Author Archives: Helton Levy

About Helton Levy

I am a journalist and media researcher based in London, UK.

Between methods and “inner experience”: The challenges of studying sexuality

In “Eroticism”, Georges Bataille discusses the need for methods and even science when approaching sex and sexuality. He argues that studying such subjective phenomenon, one could quit objective resources: data, methods, and traceability. One could, instead, use as scientific research oneself’s “inner” experience. As human beings, we have all experienced some erotic situation. In this case, it is a matter of how to transmit that knowledge. 

For Bataille, to communicate what one understands as eroticism, a realm close to that of religion, is to admit that “neither philosophy nor science can answer the questions that religious aspirations have set us.” On the other hand, while every scholar is acquainted with erotic experiences as any other human being is, we can neither stop behaving as subjects, not refrain from talking experience:

“My inquiry, then, based essentially on inner experience, springs from a different source from the work if religious, historians, ethnographers, and theologists. No doubt men working in these fields did have to ask whether they could assess the data under their consideration independently of the inner experience which on the one hand they share with their contemporaries and on the other resulted to some degree from their personal experiences modified by contact with the world constituting their fields of study (…)”

Bataille then hints at an alternative, to map “coincidences”:

“This difficulty is a general one, though it is relatively simple for me to imagine in what way my own inner experience coincides with that of other people and in what way it enables me to communicate with them.”

By the end of the book, he ponders on how research difficulties emerge even for those who try to study sexuality from a neutral point of view:

“If we affirm that guilty sexuality can be regarded as innocently material, our awareness, far from seeing sexual life as it is, neglects entirely those disturbing aspects which do not fit in with a clear picture. A clear picture is actually the first requirement but because of this, the truth escapes notice. Such aspects, felt to be accursed, remain in the twilight where are a prev to horror and anguish. By exonerating our sexual life from every trace of guilty science has no chance of seeing for what it is. Our ideas are clarified but at the cost of being blinkered. Science with its emphasis on precision cannot grasp the complexity of the system in which a few factors are pushed to extremes when it rejects the blurred and distinct realities of sexual life.”

Excerpt from:
Bataille, G. (2001). Eroticism, trans. Mary Dalwood. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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Revisiting Pasolini’s “Love Meetings” (1964)

In 1964, Pasolini set out to mission impossible. He proposed a trip around Italy to document people’s views on sex. The result might sound outdated today, but it is not, by any means, irrelevant. One finds prosaic, uninformed, prejudicial opinions, but, at the same time, imaginative, inquisitive, and, somehow, liberated accounts on sex. I have gathered here a few screenshots of what I found brilliant moments, in which Pasolini pushes, challenges the people to say what they think or to build an opinion on the spot.  I wonder what happened to this form of documentary, where filmmakers, journalists, and media professionals engage with the vox populi, as a bottom-up way of seeing the world.

“Here in the deep south, everyone has a clear picture of sex”

Pasolini visits the “deep” Italian South. He asks a young man about local terms such as fuitina (quick sexual intercourse). Bravely, he approaches a group of young men to ask how many girls they have met lately to find a disappointing answer.

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“I would resort to a remedy”

When approaching two young women about homosexuality, Pasolini gets a wary response from the ladies. They said to have mixed feelings about the issue. One of them said she expected everything “goes well” when she gets married. While seeing homosexuality, in a psychologic perspective, as “abnormal”, they have hopes these individuals get “cured” or “resort to a remedy”.

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“He was born with an impulse”

Back in the north, Pasolini raises the same controversial question to a group of young men. Responses get more nuanced, but once responding in front of their friends, some of the men are cautious at condemning “inversion” or “perversion”, while “accepting” it is dangerous. Most of them dwell on “un-natural” v “of nature” argument. A few others say to “pity” inversed men due to their behaviour, “an impulse” to one of the interviewees.

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“It’s in a deep crisis”

Consulting with a range of Italian intellectuals, Pasolini gets confronted with the complexity of his research, then decides in the middle of the film to adapt his survey to focus more on “practical questions”.

