Blind Vision – The Dying Grass

 

The Dying Grass by William T Vollmann

Published by Viking

Towards the end of The Dying Grass, William T Vollmann’s novel about the 1877 Nez Perce War, US Army General Oliver Otis Howard calculates the distance that his troops have covered in five months: at over thirteen hundred miles, this amounts to almost one mile per page of Vollmann’s book. The physical size of the novel embodies in its bound form the vastness of the American landscape described within and the historical weight of the events that unfolded in that relatively brief period in which the action takes place.

The Dying Grass is a near-real-time account of the Nez Perce War. The troubles of the US Civil War are still shaping the political and economic mood of the continent and clouding the thoughts of those who fought. The story also captures the country at a moment when its industrial infrastructure is developing and new communications links are being established – with reports of labour strikes reaching the under-equipped officers on Indian Service.

The reader is given an immersive experience into the conflicting philosophies of America in the late nineteenth century. Vollmann’s alter ego narrator, ‘William the Blind’, is too humble: he sees so much of interest. The author’s experience as a journalist, including as a war correspondent, and his extended reflections upon the motivations behind violent actions – see, for instance, Rising Up and Rising Down – underpin William the Blind’s meticulous report on the unfolding war from both sides, and the shifting commitments and justifications of his characters. The parallels with the present, which each reader will draw out for themselves, and the intensity of the violence that is so cruelly mocking of the assurances of moral virtue that are heard throughout the action, add up to a sombre reflection on the nature of human conflict. The book reminds us, among other things, of the ways in which those differences between individuals and groups we typically wish to celebrate and preserve can also divide and oppose so mercilessly.

For those who are sympathetic to Vollmann’s authorial ambition in writing at such length, the empathetic engagement with the characters might well be deepened, rather than diminished, where the demand on the reader’s time begins to approximate the length of Army duty required by Howard’s troops in their dogged, disastrous pursuit of Chief Joseph and his tribe, following the failed attempt in Idaho territory to move the Nez Perce onto a reservation. What a novel as long as The Dying Grass benefits from, given Vollmann’s evident curiosity about people, place and time, is the opportunity to create an exquisite depth of period and geographical detail; and an extended attention to the doubts, memories and hopes of such a broad range of characters – from ostensibly racist and religious soldiers and volunteers, to cross-dressing Indians and spiritual warrior Dreamers.

Much of the dialogue in The Dying Grass is unattributed and presented with the dramaturgical simplicity of traded lines. It is a measure of the author’s skill in delving into the preoccupations of each character, and of the reader’s developing ability to recognise those characters as the narrative expands, that this stylistic approach does not result in bewilderment. It is even more praiseworthy, given the large number of characters referred to frequently by Vollmann and the doubling of names for some – by the end, the reader should remember that ‘Moss Beard’, who hasn’t been referred to for some time, is Agent Monteith, who looms large early in the story. The absence of attribution in the conventional sense also allows the complexities of shared group identity, and the individual anxieties and desires of those within the group – whether US soldier or Indian – to manifest themselves on the page and in the reader’s mind.

As against the attention to detail and the expanse of the novel, the conversations between Howard and other Army figures in particular are characterised by a curious compression of space and time; in particular Vollmann’s decision to dispense with any action between the summoning of a lieutenant and his appearance. An attempt at urgency perhaps, and especially effective in skirmish scenes where speed, confusion and shock are intended, this nevertheless creates an odd contrast with the otherwise elaborate, slow progress of the book – and the war it traces.

Beyond this method of staging scenes of dialogue, Vollmann does so much with prose style, euphonic and graphic representation in The Dying Grass. How often does one find font choices, the spatial arrangement of text, strikethroughs, the inclusion of images and sketches, contributing to the identity and effects of a novel? Then there are the refrains of the troops and the musical repetition of phrases in each camp, whose import is modulated throughout. The cinematic qualities of the battles and the cross-cutting between Howard and Joseph’s groups allow the reader to experience the same incidents distinctly. There’s the journalist’s evocation of the terrain of Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The insertion of memos and letters. The description of archival photographs, which have evidently sown much of Vollmann’s imagination for The Dying Grass. The novel is a polyphonic, multitextured account that imprints the drama on the reader through the eyes and ears.

