Jennifer Collins

Pale Blue Dot

It’s a few days late, but happy birthday, Carl Sagan. If only more people like you existed.


In the middle of the night

I was listening to This American Life’s latest episode on sleep and the fear of the night — a time when all of our fears seem much more real; a time before day breaks again and all those fears melt back into the darkness. It was, as usual, a great episode and captures that state of mind so well. Ira Glass read out a poem by Philip Larkin at the end of the episode. It’s called Aubade and I thought I’d repost it here because it too captures the dualism of night and day so well.



I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
– The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Philip Larkin

Life in Old Dublin

Inspired by Come Here To Me! blog’s post on Dublin place names, I googled the book written by my great-great grandfather, James Collins, and found it as a free PDF online. It’s called Life in Old Dublin and is a quirky little sketch of James’ (and my) native city and its long-forgotten streets and characters (like Billy in the Bowl). The book includes a map of Dublin from 1610 and talks extensively about the Croppy Acre burial site in front of Collins Barracks (now the Museum of Decorative Arts and History), where the remains of the executed 1798 rebels are said to lie. There’s also a chapter dedicated to the father of the Home Rule movement in Ireland, Isaac Butt. James was Butt’s secretary and friend. I think my great-great grandad may have engaged in a little crowd-funding to pay for his project. There’s a list of subscribers at the back and I’m assuming their subscriptions funded its production.

Here’s the PDF of the book for anyone who’s interested. It’s kind of a dry read at times, but is still a great record of the city and its people: Life in Old Dublin


When it comes to hot beverages, nothing beats a nice cuppa tea. Forget even drinking the stuff… The ritual itself is enough for me. As Mrs Doyle from Father Ted so eloquently describes it: ‘The playful splash of the tea as it hits the bottom of the cup. The thrill of adding the milk and watching it settle for a moment, before it filters slowly down to the bottom of the cup changing the colour from dark brown to… a lighter brown. Perching an optional jaffa cake on the saucer like a proud soldier standing to attention beside a giant… cup of tea!’ Magnificent.

So obviously I really love tea and this is why I’m posting this song (which I came across today thanks to friend and fellow blogger and tea-lover Jensine):


Note the Lyon’s cup in the foreground. I’m a Barry’s woman myself, but it’s still a tea-rrific tune.

Oh those silly North Koreans …

Recently, I started reading up on North Korea because I wanted to know more about life inside this hermetically-sealed country.* It started with one article and has turned into a fully-blown obsession. I’m consuming anything I can get my hands on: books, articles, eyewitness accounts, documentaries.

What I’ve read and watched disturbed me. Deeply. Perhaps, I was naive — or just willfully ignorant — but I hadn’t realised the extent of the regime’s brutality nor how numbingly oppressive life is in the country.

Not a lot is written about everyday life in North Korea and even less about the Gulag-style labour camps, where people are worked to death. Some 20,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since famine hit DPRK in the 1990s, killing millions; but just a few will speak about their experiences, for obvious reasons.

Mostly we see what North Korea wants us to see. Any visiting journalists, tourists and foreign dignitaries are brought on a guided tour and never let out of the sight of their minders. Media images and soundbites extend to the leadership’s increasingly shrill and bombastic proclamations about the foreign enemy, lies about how well the country is doing, failed rocket-launches, nuclear ambitions and wailing citizens.

And we laugh at it.

We see press pictures of Kim Jong-il touring factories and looking at things and somebody creates a tumblelog — and it’s hysterical. The little man with the wiry barnet and over-sized glasses was the perfect figure to parody. He just looks so “ronery”. Chubby-cheeked, newly-minted leader, Kim Jong-un, already has his own Twitter parody account @kimjongnumberun. One of the latest tweets reads: “That awkward moment when a fly honey asks if your missiles are fake or not. #NorthKoreanProblems.” And, of course, after the failed rocket launch, the memes rolled in.