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“Encounters on Roman beaches”

Looking for informal locations, Pasolini approached beachgoers of all ages, types, and educational backgrounds. The answers he collects are as varied as the characters are charismatic, Pasolini says to have acknowledged the “status quo.”

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“There was no sexuality, nothing”

At the end of the 1960s, Italy lived a period of liberalisation of sex-related laws, with topics such as divorce coming at the top of people’s discussions. Pasolini approaches in his beach series what local Romans think about these issues.

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“Because women need to stay in their place”

The question on divorce had the potential of shaking the old structures of marriage and “La Famiglia”, bringing up strong opinions, but also revealing what was a generational conflict of ideas.

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“You don’t want to understand”

Pasolini’s approach for young people has been notorious in cinema. His depiction of a punished youth in Saló makes one wonder what an encounter of his with young people, in reality, would look like. Well, in Love Meetings he not only meets them, but he confronts them with questions about sexuality. Interestingly, he challenges a group of three young boys on topics that could really be alien to them, such as the issue of love v. one’s patriotic love.

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What impressed me recently (1): Arendt, Fox, Lithuania, and Chagall

cri_000000118515Hannah Arendt’s Lying in Politics (1971)

Arendt’s style is not for beginners. She throws at you lots of background information, random quotes in Latin, archaic terms, tricky references. However, once we join her, at least when we think we do, it is hard not to transform her reason into a shared passion.

The Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers are already too far from our generation. In the face of post-Snowden outrage, the public slowly gets used to Trump’s politics as a natural consequence of democracy. But after all, what does Watergate tell us today regarding what one thinks of good and evil government?

After we escalate the Arendt mountain, we can enjoy the view of her profound reflections on an early decline of the United States, but which seemed unlikely in the early 1970s. The US government comes up as a machine of “problem-solvers”, governmental liars, and disinformation in the high ranks. She also places guilty to the universe of “intellectuals” that helped to theorise the war:

“What is surprising is the eagerness of those scores of “intellectuals” who offered their enthusiastic help in this imaginary enterprise, perhaps because it demanded nothing but mental exercises.”

As we watch new Syria tensions on the rise,  Arendt’s initial thought that “the only individual who should not take uninformed decisions is the President of the United States” is strikingly true. The many degrees of complacency with US-native ignorance is a history apart, but the series of myths that have led to the Vietnam war, once unveiled in the Pentagon Papers, cost a huge price in US trustworthiness seen to this day:

“No reality and no common sense could penetrate the minds of the problem-solvers who indefatigably prepared their scenarios for “relevant audiences” to change their states of mind – “the Communists (who must feel strong pressure), the South Vietnamese (whose morale must be buoyed), our allies (who must trust us as ‘under-writers’), and the US public (which must support the risk-taking with US lives and prestige).

So much so because these categories haven’t changed a lot today (perhaps from Communists to “terrorists”?), but one could argue that they matter little. The extent to which the lessons from an ill-fated Vietnam War can be all forgotten is Arendt’s primary concerns. Ultimately, is having Donald Trump at the office in 2018 still a surprise to the same outraged public? What this quick naturalisation of such man in power tell us about the relevance of US prestige, power, and decline? A genuinely independent follow-up to Hannah Arendt’s lucid account needs to be written as soon as possible.

Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World

51C6UiGyDRL.jpgFox’s book is from the 1980s but the 2006’s edition still attracts lots of interest. At some point in 2016, I decided to learn more about what was “paganism” and what was its relationship with Christianity.

In fact, Fox’s writing and method are labyrinthic. His prose is kind and gracious, but his prose envelops you with bits of evidence here and there, then it goes over and over before it finishes a point, which ends very far from where it started. It does not matter though. His proof is sharp, and he’s the best thing a historian can be, sceptical.

At the end of the 800-page book, which took me nearly a year, we have an engaging narrative that includes Pagans, Christians, but also Manicheans, Persians, “perfectionists”, “over-achievers”, and other labels. The way Fox feeds these names makes it easy to map the mentality of the years 250-325 when the book seems to focus upon.