The musical effects of merging lines and refrains, incantations and chants, works on the reader, holding the whole together. Graphic design aids memory and one’s ability to locate particular passages – the reader is likely to flip back and forth through the pages, just as the action related moves back and forth through time. Without noting down striking moments and phrases throughout, however, it will be almost impossible to recover what has stood out to the reader by the time the left hand begins to gather the majority of the book’s pages. This leaves the novel to fade like dawn fog over the bluffs, lost but for a trace of what was once beautiful. This seems to sum up The Dying Grass itself.

Indentation indicates distinctions between voluble speech and interior thought. The multiple layers of writing also expand the temporal complexities of the novel; from the environment in which characters find themselves at the present moment, to remembrances of things past. At a time when industrialists and bureaucrats were beginning to impose a new sense of time – railroad time – on a land which had long been experienced without such schematism, the use of expansion and compression, fast and slow, present and past is another huge undertaking for the novelist, to convey individual senses of time. The strict chronology of the war, though, allows Vollmann to beat a clear trail through the history he relates.

Indentation is also used to represent physical movement by characters, building on the dramaturgical qualities of the work beyond the use of scriptlike passages, in order to simultaneously treat the page as a stage itself, as Vollmann has confirmed.

The main structuring principle of the book is the comparison of Howard and his men, with the Nez Perce tribe initially led by Chief Joseph. Vollmann moves between key characters on both sides of the war, revealing shifting loyalties, motivations and growing frustrations on each. Moral scruples are countered by fervent hatred in both camps. Lusts are contained and let off the leash. Christian hymns and bugle calls are echoed in Nez Perce chants and the scalp halloo. Impulses hinder resolution, as reckless shots let off on the Army’s side, and vicious raids on citizens by some Indians, make compromise a hopeless prospect.

There is so much that Vollmann has to teach us from his extensive research – documented in copious notes at the back of the novel – about the emergence of US capitalism, the shadows of the Civil War and the devastating extent to which a race, with its abundance of language, myth and knowledge, was all but extinguished in America. Though the author is careful to note where he departs from the known facts, the blend of rigorous historical investigation and dramatisation is undoubtedly memorable and realised with tremendous skill.

We become aware of the similarities and differences between the former slaves and the treaty Indians in the late nineteenth century; of the shortcomings of the army and Government; the growing discontent among the labour force as the railroads and coalmines spring up in the north; of the grievances between various Indian tribes, the changing alliances between them and with ‘Bluecoats’. And everywhere, always, there is violence.

Vollmann’s extensive use of nomenclature; his naturalist’s confidence with identifying fruits, plants and aspects of the land; his painter’s perception of changes in the natural light; his forensic and psychological detail of men, women, children and animals caught up in this bloody conflict, all give The Dying Grass its sensory power and verisimilitude. Elkteeth, carbines, saddle bankets, camas bulbs, swales, slouch hats, buffalo robes, canyons, chokecherries, serviceberries, rubber matresses, lodgepoles, dentalia, feathers, epaulets, thunderheads, boot nails, rush skeletonweed and snowberries are just some of the many elements that make up this distinct environment.

While there is a strong musicality to Vollmann’s prose, rarely does the figurative language astonish. Similes are built out of the features of the surrounding environment, for example comparing blown brains to squished berries during the battle at Big Hole. But too often the comparisons are too contrived to be affecting. The mirrorings and comparisons that Vollmann employs elsewhere, however, are effective. The archival interest of the photos described by William the Blind at the start is underscored by the sense that the material is only available as a result of a process of interruption of a way of life. This makes the images included in the last section of the book all the more difficult to countenance: cheap, touristic references to Indian tribes found on business signs across states today. There are few consequences of Chief Joseph’s surrender as poignant as that of Joseph selling photos of himself for a nickel, while other Nez Perce give up their hopes entirely, to all the getting-drunk liquid they can find.