We hear stories of how North Koreans are told that Kim Jong-il could control the weather based on his mood and that his trademark style set off a global fashion trend and we scoff at the gullibility of these people. How could they believe this stuff? But consider the position of North Koreans for a moment. As Barbara Demick, US journalist and author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” writes:

“North Korea invites parody […] But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung’s divinity.”**

On top of that, the country is subject to strict social controls to keep the population in check. The state carries out eight background checks on each North Korean in an elaborate attempt to classify everyone according to their politically reliability (such is the paranoia of totalitarian states, in particular).

Your rating — or songbun — takes into account the background of your parents, your grandparents and even your second cousins, writes Demick. This has resulted in a sort of caste system where the only social mobility is downward. The core class is reserved for top party officials and their families, who can easily be demoted for bad behaviour. Once you move into the hostile class, you’re there for life. Your status is permanent and hereditary. Your children will bear the weight of whatever crimes the regime has found you guilty of committing (not that there is any due process in DPRK). The very bottom class — the undesirables, which make up around 1 percent of the population — are permanently banished to one of the country’s six labour camps, where “they live in the most inhumane conditions imaginable”.

Prisoners are forced to work in near slave-like circumstances and are frequently subject to torture, rape, medical experimentation, forced abortion and other cruel and degrading treatment.

Children are born inside these camps and are forced spend their lives there, never knowing that another world exists beyond the fence that hems them in. Shin Dong-hyuk, who claims to have been born in and to have escaped from such a camp in 2005, says he thought the whole world consisted of prisoners and guards. What he describes is similar to what we know of Nazi concentration camps and Soviet Gulags. His scarred body tells the story of the torture he endured there.

It’s really difficult to get a hold of accurate figures, because North Korea is so isolated, but according to the The International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity around 10,000 people die in these camps each year; some 40 percent of malnutrition and another 20 – 25 percent from forced labour.

North Korea is a surveillance state worse than the German Democratic Republic. It is estimated that there is one informant for every fifty citizens. Neighbours denounce neighbours, husbands denounce wives and children denounce their parents. Considering that even a minor infraction can get you shipped off to a Gulag for life, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to voice any criticism of the regime, even if you know it’s all lies. Who can you trust? Such an atmosphere breeds fear and paranoia. There is little or no room for dissent and no civil society exists.

Political parody is important, but laughing at and lampooning North Korea distracts from the the horrific suffering the regime inflicts. The nightmarish camps are largely ignored by US and European politicians and the media, and, therefore, by the general public, who instead laugh at the absurdity of it all without being aware of the regime’s brutality. In Camp 14, where Shin Dong-hyuk lived for most of his life, inmates are beaten for laughing.


*  This all happened after a conversation with my podcast buddy and friend, Tam Eastley. Tam wrote her thesis on a Cambodia-related topic, but initially toyed with the idea of writing about North Korea.

** Demick, Barbara (2009): Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Random House: New York

Looking for Comedy with a Blogpost

I’ve been thinking a lot about humour and different kinds of comedy recently, mainly because I took some Irish, German and English friends to see some Irish short films a few weeks ago. I quickly became aware that the humour in the films was really “Irish”– or that was how I perceived it — and I was kind of worried that it might not translate. As one of my English friends pointed out, the comedy in the films was dark — most of it involved animals either exploding or being shot. The Irish people in the audience seemed to find it uproarious and most of the non-Irish found it funny too. (Thank jaysus because there’s nothing worse than dragging a load of people to something only for that something to turn out to be utter rubbish. And then, of course, you’ll never be trusted again to make choices for the group.)

A lot of people talk about how humour and comedy is country-specific: American humour is boisterious and about as subtle as a brick over the head; British humour is dark and understated; German humour is, well, just not very humourous*. Of course, I’m making crude generalisations here and am really referring to the mainstream of humour in all of these countries. And of course one form of humour isn’t necessarily better than the other – it’s just different and a matter of taste …. Sorry! I can’t help but be diplomatic being from a small, neutral country and all that. Humour is certainly a phenomeon that is influenced by culture, context, history and environment, and for those reasons often isn’t universal.