When looking at Christianism we might not recognise its current bureaucratic face. Indeed, from a religion of death, martyrdom, never-ending fasting and zero sex, it has suffered numerous deaths across history. On the other hand, Fox’s book invites fresh reflection on traces of the Christian faith in its continuous mutation into the modern world.

I am not sure if it is the case of stretching Christian influence up to the so-called ‘identity politics’, or to the renovated focus on notions of truth (fake news) and chasing purgatory for deviant men (The Weinstein scandals), or even to the modern sanctification of children. These contemporary developments may reach to one’s mind when learning about the slow counter-attacks from the Christians against the Hellenic religious order.

In any case, after reading Fox’s lines on the dubious interests that drive a religion into mass expansion (state and society, personal and collective, emancipatory and correctional), I would not say that the Christian faith is lost in the context of the West. At worst, we have it thriving under another name.

Lithuania’s case of anti-semitism underneath the skin

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Vilnius’ Holocaust Museum (The Green House) 2015

The New York Times story about how anti-semitism has been entrenched in Lithuania’s urban fabric has a potential for greater debate. Although based on the anti-semitic past and how it is mingled in the urban fabric, it focuses on how facts (the country’s massive adherence to the Nazis) are met with denial.  It is when the legal verbiage “occupation” equates Soviet oppression with Nazi mass-extermination. I’ve seen many of these traces of denial in my visit to Vilnius in 2015. To be fair, I was received very well during my stay and there is no single trace of contemporary, open anti-semitism. However, the “holocaust” museum that does not dare to say the name of the perpetrators, the obscurity of the locals on the “diaspora” that ended exterminated in the suburban wet forests remain very little known and people seem happy with this.

Leave aside the name of many Lithuanian-Jewish artists that migrated that lie forgotten in the public imaginary. The brilliant painter Lasar Segall is one of them.

Marc Chagall: In search of a new fascination

I was walking through the streets of Hampstead, London, when I was faced with a painting. It was on a peaceful road close to the Finchley and Frognal station. It was a quiet Winter afternoon when even the birds have all gone silent. What I spotted that purposefully decorated living room, with a charming chandelier, in complete emptiness, I thought: it was definitely a Chagall.

I am not sure what type of individual has such self-confidence (and confidence in London’s safety) to do this shameless and informal public exhibition of such artwork, but it gave me a spell of fascination for Chagall’s rural landscapes. His scenes are all made of chaotic, colourful characters. It is surreal. It is romantic. It is nonsense.

I just can think of “I and the Village” (1911) as an allegory of his entire body of work, as a symbol of Chagall’s relationship with reality, or better saying, of ignoring reality.

This particular painting is an assemblage of many characters, with a prominent horse face in the foreground. If Chagall meant to represent his Hasidic village so beautifully and saw magic in it, I am authorised to seek the same fascination of being in a gloomy London of mid-February without going mad.

 

What I’ve been writing (1)

A review of the exhibition “Another Kind of Life” at the Barbican

In this review, I focus on the ambitiousness of saying that one can portray “another kind of life”, as there are limitations found in and out of the art world. I welcome the exhibition due to the great names it can gather, and yet I lament the lack of boldness in stressing the contradictions between “marginality” and “fashion”, especially in a time when everything visual is a commodity.

Debunking the myth of “study abroad” for Brazilians

In Brazil, there has been a myth of studying abroad as a way to good job prospects and professional prestige, which is not necessarily false. However, as I point out to in this article, some drawbacks that are not entirely known by the ordinary student. Departing from a story at Folha de S. Paulo in which Brazilian students complain about higher fees recently imposed on them at Coimbra University, I review the “dark” side of the higher education using the case of England. High fees, poorly-paid staff and an increasingly marketised industry, are some of the aspects, on which I invite readers – students and non-students – to reflect if it is indeed what they want to join at such astronomic costs.

Optimists or Uninformed? A reflection about Brazil’s international bloggers and their cosiness in being abroad

I discuss my reading of a few blogs authored by journalists based overseas. Hosted in the some of the country’s most prominent mainstream publications (Folha de S. Paulo and Estado de S. Paulo), I argue that these blogs had the duty to present more critical points as opposed to seeing life abroad as positive and flawless, which confirm myths of inferiority and backwardness, still held by ordinary Brazilians.