The Dying Grass builds up a tragic sense of inevitability; the hopelessness of preserving a tradition, a set of myths and ethics, in a fast changing and money-driven society. Against this backdrop the writer engages our sympathy and at other moments our antipathy towards many of the characters within the story. Some reviewers have characterised Vollmann’s depiction of the Nez Perce as romantic, but this is inaccurate. Vollmann is unflinching in his attention to human character, revealing what there is to admire and repel in any one of us, whether ambitious aides-de-camp or desperate Indian tribespeople; man or woman. Vollmann’s books do the hard work of exploring the individual and his or her society, the exigencies of the moment, the impulses of human nature and the residues of history. This is not an easy undertaking for a writer, or reader. But now, as ever, it is as necessary as the leaves must fall.

Top image: Oliver Otis Howard (left) photographed by Mathew Brady, and Chief Joseph, photographed by Lee Moorhouse.

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Submission by Michel Houellebecq

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Knowing the premise of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, any reader might expect it to comprise a fierce indictment of Islamic fundamentalism, the incidence of which in Europe today must surely startle many authors into writing, and then swiftly out of it – mindful of familiar, depressing consequences of doing so. Taking on the subject could very well result in a death sentence. In Iran, a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses, which brought the issue of blasphemy within Islam to wider attention among western publics in 1989, has recently been renewed. On the day of Submission’s publication, staff at the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered by Islamist gunmen after publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Houellebecq was the cover star of the magazine at the time of the attack, and was soon placed under police protection.

In truth the book seems intended to provoke non-Muslims and Muslims alike, owing to the intellectual and spiritual malaise, and career opportunism, rather than sincere religious conviction, by which its protagonist comes to accept Islam as the predominant religion in France in 2022, the year in which the story is set.

Submission is both reflective of important social issues of our time, and shaped by the literary past, in particular the work of writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, of whom the central character François is a specialist researcher. Huysmans’s life and literature are a constant point of reference for François both before and after the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohammed Ben Abbes, as a leading political party in France. Huysmans, dissatisfied with his life in the society of fin de siècle Paris, turned to Catholicism. The nineteenth-century author identified his most famous novel A rebours as the signpost of what was to come. Houellebecq ends his own novel with François heeding the call of the Islamic faith, as a viable way of overcoming his own crippling solitude and anxiety in the face of contemporary social and cultural emptiness.

The word submission is the English translation of ‘Islam’. But the word undoubtedly has an altogether different and banal meaning in François’s life as a scholar of literature and a contributor to academic journals. His infrequent writings and growing boredom with the subject that has occupied him since his teenage years are only countered by an offer, late in the story, to edit a new Pléiade edition of Huysmans’s work, which entails a new preface. François, lonely and unhappy in love, gives in to the flattery and security that his new commission and the new political order bring, despite grave reservations.

Facing the demise of a long-term relationship with student Myriam, who moves with her Jewish family to Israel following Abbes’s presidential win; the death of his parents – which he meets with general indifference; and the dissipation of his intellectual life, incapable of throwing off his early infatuation with Huysmans, François as a character realistically depicts a climate of the mind which can all too easily become pliant under the supposedly benign influence of a strict religious tradition or ruinous political ideology.

Our contemporary era, in which the old opposition of left and right has been blurred and constructive political activism has been undermined by a sense of anomie, a plurality of special interest grievances and religious zeal, Houellebecq delineates some of the perforations that might allow Islamic fundamentalism to accommodate itself to conservative and socialist politics. In the former case, by the Brotherhood’s emphasis on a reduced welfare state and the strengthening of the family as the primary social unit, as well as the maintenance of an aristocracy of some sort – economic, cultural, moral. On the other hand, there is the reckless acceptance by the left of Islamism as an armature of resistance to inequality and the racism of the far right, represented by the National Front and ‘nativist’ movements which are an essential part of Houellebecq’s narrative. The Muslim Brotherhood under Abbes are proponents of an obscure conservative principle, outlined by GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, which nevertheless is supposed to avoid monopolies by big business in favour of small entrepreneurs. The willing capitulation of both sides of the political spectrum, as a means to retain power and alleviate social breakdown, starkly underlines the precarious position that secular European countries currently find themselves in.