For me comedy is also about dealing with life’s tribulations by looking at the absurdity of it all. It pokes fun at the ridiculousness of life and our neuroses. I suppose that’s why I kind of like surrealist humour (anything satirical – particularly political satire – or that deals with semantics and how we use language too). Anyway, I’m really rambling here. All of this was just a pretext to post a BBC4 documentary about Scottish poet and humourist, Ivor Cutler, but I thought it would look a bit lazy if I just posted the link without writing something substantial.

I’ve always been aware of Ivor Cutler because he plays the wonderfully weird bus conductor, Buster Bloodvessel, in The Beatle’s Magical Mystery Tour and  also appeared regularly on John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 shows. I’ve just recently taken the time to seriously read, listen to and watch his comedy. He’s got this interesting, eccentric and mischievous air about him and his dark, surrealist humour seems to be heavily influenced by his Scottish-Jewish heritage. It sometimes reminds me of passages from Joyce novels like Finnegans Wake and Ulysses, which could be another reason why I like it so much. I wish I’d discovered him sooner as he sadly passed away six years ago

The documentary is called Looking for Truth with a Pin (which inspired the terrible title of this here post) and it’s in six parts. Enjoy:

Here he is performing his song Shoplifters on his trademark harmonium on The Old Grey Whistle Test:

And here is some stuff about tea (many of his songs and sketches mention tea, which is great, because I love tea):

*The poor Germans get a really bad rap for this and I don’t think it’s that justified. There’s a lot of good comedy around these parts. Loriot is an obvious example. Rainald Grebe is also great, although, also a bit hit and miss if you ask me. If any readers would like to point me in the direction of some more good German comedy that would be great. But be warned anyone who suggests Mario Barth will be banished from this site for ever. One of my favourite comedians in the world, Stewart Lee, also wrote once in The Guardian that it’s all about the German sentence construction, which rules out the lazy set-ups relied upon by British comedians. Read all about it here.

**The irony of this blogpost is that I’m just not very funny, so sorry if you were expecting to be rofling all around the place. The title is a bit misleading.

The Hoodie and the Hijab

A lot has been written about the about the murder of 17-year-old Florida student Trayvon Martin and the police handling of the case. And I don’t think I can really add anything new to the discussion, but I wanted to write about it anyway because I’m both angered and saddened by it.

The police and the US justice system have utterly and grossly failed the Martin family, to put it mildly. Trayvon’s shooter, the self-appointed neighbourhood watchman, George Zimmerman, hasn’t been arrested, having found shelter in Florida’s “stand your ground law”, which ostensibly protects those who kill in self-defence. But this is doesn’t seem to be a case of self-defence. Zimmerman allegedly pursued Trayvon, a scuffle ensued and Zimmerman shot Trayvon in the chest. Trayvon had no weapon. All he had on him was a bottle of ice tea and a packet of skittles. Zimmerman said he felt “threatened” by Trayvon; that he felt Trayvon was acting suspiciously and for this reason called the police to report him before pursuing him. (Presumably because he was a young black man in wealthy, gated neighbourhood. What could he be doing there? It couldn’t be that he lived there, right? He must have been there to cause trouble.)

When the police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman pleaded self-defence and the police took him at his word. The facts were clear. Everything fit the bill. Young black man = hoodlum. Older white guy = upstanding member of the community who felt so threatened by this hooded, unarmed young man, he had no choice but to shoot him dead. Cased closed. All is right with the world.