Featured image: Marc Chagall I and the Village (1911)

 

 

Reading Stuart Hall as an immigrant: A review of Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands

81F6qVR2E7LStuart Hall’s considerable influence in the UK and abroad stems from his cultural, sociological and political trajectories (Back & Moreno Figueroa, 2014; Roman, 2015; Zhang, 2017), as these areas perfectly articulated throughout his life (Solomos, 2014). Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands (Penguin, 2017) is an excellent opportunity to glance over them in both personal and academic terms.

For those who aim to engage with the thought of the famous sociologist, Hall’s memoirs provide available, panoramic guidance. For those, like me, who seek in him the Jamaican immigrant, it is refreshing to see that the man has, in fact, lived in and out the establishment.

In reality, by centring the book’s narrative like that of a “stranger”, an image that Hall kept of himself until later life, editor Bill Schwarz allowed that a stream of conversations could unfold logically. We go through many of the doubts and concerns that spring from Hall’s move from Jamaica and become a witness of his awakening as an immigrant in Britain.

Kind, but mind-blowing, the emotional portraits of Jamaica appear to depict a place stuck in time. Many of these snapshots show how life in the colony is far from an assimilated narrative. Britain continued, by many senses, “present” in modern Jamaica.

The range of everyday situations that derive from Hall’s background is essential reading for anyone interested in seeing how colonialism works. Primarily because it is neither monochrome nor solemn: it was the White British man mocked on the streets of Kingston for its colourful clothes and excessively formal gestures; it was the Jamaicans’ detailed reproduction of the old British class order.

Indeed, Hall refuses to assess colonialism on binary grounds. Instead of “pessimism” (Jhally, 2016), one finds in his accounts a sophisticated dynamic that stirs a set of unrecognised identities. Colonialism is the drainage of other people’s culture and wisdom, as it is a lengthy collection of myths that will serve to probe the invader’s superiority.

The voice of the immigrant that underpins all this is the same of the academic. This is indistinctively a feature of Hall’s work (Ang, 2015). But we cannot stop perceiving how the former overshadows the latter. Tales of his life illustrate much of his theoretical points much more efficiently. For instance, his perception of physical difference, which manifests since his early stages of life (he was “the darkest” of his family). That context can clarify why he struggles in seeing himself as the “bursary-holder, Oxford student”, highlighting the “young colonial” who came to struggle with the vast collection of imperial icons.

This active consciousness of being “the other” while putting his efforts into developing familiarity with the concepts of this adopted nation creates an ambiguous scenario-setting throughout the book. The ability to accept and refuse the status-quo is something recurrent: on one side, Hall contradicts his otherness by engaging with British society at length; on the other, he enlists differences that do not go away.

Questions emerge on the nature of colonial or post-colonial taxonomy, if only for its epistemic view to be challenged. Hall quotes his wife Catherine (Hall) to ask: is Kettering a city in Northamptonshire or the little coast town in Jamaica of his memory? Allegorically, this sort of comparison also serves him to go back and analyse his family’s past behaviour, so black and yet so colonial.

Like many foreigners living in the so-called global cities of our time, Hall stashes away “colonial” moments to disclose them in crucial moments.  For him, this continued ambivalence of an immigrant’s consciousness mustn’t reach the level of cynicism but as a by-product of diaspora: “I characterise my particular brand of being ‘out of place’ as the product of a ‘diasporic’ displacement.” Bhabba’s “in-between” or Du Bois’s “double consciousness” are two of the thought-inspiring theories on which he draws during the conversation.

To break away from the early colonial life, to join the ex-Empire, then find himself moving towards a “re-birth” amid post-colonialism are phases of Hall’s life that –  amazingly – did not lead to resentment, or at least we don’t know it from the book. Despite the fact that he became the political protagonist and member of the academic elite that we know, his experience seems to have been one of discomfort, mainly when his political life had led him to tacit negotiations that entailed the racial, economic divides in Britain.