Many of François’s colleagues have accepted the multiple wives and monetary benefits of continuing in post at the Sorbonne University, newly funded by wealthy Saudis. One ex-Intelligence serviceman acquaintance anticipates that Abbes is aiming to reorient Europe towards an Islamic union capable of competing with the wealth and influence of the Arabians. This vision of a new empire is no cause for revulsion or revolt in François, nor much of the wider public. Despite the initial violence of the National Front, the nativists and the hardline Islamists described indirectly in the first half of the book – with Houellebecq referring to the lack of detailed media reporting on the tumult in the run-up to the elections – Parisian society is subdued by the falling unemployment, helped in large part by the return of women to domesticity and child-rearing, not disallowing a period of non-subversive education.

Many readers would rightly challenge the possibility of such an eventuality in western democracies, especially those which support women’s rights. Still, François, who explains that his university post up to this time has led to short-term relationships with students, eventuallly looks ahead to a classroom of veiled young women – among whom he is sure to find a wife or two.

François not only reaches the same existential impasse and attraction to religion that Huysmans’s des Esseintes experiences in A rebours, he begins to reread Huysmans’s work as a whole, in a way which foregrounds simple bourgeois pleasure, consisting of good food and good company as the key to personal contentment. Downplaying the impulses to sexual abandon, decadence and conversely the desire for Christian salvation with which he previously characterised Huysmans work, François appears to convince himself more and more that Islam is the answer for him. This literary malcontent, who orders sex with prostitutes and then Lebanese mezes by phone, thinking that servants of sensual pleasure will relieve his alienation and misanthropic despair, ultimately reveals a servile mind ready to submit itself.

Mise en scène and Film Style by Adrian Martin

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This book review was originally published in the magazine 24 Monthly, February 2016. My thanks to Ehsan Khoshbakht for the Farsi translation.

 

Mise en scène and Film Style

By Adrian Martin

Palgrave Macmillan, £63 (hbk)/ebook £49.99

Disassembling so vague a term as mise en scène is no easy undertaking. As an early chapter of Adrian Martin’s new book makes clear, the term has come to mean “everything and nothing” over the years. Developing his own complex ideas about mise en scène and film style, Martin suggests ways in which audiovisual material might be studied afresh, in order to better articulate not only the value we might ascribe to specific works, but also the many passions and perceptions that they prompt in us – which the language of ordinary film criticism so often fails to capture. Along the way, Martin outlines the different uses of mise en scène in film writing through the decades, and the various responses among critics and filmmakers to shifting stylistic approaches and technical possibilities in audiovisual production.

Martin’s interest in the audiovisual here runs the gamut from reality TV and the European New Waves, to web videos and gallery installation art. Martin resists clichés concerning those ideas typically associated with mise en scène – including auteurism and symbolic signification – and has no truck with those who would restrict what cinema, as a medium, is or should be. The author challenges the persistent attempts to hive off cinema as epitomised by 1950s Hollywood, and mise en scène as being synonymous only with the moment of staging and shooting a scene during the production stage. Martin pushes beyond those elements of mise en scène merely expressive of narrative content (including lighting, set design and actors’ movement) to highlight other surprising dynamics, logics and materialities on the screen. Still, he includes examples by John Ford and Otto Preminger within his expanded understanding of the possibilities of mise en scène.

Although Martin sets out to focus on one aspect of filmmaking – as Michel Chion has previously done for the voice, and James Naremore with acting – he actually finds a way to talk about all levels of production. He moves beyond discussion of mise en scène to outline a related idea, that of the dispositif, by which artists initiate a system of rules and patterns that are elaborated and modulated to create multiple textural, compositional and emotional effects over the course of a single work – aspects which can be worked over at any stage of the film’s production. However, the extent to which this opens up critical analysis to a field of unbridled relativism, dependent upon a critic’s ability to tease out interesting motifs and turns within any given film, may be faced with reasonable dismay by some.

It is not often that one gets a sense from even esteemed critics that they are as well read as they are ‘well viewed’. The inspiration found in the writings of influential and also relatively unknown theorists, from various language sources, including French, Spanish and German, is continually foregrounded. Martin’s ability to underline inventive concepts in difficult texts in order to refine his own ideas, and apply those to specific films, all communicated in a prose style that uses exclamation marks unapologetically to convey the author’s cinephilia, makes for some of the most accessible and enjoyable film writing in English.