The local police service and Zimmerman essentially employed the same racial profiling that means black people in the UK, for instance, are 30 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched. A German court has just legitimised this kind of racial profiling by ruling that German police have the right to single out black and foreign-looking train passengers to check for their immigration status. The ruling emerged from the case of a young black man who refused to show his ID to the police as he was sick of repeatedly being  asked to do so. Police removed the man from the train he was travelling on because of his refusal and one of the officers stated that when deciding which travellers to check he targeted those who seemed obviously foreign,  according to a report in The Local. He used skin colour as one of the criteria for picking out foreigners. The court ruled that this was legal, as the officer was guided by his experience.

Culture of victim-blaming

Some commentators have sought to shift the responsibility for Trayvon’s murder onto Trayvon himself. Conservative talk-show host, Geraldo Rivera, perversely commented that Trayvon’s hoodie was just as much to blame for his death as Zimmerman. The message is clear: if you’re a person of colour you need to ensure you appear as harmless as possible. Don’t wear anything that might make you look suspicious, because, hell, you look damned suspicious anyway.

Rivera has since *sort of* apologised for his comments, but this kind of victim-blaming is recurrent. By the logic of “victim-blaming”, Shaima Alawadi, the Muslim-American mother-of-five beaten to death this week in California for her religious beliefs was to blame for her own murder. You know, she looked like Muslim in her hijab and, therefore, put herself in danger*. She’s got no one but herself to blame. Just the way women who wear provocative clothing are asking to be raped and only have themselves to blame. How dare they dress in a fashion that might give men the “wrong signals” or arouse their sexual desires. I mean, can you really expect men to restrain themselves? Do you really expect a person to question their prejudices and not search, suspect, arrest or shoot someone because they are black or “Muslim-looking”and consequently more likely to be a criminal or terrorist from this sclerotic vantage point? The culture of victim-blaming shields not only the perpetrators of such crimes from bearing any real responsibility, but also shields wider society. It allows us to continue to hold onto our prejudiced views, ensuring we are never required to question our own complicity. It contributes to the continuation of racist and sexist structures and norms.

Geraldo Rivera comments on Trayvon Martin’s hoodie


* The “Muslim looking” idea reminded me that French President Sarkozy caused a bit of a storm this week with his “Muslim appearance” comment during a French radio interview. Full story via Storyful here

Che for the Facebook Generation

In my post about the high-contrast Che graphic, I wrote that it has become the all-purpose symbol for revolutionary movements ranging from environmental campaigns to anti-austerity protests, adding that I’ve never seen it used by netziens. I was, therefore, amused to see that Jim Fitzpatrick, the artist behind the graphic, had reworked the image for the Irish anti-ACTA and SOPA campaign:

The Irish Government passed the SOPA bill on March 1st (see a Guardian article on the issue here) and a campaign is underway to have it repealed. But it’s obviously very difficult to have a law repealed once it’s on the satute books. I wonder if we’ll see any anti-SOPA Che posters at the demos.

Combining Capitalism and Revolution: The Evolution of an Image

When I was last home in Dublin, my mam got me to go through a box of my old stuff and decide what I wanted to keep. In the process, I came across a radio documentary I made in the final year of my bachelor degree. I studied journalism for four years at Dublin Institute of Technology and as part of our final year projects, we could either produce a magazine as part of a group or make individual radio documentaries. I opted for the latter as I felt I already had enough experience in print journalism and have always loved radio.

So, I decided to make a documentary about the ubiquitous black and red Che Guevara graphic, mainly because a friend of mine knew Jim Fitzpatrick, the Irish artist who claims to be its creator. I was reading a lot about the Cold War and socialist movements at time and found Che Guevara to be an interesting, complex and almost mythical character.

The story of the graphic is also complex, touching on areas such as global movements, iconography and intellectual property rights. The image is in many respects loaded with meaning. But it has been reinterpreted, redefined and reproduced in so many ways and for so many different causes, one has to wonder whether it has become so completely detached from its original meaning (revolution, change, socialism) as to become meaningless or empty. Perhaps it has in a post-modern sense, but perhaps that doesn’t matter – it makes for an interesting story either way.