Familiar Stranger covers, for instance, the strategic ‘forgetfulness’ of the ex-Empire when new generations of Indian, African, and Afro-Caribbean immigrants arrived in the 1950s. For Hall, nobody could have possibly revived the memory of the British hosts, as they seemed to ask: “Who are these people? Where are they from?” The “disavowal of a collective force” has clashed with the long-dreamed expectation of millions who saw the British land as the promise, as in reality, it was the big “illusion” (a feeling also carried by Hall’s? it does not become not clear).

That the settlement of the colonial experience fails, Hall is aware, but where he dwells more often is on the link with the following decades of hardship, racism. Quoting the late 1950s’ riots as a response, Hall remembers how the “Windrush” generation would find itself continuously reacting to the most blatant racism in the media as a result. Readers might wonder what Hall would have made of 2017’s Grenfell Tower in flames.

Furthermore, the last two chapters of the book try to harmonise this back-and-forth journey from colonial to postcolonial, finding a possible projection of England as “home”. Hall lays out the case of Henry James, the White American author. James is one of the few literary names to grasp a broader diasporic side of living in Europe. James’ loyalty to his origins appears in his sense of impersonating a kind of immigrant that fearlessness assesses his position at the heart of the colonial heritage.

Again, we are back to discuss taxonomic choices. Hall’s prefers “British” over “English”, as he sees the latter term being “denied” for someone of his skin colour. By making these exercises of meaning, Halls settles his condition in British society, perhaps as a neutral element. Partner to a white woman; member of UK’s “radical” New Left; a protagonist in academia, these were his safe ports, as he categorically asserts: “I wanted to change British society not to adopt it”.

Nonetheless, some questions remain: Is complete integration, as we know, as Hall knows it, still a viable or replicable experience? How do we remember a younger generation of colonial or post-colonial taxonomies and repertoires in the age of identity-based positions? What place has the immigrant’s truth amid the ever-reproducing colonial myths? Is Hall’s genuine independence of mind still available for us, 21st -century immigrants in the UK and elsewhere?

Living the adopted reality without “giving himself away” is Hall’s inspiring tale of his life as an immigrant, from which we learn his unique mode of diasporic thinking (Rizvi, 2015).

In times of turbulence for immigrants around the world, and migratory journeys to Britain made increasingly harder (to be worsened after Brexit), Familiar Stranger enlightens on the impossibility of integration. As Eric Hobsbawm also mentions: A Polish man migrating into the UK will be a Polish man in the UK, not a new arrival to the “community”.

In the face of a wide range of limits imposed to any idea of one’s insertion in contemporary, cosmopolitan society, within and outside cultural borders, Hall’s reassessments can inspire a broader reflection on the everlasting effects of colonial taxonomies. This is seen to this date: the detachment (or forgetfulness) of the British locals on crucial aspects of their legacy around the world, as well as the detachment of the new immigrants of their adopted nations’ past.

In both cases, Hall’s voice still tells us that settling down in a foreign land should not drive one’s acceptance of inherited meanings as a given, but an invitation to adequately and moderately challenge them as they manifest in the everyday routine.

References

Ang, I. (2016). Stuart Hall and the tension between academic and intellectual work. International journal of cultural studies, 19(1), 29-41.

Bhabha, H. K. (1996). Culture’s in-between. Questions of cultural identity, 1, 53-60.

Back, L., & Moreno Figueroa, M. (2014). Following Stuart Hall. City, 18(3), 353-355.

Hall, S. (1993). Culture, community, nation. Cultural studies, 7(3), 349-363.

Hall, S.; Schwarz, B. (ed.) (2017) Familiar Stranger: A life between two islands. London: Penguin.

Roman, L. G. (2015). ‘Keywords’: Stuart Hall, an extraordinary educator, cultural politics and public pedagogies. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. 36 (2), 161-170

Rizvi, F. (2015). Stuart Hall on racism and the importance of diasporic thinking. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 36(2), 264-274.

Solomos, J. (2014). Stuart Hall: articulations of race, class and identity. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37(10), 1667-1675.

Zhang, L. (2017). How to understand Stuart Hall’s “identity” properly?. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 18(2), 188-196.

 

 

An image, a favela, and my research

I won the City University’s Images of Research award with an image that represented my PhD research.

The photo shows one of the gigantic sculptures by Projeto Morrinho, an art project that started out from Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. It consists of – literally – a mountain of bricks colourfully painted in a way to represent a favela community, with its tiny streets, and colourful dwellings up on the hill. It carries positive messages and small figurines, which give a realist but with a touch of fun and grace.

I had captured the image while on a visit to the Museum of Art of Rio de Janeiro, in 2016, then recently refurbished.

I thought this image illustrated my research because it had everything I looked at in media producers from Brazil’s periphery: It showed improvisation, community-spirit, and the right of self-representation, which is a new possibility for Brazil’s disadvantaged populations.

The way that Projeto Morrinho has proudly assembled the installation, which showed one of the region’s which Brazilians had been most ashamed of, either because of its poverty or precariousness, explains how the perception of these communities has changed, within it and outside. They communicated not only hope but a will to confront reality with joy, strength and creativity.

Reading Stuart Hall in 2017

Two fresh publications feature the life and work of academic and postcolonial thinker Stuart Hall: Familiar Stranger (Allen Lane) and Selected Writings (Duke University Press). Both were reviewed by Tony Jefferson for a recent edition of Theory, Culture, and Society. On Familiar Stranger we find:

“Originally conceived more than 20 years ago as a short dialogue outlining Hall’s intellectual trajectory, it grew to a manuscript of ‘over 300,000 words’(xiv) at the time of Hall’s death in 2014. Schwarz was then faced with a massive editing job and then, after discussing with the publishers, recasting everything ‘as a first-person narrative’(xv). The fact that it reads so smoothly is a testimony to Schwarz’s labour and his ability to ventriloquize Hall: ‘Some parts are verbatim, while many others have been constructed from fragments’(xv).”

Indeed, after reading this first book, it is evident that Hall’s depth and originality feels much untouched, even though Schwarz, the editor, admits in the preface to have worked hard to glue what were actually multiple excerpts. In fact, some parts were actually collected by email or during conversations, as Stuart Hall’s health deteriorated, delaying the book’s launch. The editor’s strategy has made the whole thing make sense as the book reads according to the sequence of Hall’s life in the UK. On Selected Political Writings, it is said:

There are seven essays on ‘The New Left and after’, eleven on ‘Thatcherism’ and three on ‘NeoLiberalism’, which are book ended by a concise contextualising ‘Introduction’ by the editors and an unfussily succinct ‘Afterword’ overviewing ‘Stuart Hall as a political intellectual’ by Michael Rustin. 54 years separate the first and last essay; but you would hardly know it. The themes are those thrown up by the changing political scene: changes in political parties (like post-war changes in the Conservative party, the birth of Thatcherism, the crisis of Labourism, the formation of a new social democratic bloc, New Labour); broader shifts (e.g. in class relations, political commitment, the New Left, racism, the growth of authoritarianism, new times, neoliberalism); and dramatic events (like the Cuban crisis). But the continuity in approach is remarkable.

This remarkable political trajectory is another chapter of the complex genius of Hall’s. In the end of the books, the reader will have witnessed a kind, but profoundly aware individual on the limitations of life in the so-imagined metropolis. At the same time these limitations aren’t enough to stop what turned out to be a strong engagement and frenetic militancy, to the extent that it often overshadowed that of the native inhabitants of the ex-Empire. As Jefferson asserts on Hall’s multiple lives:

Add to this the ‘double consciousness’ of a diasporic intellectual and one can begin to see the origins of an expanded view of the political and impatience with reductive thought of any kind.

The full review can be accessed here. To complete Hall’s deserved revival in Brexit Britain of 2017, a podcast presented by Ben Carrington fleshes out the multiple impressions Hall has caused during his academic life. Here, there are debates on immigration, racism, colonialism, and conscious Marxism that emerge in the voice of his ex-work partners, colleagues, and admirers. It is really worth listening, delivered in a fine-cut radio show in accessible and didactic format for non-UK spectators.