The book exemplifies Martin’s skill in introducing original concepts through succinct, often entertaining, examples, as well as more detailed moment-to-moment analyses of a given film scene – as in the section focusing on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha, and the book’s final chapter on Ritwik Ghatak’s film The Golden Line. Martin finds apposite examples from many of his own favourite films to illustrate his points; though not even the intelligent remarks about the fusillade of post-production effects in Tony Scott’s Domino or the formal inventiveness of the videos of pop duo Pomplamoose encourages me to return to the source material discussed once seen and heard.

Longtime readers of Martin’s work will likely find the experience of reading the book one of revisiting some of the author’s guiding interests, and gaining a better sense of how they intertwine: specifically, figural theory and the notion of the dispositif – elsewhere analysed in the short publication Last Day Every Day, and the essay ‘Turn the Page: From Mise en scène to Dispositif.’ The sheer breadth of references and unusual critical methods that Martin presents here will take newcomers longer to fathom but ulitmately offer illuminating and energising new approaches to film criticism.

The book serves as a most valuable reference work on what has long remained a loosely defined aspect of cinema and a masterclass in audiovisual analysis that teachers and writers on cinema will benefit from re-reading. It ought to find a place in any library of film writing alongside such comparatively wide-ranging, and equally slim, surveys of style as VF Perkins’s Film as Film and Noel Burch’s Theory of Film Practice, two early cornerstones for Martin.

Imperiled by Hope – Black Earth by Timothy Snyder

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Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

By Timothy Snyder

Bodley Head, £25/ebook £13.99

“The synthesis of information into knowledge,” writes Timothy Snyder, “depends upon familiarity…” The Housum Professor of History at Yale is referring in his introductory chapter of Black Earth to the unprecedented events of the Holocaust. He adds: “…and nothing like the Holocaust had ever happened before. The conversion of knowledge into action was imperiled by hope.”

Throughout this deeply researched  study of the unprecedented mass murder that took place in Europe during the Second World War, Snyder appears to be working against the perils of hope himself. The author has acknowledged the central importance of commemoration, with respect to the millions who died, but here confronts the reader with so many uncommon statements of fact that one is forced to reconsider just how the Holocaust might be interpreted by the public at large today. Published not long after Nikolaus Wachsmann’s exhaustive study of the concentration camps, KL, the examination of this terrible period of modern history looks to be moving into less familiar territory, as least as far as common knowledge is concerned.  As Snyder’s book makes clear, this is necessary, even if most difficult, if we are to have any chance of avoiding similar disasters.

It is the very act of trying to understand the Holocaust that puts writers and historians at risk of accusations of justification or trivialisation – or revisionism. Serious historians, in particular, ought not to have to be strongarmed by such sharp emotions – Snyder has already provoked deep criticism, as well as admiration, for his previous book Bloodlands – and as Black Earth makes clear, widely held presumptions about the Holocaust seem to be dangerously misinformed. What is more, the conclusions that Snyder draws challenge ingrained hostilities towards the state, as a component of social organisation, that characterise fervent political viewpoints on both the right and left today.

Auschwitz, as Snyder points out, has become a metonym for the Holocaust. The public is aware of the horrors of the camp owing to survivor testimony. Auschwitz is the terminus in the dark story of the fate of east European Jews that is taught to high school students year on year. Those of us who recall this period of learning are likely to remember that Hitler came to power following the Depression in Germany; passed laws discriminating against Jews whom he blamed for the country’s ills in particular and the world’s in general; ordered devastating attacks on Jewish property and people, notably on Kristallnacht; and instigated a system of mass deportation and extermination of Jews. This German-centric narrative ignores, as Snyder explains, crucial facts.

The following claim is likely to provoke incredulity and even anger if relayed without supporting information today: “Only about three percent of the victims of the Holocaust were German Jews.” This is just one of several eye-opening remarks that run counter to shared notions about this period of history. Over the course of several chapters, Snyder provides the reader with some insight into the ways that Jewish populations lived in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland before the state destruction brought about by Germany. And of Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine before the devastating incursion of the Soviet Union. Of central concern, according to Snyder, are those states which underwent double occupation, first overturned by the Soviets and then the Nazis, where the process of mass killings by which the Holocaust began took place.