The image is based on a cropped photo taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in 1960. Korda took the photo during a funeral mass and described Guevara’s expression as “encabronadao y dolente” (angry and sad). The photo remained unpublished for a year and was seen only by those who passed through Korda’s study. In 1967, he gave the image to wealthy Italian intellectual and leftist, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who distributed it in poster form in his home country.

Jim Fitzpatrick, who is also famous for his Celtic artwork and Thin Lizzy album covers, first came across the photo in the German weekly magazine, Stern. When Jim blew up the tiny picture all he got was a dot-matrix pattern from which he produced his psychedelic sea-weed version of Che.

A few months later, a guy involved with a group of Dutch anarchists called the Provo sent him a larger version of the photograph. Jim used this to produce the high-contrast image that gained iconic status.

Upon Che Guevara’s death, Jim reprinted originals of his oil-paint poster using a light-box and sent it to left-wing political activists across Europe. He wanted the image to “breed like rabbits” so he removed his name from it and built an “F” into Che’s tunic so people would know he was the artist.

Jim’s version of the image arrived at a time when many countries were in flux. Old institutions and norms were being stripped away as the 68ers protested everything from the Vietnam War to women’s liberation and civil rights. Che’s death at the hands of the CIA was met with protests around the world and coincided with the Prague Spring and May 1968.

Jim’s motivation for creating the image stemmed mainly from his admiration for Che’s politics, but he also had vivid memories of having met the Argentinian-born revolutionary in a bar in Kilkee, Co. Clare as a teenager. Che — whose full surname was Guevara-Lynch — was taking some time to explore his Irish ancestry during a stop-over on a flight to Moscow. Jim was working in the bar and was just 16 or 17. He described Che as immensely charming, funny, roguish and proud of being Irish.

Copyright and Originality

It’s only recently that Jim has been acknowledged for creating the black and red graphic. Trisha Ziff curated a touring exhibition of the iconography of Che back in 2004 and attributed the graphic to him, as has the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Jim made his image copyright free because he wanted it to be used and reproduced as much as possible, as did Korda, who never received any royalties for his photograph because Cuba didn’t recognise the Bern Convention on intellectual property rights.

There have, however, been a number of disputes about the ownership of the image and its corresponding royalties. When Jim’s graphic first became popular in Europe, the Irish artist claims Feltrinelli threatened him over the phone with the “bullet or the law” for copyright infringement. Jim said he’d take the bullet as he couldn’t afford a lawyer. Feltrinelli seemed to find the response hilarious and never bothered Jim again.

Then there’s the Warhol/Malanga forgery. Jim’s graphic was used in a 1968 painting attributed to Andy Warhol and sold to a gallery in Rome. The image was actually a forgery created by Warhol’s assistant Gerard Malanga who was in need of some quick cash. When Warhol heard of the fraud, he authenticated the fake on the condition that the royalties went to him.

In 2000, Korda sued Smirnoff over the use of the image in an advertisement. While happy for Che’s likeness to be used to promote his memory and social justice, the photographer said he was against the exploitation of the image to promote alcohol. He donated the $50,000 he received in an out-of-court settlement to the Cuban health-care system.

The legal ownership and copyright status of Korda’s photograph is unclear. There are conflicting claims as to whether the image is sill under copyright, although, Korda’s heirs have sought ownership of the photo for a number of years. Korda’s daughter, Diana Diaz, successfully sued Reporters Without Borders, for using the image in a campaign aimed at dissuading tourists from holidaying in Cuba after the imprisonment of 29 journalists.

The decision by Korda and Jim to make the image copyright-free has allowed it to be become THE icon for most forms of counter-protest and revolutionary movements. (It’s notable that netziens have eschewed it in favour of the Guy Fawkes’ figure from “V for Vendetta”.) However, it has also allowed the man to become separated from the meaning, particularly in the Western world. Che’s image has been used on products from underwear to ice cream. Ironically, consumerist-capitalist culture has absorbed Che’s likeness, turning it into a commodity.

