud of denial and trauma. In almost all cases, the reactions relate directly to the likelihood of such an event in that place.

Racism, poverty, lack of jobs and infrastructure, mental health, parenting, and teenage recklessness each end up in the dock compounding the risks of preserving the 2nd Amendment.  The incidence of gun deaths involving poor kids from the black community are the most harrowing as Younge establishes their relationship to racist policy, governmental neglect and an entire populations apathy. A relationship, he reveals, as evident to policy makers for decades now.

Reading how residents learned to tune out the sound of gun fire to go about their daily lives brings tears to your eyes. By the end of the book I found it almost unfathomable that American exceptionalism can exist alongside such inhumanity; that parents were forcing their kids to internalise ordinary teenage behaviour for fear of deadly consequences; and that an entire nation was hostage to the NRA who won’t allow enforcement of a minimum of protections for those most vulnerable to gun violence.

Aysha Raja

Aysha Raja

Elizabeth – Review

The British Royal family seems to be the focus of all sorts of media nowadays. From the young Princess Charlotte’s pictures to the Queen’s birthday, everything makes headlines. But we have another kind of treat in store for you – the new biography of the first Queen Elizabeth – first of her name and queen of all Englishmen. John Guy’s preface to his new book is enough to reel in even the most reluctant of readers – he tells us of his personal experience in researching the book and treading paths in Elizabethan history that previous biographers had ignored. The best part, however, is his description of the archival material he came upon all over Europe – from England to the Iberian Peninsula – some letters in the Queen’s own hand too. His excitement at his discoveries is palpable and very contagious too, for what’s better to read than a book written with such enthusiasm?

Guy focuses on the Queen’s later years, because the earlier, more personally glamorous ones have been written about at length and have also been the subject of plenty of movies. The later years, of an ageing, obstinate queen, with military ambitions and annoying male advisers is far more fascinating than one would expect. The pageants, the arguments and the personal relations are beautifully described in this book, and Elizabeth I’s personality and strength shine through instead of being smothered by historic detail. It takes a rare kind of biographer to bring to life someone who died centuries ago and whose personality has been exaggerated and become such an undetachable part of her day and age that it is almost impossible to get to the actual person inside. Having an entire Age named after one is no mean feat and something only a handful of kings can boast of and this biography reveals some of the reasons why.

So this summer, whether you’re bingeing on Netflix’s “The Crown” or ITV’s “Victoria”, give yourself the pleasure of reading Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years and as an added bonus, also try out Victoria: A Life by A. N. Wilson.

Madeeha Mabool

Madeeha Mabool

History Books and Beyond

In the 1850s when the British ruled India they found a stone seal near Harappa; it had some curious carvings and was apparently very old. By 1906, three more of these seals arrived at the British Museum and nobody was sure what exactly they were for or when they’d been made. By this time, they had caught the attention of the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India and he ordered an excavation of the ruins at Harappa. What the British found there led to the rewriting of world history. It is curiously intertwined this world history: the past with the present, the colonies with the colonizer and the objects with their origins. One can also see this demonstrated in the object of the Rosetta stone, one of the most famous discoveries made and one which cannot be separated from the Egyptians, whose secrets it unlocked; the Greeks, who had it made; the French, who found it; or the British, who won it from the French in one of their almost endless colonial wars and then had this victory engraved on the stone itself. This colonial prize too now resides at the British Museum, where it is one of the most popular items on display, along with the mummies.

History is always a contested space and telling it in any new or old way is sure to fray some nerves, and attempting to tell a history of the entire world is a gargantuan challenge of its own kind. And that is exactly what Neil MacGregor tries to do in his book, A History of the World in 100 Objects. What was originally a radio show for the BBC, the project was undertaken when he was the director of the British Museum and is an eclectic history told through a myriad different objects from all around the world, telling a history which the author hopes does not privilege any one region or form over another. It is a wonderful book, and even if you get an attack of postcolonial angst at having objects from your respective history being appropriated by a Western institution, at least it forces you to actually think about your relationship with history both in general and particular.

In a similar vein, a book published recently attempts to write history a little differently too. Giles Milton’s Fascinating Footnotes from History takes various anecdotes from history and puts them into a book that is a patchwork of nuance and historical implications. There are certain blank spaces in historical narratives that always make people wonder about the “real story” of what happened. Milton tries to fill those gaps by taking incidents that would form “footnotes” in different books on history and putting them together in a book that is the tequila-shots-equivalent of history. It is history told from the bottom of the page, looking up at greater events through the prism of anecdotes ranging from double survival of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings to mountaineering accidents that raise questions about who really conquered Mount Everest first. History as a truthful and exciting gossip column is still history and making it fun and diverse like this book does makes it appealing for a much larger audience.

Wouldn’t you like to be a part of that audience?

Madeeha Mabool

Madeeha Maqbool

Respectable (Review)

2016 has been harrowing. Much of which we’ve taken for granted, from pop-stars to physical security, has been snatched away from us. Brexit was one such unexpected demise that left Britain and the world dumbfounded. No more single market, freedom of movement or legal cover in areas of employment or human rights for Britain. What would make a population opt for such an option?

In the immediate wake of Brexit, the nation was deeply divided. Some chose to vent against minority populations, whilst some directed their ire towards the old, or non-Londoners. Yet there was one refrain I kept hearing as attributed to regrexits “I never thought my vote would count”. It was becoming apparent that the more affluent, aspirational Londoners saw themselves as having something to lose while those on the margins had had enough and were treating the referendum as a protest vote, as misguided as that response may have been. I needed to know what would drive someone to feel that they had no stake in their country’s future or prosperity.

I was quite lucky to alight on Respectable by Lynsey Hanley at that very moment. Published not more than 2 months ago, it anticipated, though could not deal with Brexit directly. Written as a study into social class and a personal account of a rise from the working class, ‘Respectable’ traces the identity of the working class in post war Britain and its deliberate dismantling in favour of a new capitalist economic model. The sense of despondency that manifested itself in the Brexit vote, can largely be attributed to government policies that limit social mobility and chipped away at the self esteem of the working class. Hanley explores the subtle demonising and its effect on an entire class.

Hanley uses herself as a case study, illustrating how from primary to high school, the educational system failed to inspire disadvantaged kids to excel, reinforcing class divisions through the relationship between teachers and pupils. As a result, the working class keep their ambitions and that of their kids in check, since they are ignored by politicians they seek comfort in the semblance of a community which is conditional on their desire not to excel.

Hanley compassionately explains how an alienated class can act against its own interest through violent resentment. There’s a desire to smash the system without an understanding of how much more vulnerable they will become.

In stark contrast the challenges faced by the middle class are few and far between. Individuals are wired to succeed, and the best resources are made available to ensure that outcome. They are free from the resentment that burdens the working class and are armed with the language and critical skills to help them assess a situation in their favour. They are destined to be blind to the challenges of the poor and in many cases unsympathetic too.

Through Hanley’s anthropological study of the classes the reader is able to empathize and appreciate how inequality has almost irretrievable divided the population. And whilst many have been indifferent to their plight, Brexit has now shown us that we do so to our own peril.

Aysha Raja

Aysha Raja