A large proportion of those who were murdered between 1941 and 1945 as the Holocaust spread never saw a concentration camp, only pits where villagers were routinely rounded up en masse by SS officers and Soviet collaborators and mercilessly shot. The accounts of the involvement of those in eastern European countries – starving, desperate, manipulated by two calamitous ideologies – and the sheer numbers of the dead unaccounted for in studies of the death camps gives Snyder’s account a startling, necessary power.

There are two fundamental elements that Snyder here outlines as defining the Holocaust. The first is Hitler’s worldview, according to which the natural condition of human life is racial struggle; competition for resources, especially food. As Hitler had explained in Mein Kampf and his Second Book, what stops the German race from taking what it is within its power to take, and assert its superiority in the world, at least equal to the empires of America and Britain, are the ideas that originate with Jews. Snyder, in fact, convincingly argues that Hitler’s thinking is not reflective of scientific rationalism, but rather “zoological anarchy”, by which potential for agricultural innovations are dismissed in favour of bloody conflict for the fertile soil of Ukraine. In the book’s final chapter, Snyder draws on the idea of “ecological panic” to consider the dangerous paths that might be taken as climate change, population growth and economic precarity puts pressure on countries the world over.

Secondly, rather than resorting to another frequently cited cause: that of advanced bureaucracy enabling the German government to undertake its warped scheme of mass murder, Snyder proposes on the basis of his evidence and interpretation that, “German Jews died not because of bureaucratic precision in Germany but because of the destruction of bureaucracies in other countries.” Downplaying any desire on Hitler’s part to expand and maintain an indomitable German state, Snyder sees Hitler’s position as that of having to wield state power in order to destroy other states, which was the primary goal. As a result, making extensive reference to the relative fates of those Jews who remained citizens in countries allied to or not wholly occupied by German force, Snyder concludes that the protective role of the state towards its citizens – even in countries where anti-Semitism was widespread – is in fact that main bulwark against similar disasters.

It is not only with these conclusions that some readers are likely to look for fault, though the depth of Snyder’s research cannot be casually dismissed for the sake of proper sentiments; Snyder’s attempts to describe motivations and inner conflicts among eastern Europeans in doubly occupied territory, while drawing on numerous first hand accounts that were unavailable before the collapse of the Soviet Union, is nonetheless a matter of psychological reading that others might reasonably challenge, though hopefully in such a way as to refer to an equally robust scheme of historical research.

Coming to Snyder’s book with little more than a general knowledge of the Second World War, the rise of Nazi power and its defeat, the history presented in such lucid prose and the misunderstandings that Snyder forces one to recognise are certainly uncomfortable though truly valuable. As Black Earth progresses, Snyder returns to his central claims, at times using repeated cadences (“All in all…” to describe the fraction of the Jewish populations of Latvia, Lithuania and Romania killed) to impress the important history he is describing on the reader more forcefully. Through this approach, the fascinating insights and Snyder’s narrative of the course of the Second World War as it was experienced by European Jews becomes more familiar, even if even more painful, to comprehend. If Snyder is successful in his undertaking, he will have encouraged more readers to see the perils of mere hope and antagonism towards the state in itself, and the more practical sociopolitical arrangements that might better preserve for humankind a less murderous future.

Top image: A ‘scrubbing party’ made up of Jews removes references to Austria from the sidewalk, following the Anschluss, 1938

Working Title

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My review of Working Title, a collection of essays about Phill Niblock published by Les presses du réel appears in the May 2013 issue of The Wire (#351).

“Throughout the book, evocations of the physiological impact of the performances Niblock would stage in his New York loft – the intensely loud volume of which rarely go unremarked when describing his past shows – and perceived connections with Zen philosophy are balanced by discussions of the technical aspects of Niblock’s music, as well as Bernard Gendron’s splendid history of Experimental Intermedia and the Downtown music scene in New York in the 1970s and 80s.”

To read the full review, visit http://www.thewire.co.uk/issues/351