There’s much more I could go into here but I haven’t got time right now. I’ll also post the radio documentary (called “An Icon in Two-Tone”) next week once I’ve had a proper listen to it and tightened it up a bit.

A Woman’s Right to Her Own Body

A few weeks ago, I wrote about abortion in Ireland on the 20th anniversary of the “X Case” – a case which saw the Irish Supreme Court rule that women in Ireland had the right to access an abortion if their lives are in danger. Successive Irish governments have failed to legislate for such a scenario. As a result women in Ireland seeking an abortion on medical grounds or for other reasons are forced to travel to the UK for the procedure.

During last year’s general election campaign, the Labour Party promised to legislate for the case if it came to power. The party is now in coalition with Fine Gael, yet instead of taking immediate action, the government has decided it would be a great idea to establish yet another expert group to examine how the ruling might be best implemented.

The United Left Alliance (ULA), a recently formed electoral alliance of left-wing political parties and independent politicians, hopes to force the Irish Government to legislate for the case with the introduction of a Private Members’ Bill to the Irish Parliament. The formal introduction of the Bill, which was produced by Socialist Party TD Clare Daly, Joan Collins of the ULA and Independent TD Mick Wallace, was not opposed but it won’t pass without the support of the government.

Aside from the formal introduction of the Medical Treatment Bill, the Action on X Alliance held a public meeting in Dublin’s Gresham Hotel on February 21st to discuss the current situation. Speakers included Joan Collins (just to note in the name of full disclosure, Joan is my aunt and godmother), Ailbhe Smyth of the Feminist Open Forum and journalist and broadcaster Vincent Browne.

Vincent makes a number of particularly noteworthy points. He not only gives a good rundown of the history of abortion and legislation on contraception in Ireland but also raises some important points questioning the presumed right of the government to dictate what a women does with her body. What gives the government the right to make this choice for women? Why are women not trusted with their own bodies? Why are a woman’s reproductive rights and her body a matter of public concern and ultimately public property? Vincent quite rightly says there is no equivalent government interference when it comes to the male body or male reproductive rights.

Such attitudes are relics of an era when a woman was ultimately a possession of her husband to whose will she had to submit. An era when – due to a ban on contraception in Ireland – a woman was expected to produce baby after baby in spite of the risk to her health; in spite of the fact that she may have been living in a tiny one-bedroom house with barely enough money to provide food for her other seven or eight kids. In other words, an era during which the Catholic Church dictated society’s morals and the roles of women and men. This is a Church that does not hold men and women in equal esteem. It’s an institution which was – and to a large extent still is – deeply misogynistic (not to mention homophobic).

I recall as a child my grandmother telling me stories of female neighbours who already had a gaggle of children behind them and who were warned that having another child could kill them. But they had no real choice. Some did die. Others struggled on.

Of course, that doesn’t happen now thanks to the courage of women who fought for the right to self-determination over their bodies and their reproductive health. Abortion legislation is the final hurdle.

It’s time to legislate for the X Case and the ULA Bill is certainly to be welcomed – although there is no guarantee it will pass. However, what Ireland really needs is a public debate about abortion and a real referendum on the issue.

As a final note on this, I can’t help but think about the girl, who is now a 34-year-old woman, known as X. Where is she now? How does she feel about the fact that the landmark case she was at the centre of is still a source of such contention and debate? Perhaps she doesn’t think about it and would rather forget about the awful trauma she suffered at the hands of this man and the further ordeal she was put through by the state that was mean to protect her. I can’t say. What I can says is behind it all, behind these court cases and rulings and public debates, behind public policy and government legislation, are individuals and their lives. That is what we should remember.

See Vincent Browne and the others speaking at the Action on X public meeting here: