A Citybreak to Berlin, or the Politics of Language


“Of all social institutions language is least amenable to initiative. It blends with the life of society, and the latter, inert by nature, is a prime conservative force.” – Ferdinand de Saussure

On a recent citybreak to Berlin, I attempted to practice my rustly and ill-used Deutsch. Mostly, this failed miserably and yet I found that getting around was easy.

We found most german’s would gently humour our attempts to speak the language, reply very s-l-o-w-l-y t ensure we understood or immediately beckon, “English? Okay. Here’s what you do.” Why this need to help us? As foreigners in a proud and well-established country, we should have been striving to speak the language (which we were more familiar with than most tourists) but instead, they immediately strove to accommodate us, an initiative seemingly symptomatic of many foreign peoples’ attitudes to (the) English.

The imperialistic takeover of most of the world seems tied to this very concept of language. Expression. Communication. The presentation of oneself through a recognised form of social interaction. The assumptions usually are that native english-speakers do not care to ever make the effort to mold themselves to a new culture, but instead rather like an ill-formed peg, they force themselves through an otherwise organic, amorphous fluid society.

The very act of attempting to speak another language incites such friendliness and glee that it represents a severe lack of any attempt by other similar tourists to adhere to this small piece of social etiquette.

The anglification of these countries can only be seen as inevitable. The need to deny these people their own true form of expression serves as a twenty-first century gag in a continuing move towards “English” (the language, not always the people) being synonymous with a smug, self-important sense of being, which grates on other cultures, making them (or us) outsiders without even the luxury of trying to integrate.

Gayatri Spivak looks at the possibility of integrating with an alien culture in a post-colonial context. Yet, are not all cultures in some way alien? We are merely better informed of some, either through close proximity or over-representation in our chosen, narrow media space.

“Language is an archeological vehicle … the language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history.”- Russell Hoban

Our ability to really access another country’s culture, history and indeed, soul is caught up in its outer skin of language, one which we can brush against, but never really enter.

Originally posted here

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The Nightlife of Hangzhou

Vagabundo Travel Magazine

Click on the banner above for a link to my brand new travel guide to the nightlife of Hangzhou, China. I’m really excited to have this finally up as it’s an article I’ve been meaning to write for a long time – Vagabundo Magazine is also a fantastic up-and-coming travel website and this article is currently featured on it. It looks at a couple of difference experiences of going out in China – all bizarre but amazing! I hope you enjoy it, and I’d love comments or feedback.

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New Human Rights Posts

I have been writing quite a lot recently, so more posts coming up soon. This is just an update to signal people over to my human rights blog (which you can get to from the menu above) where I have two new posts since my last update. The first looks at India’s new poverty line (Garib or Ameer?) and the second is a spotlight on an NGO called ‘Cageprisoners’, which works to ensure the rights of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Have a look and feel free to comment!

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‘A Conversation with a Chai-wallah’ – Is development always a positive thing?

This post is also on my human rights/development blog, but I’ve also archived it here in the travel section because it looks at social development through a travel experience.

Manesar, 25, is a ‘chai-wallah’ (tea seller). He has spent the last ten years of his life riding the Taj express train between Agra and Delhi. He spends all of his time on the trains between the not-so-picturesque route, selling sandwiches on commission. The chai-wallahs wear a Government-issued uniform of red shirt-blue trousers, and wander up and down the train selling tea, coffee and snacks. Manesar earns twelve rupees for every hundred rupees-worth he sells. He usually manages to earn a few hundred rupees every day, just enough to live in Agra, famed for The Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. He was born and brought up in Agra and has watched it grow over the last decade or two. The roaring tourist trade which brings people to Agra has never died down, and yet, the Government of India is only now making an effort to build up this sprawling city.

I got to meet Manesar while I was winding my way to the Taj Mahal, during a whistle-stop tour of North India. Being somewhat unaware of the maze you must survive to actually get a decent seat on an Indian train (for future reference – ‘WL’ means wait-listed) meant that I spent my journey standing in the gap between two carriages, next to the toilets, unwilling to sit on the floor because of the myriad of interesting, not to mention alarming, red and brown stains. This was worth it, partly because “train-surfing” is the best way to pass the time on a somewhat boring journey, and partly because the chai-wallahs after looking at us curiously for a while, decided we were worth making friends with.

After the usual questions of ‘where are you from?’, ‘what do you do?’ and ‘are you married?’ (my answer of no always seems to leave people astounded – apparently I am that old), we moved on to something much more serious. Manesar said he loved Agra, it was his home, he wanted to continue to live there. Yet, he felt his options were severely limited.

What is the problem, I asked? He said: “Everything has become so expensive now. With the building of large apartment blocks and improvement of the infrastructure, big companies are starting to move in, and the prices are rising. What used to be affordable for me isn’t now.” So, what can he do about it? “I want to learn English so that I can move to Delhi and get a better job. Once I’ve learnt English, more people will want to employ me. Then, I can earn more money and save and will be able to marry and settle down and have a family.”

This is a rite of passage for most Indians. Marrying and having a family is the norm – as a male, Manesar is automatically cast in the role of breadwinner, and his own family will want him to settle down. Learning English is considered a huge boon, and is said to open every door. But, does it really? Many of the jobs available in India today are considered menial work: domestic workers, rag pickers, street cleaners, labourers etc. They are not well paid, but they are enough to get by. Chalta hai. It’ll do. However, the aspirational ideals that are instilled within people who learn English often backfire in this society. The command of English really achieved in a fast-track six week course is not high enough to do office work, not high enough to get a well-paying job, and often leaves people struggling to get into the educated job market, straddling two classes, two worlds and often two locations.

The advent of cranes, tractors and concrete changing the face (physically and metaphorically) of these cities is not necessarily a positive thing. Jobs are created and for some people, life does improve – they move to a shinier apartment and a better job title. Their lifestyle changes from one of austerity to one of excess.

The problem lies with those of the lowest classes, who do the lowest wage jobs and are forced to stay in that position, slumped with their heads to the ground, spending their lives in servitude to those above. For them, development does not help. For them, job creation will only work if they are trained, taught new skills and given a command of English that actually facilitates work, without the arrogance that comes with it.

I asked Manesar whether he would consider a job as a domestic worker, even a driver or a gardener – someone who isn’t necessarily in “service”, but still gets reasonable pay. He refused outright: “No, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to work in someone’s house.” He complained about the trains: “Sometimes they can be really late, and then you have to stay in a hotel in Delhi. You have to buy food from a restaurant which costs one to two hundred rupees. It becomes really difficult.” The throwaway amounts of money that we often take for granted are a night’s stay or a meal or really, a lifeline with which one finds freedom. And yet, Manesar seemed fairly happy with his job – unwilling or not ready to leave yet. Servants or the more “PC”, domestic workers are treated well, are usually given food and board above their monthly salary. Most employers will educate them or their kids. They are considered well-off in comparison to their families living in rural India.

There is a whole cross-section of society in the same position as Manesar: they cannot jump from uneducated and poor to educated and rich; this dichotomy seems impossible to bridge. The success stories do exist, but what about the thousands of unknowns like Manesar? He has a job, he has a livelihood – it may not be what he wants, but he has one, and so he does not require help. But, where is the help for those people who want to earn a better living and improve the quality of their life?

Aren’t the founts of a capitalist society to do with aspirational rewards? Do we not strive to do better, be better, be the best with everything we do? Why is this option denied to those who are hungry for it? The development of cities may be done with the best intentions, but if it isn’t matched with the development of its people, then it renders billions of pounds in investment and aid moot.

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The (new) White Man’s Burden

This is a satire article, originally written at the beginning of the arab spring (February 2011), but not posted. This is merely an archived copy.

David Cameron has decided to become a ‘candid friend’ of Egypt after Hosni Mubarak was ousted from the country. As the first world leader to visit Egypt, Cameron has Britain’s true interests at heart, as he attempts to make trade links with the fledgling country.

His five-hour stopover, “hastily” added to his long-planned Middle East tour, shows his benevolent desire to help with Egypt’s brand new peace process. In a statement issued en route to Cairo, Cameron stated: “It is important going to Egypt first,” he said. “This is a moment of great opportunity for Egypt. It is a great opportunity for us to go and talk to those currently running Egypt to make sure this really is a genuine transition from military rule to civilian law and to see what countries like Britain and others in Europe can do to help.

“The white man’s burden has befallen the British once again. The Islamic extremists are not taking control of the country, but the people, not that there’s much of a difference. We, as a civilised and developed country, have the expertise to help those who need to learn what true democracy is. Under the patronage of our empire, ahem, country, many states have been able to set up new democratic countries.”

Cameron is attempting to further British commercial interests with one of the fastest-growing and most oil-rich areas of the world.

Downing Street worries about the implications of this new peace process: “A democratic system that does not mirror our own is clearly not possible. We must ensure that the new Egyptian government continues to match our interests as is necessary to continue the Westernification of the Middle East.

“The war on terror continues. We must address security issues in the Middle East, which threaten both Britain and its people. We are not focused entirely on making money from the region, but also want to exert our own political motives, in the hope of creating a large puppet state from which we can control all of the Middle East.

“As you can clearly see, we revoked the arms export licenses to Bahrain and Libya. This shows that we are truly invested in freedom for the people of these countries, just as long as they fall in line with the freedom we give to our people.”

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Tony Blair: Mubarak is ‘immensely courageous and a force for good’

This is an article that appeared on ‘The Lemon Press’, University of York’s satire magazine. View the original here.

Tony Blair has described Hosni Mubarak, the beleaguered Egyptian leader, as “immensely courageous and a force for good”. Mubarak is also well-known for his role in systematically torturing and abusing the Egyptian people.

The former Prime Minister, now an envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, attempted to salvage relations with the dictatorial Egyptian Government and its figurehead, Mubarak, by praising his role in peace process negotiations.  Blair said the West was right to back Mubarak despite his authoritarian regime because he had helped to maintain peace with Israel – an unashamedly biased and self-serving view that is likely to anger many Egyptians who believe they have had to endure decades of dictatorship because of the US putting Israel’s interests ahead of their freedom.

Speaking to Piers Morgan on CNN, Blair defended his support for Mubarak.

“Where you stand on him depends on whether you’ve worked with him from the outside or on the inside. I’ve worked with him on the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians so this is somebody I’m constantly in contact with and working with, and on that issue, I have to say, he’s been immensely courageous and a force for good, helping us to continue to support and leave unchecked Israel’s merciless and unconstrained occupation of Palestine,” he said.

“Inside Egypt, and I have many Egyptian friends, it’s clear that there’s been a huge desire for change.”

Asked if the West had not been an obstacle to change, Blair defended the policies of the UK and other governments.

“I don’t think the west should be the slightest bit embarrassed about the fact that it’s been working with Mubarak over the peace process, but at the same time it’s been urging change in Egypt. This is merely another way to undermine the peoples’ protests, delay the democratic process and ensure Western supremacy continues in the region,” he said.

Blair argued that the region has unique problems that make political change different from the case with the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. He said the principal issue was the presence of Islamist parties which he fears will use democracy to gain power and then undermine the freedoms people seek – methods the West chooses to keep for its own people.

“It’s perfectly natural for those from the outside to want to support this movement for change at the same time as saying let’s be careful about this and make sure that what happens in this process of change is something that ends in free and fair elections and a democratic system of government, and doesn’t get taken over or channeled into a different direction that is at odds with what the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States of America want,” he said.

Blair said that meant there should not be a rush to elections in Egypt.

“I don’t think there’s a majority for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. On the other hand, what you’ve got to watch is that they are extremely well-organised and well-funded, whereas those people who are out on the street at the moment, many of them will be extremely well-intentioned people but they’re not organised in political parties yet. So one of the issues in the transition is to give time for those political parties to get themselves properly organised and for us to ensure that their interests are in line with ours,” he said.

Blair said he did not doubt that change was coming to Egypt.

“People want a different system of government. They’re going to get it. The question is what emerges from that. In particular I think the key challenge for us is how do we help partner this process of change and help manage it in such a way that what comes out of it is open minded, fair, democratic government… just like we have here in the United Kingdom,” he said.

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Nouse Archive

This gallery contains 10 photos.

This is an archive of clippings from Nouse, a student-run broadsheet style newspaper at the University of York. I have more articles on my online archive on the website.                                                                                                               … Continue reading

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