TCM and the demise of the Rhinoceros

Not for the first time in the last millennium or more do the five or so species of rhinoceros find themselves under the cosh. I am receiving a spate of petitions informing me of the sobering statistics in South Africa in particular, home to the Southern White Rhino. Year-on-year more are getting poached and the trend suggests that at least as many rhinos will be poached this year as last (c450 animals). The number could even be over 500, depending on demand and the effectiveness of conservation efforts (see graphic below, white rhinos poached between 2007-2011 in RSA)

There are still many more than there were at the turn of the last century when numbers plummeted to several dozen animals in South Africa, which is evidence of their robust nature. The market was then, as it is now, in foreign lands, whose markets for horn have proved equally tenacious, although there have been some changes in attitude over the last century in certain places.

To many of us this seems like an unpleasant sense of déjà vu does it not? Those of us who grew up in Zimbabwe will remember the various rhino conservation programs and the notable activities of individuals like the Rhino Girls who cycled across the continent to raise awareness for the cause. Why is this problem failing to diminish despite all these efforts and why is there so much misinformation, even amongst apparently modern, rational Westerners?

This is not meant to be a research paper and I haven’t backed up every assertion and statement with a reference, but most I have gleaned from the web through relevant organisational websites:;;;

Other sources have been referenced too and cited where necessary. Having perused these pages I feel I am a little better informed. Like many Westerners I was under the impression that rhino horn was used almost exclusively as an aphrodisiac. Apparently this is not the case according to more one of these sites. Neither is the use of horn in the manufacture of Yemenese dagger handles a significant threat to rhino populations any longer. The major use is in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), allegedly as an anti-pyretic (fever reducer), analgesic (pain killer), anti-cancer medication, and in the prevention of strokes. TCM is not just practised in China but also in neighbouring countries like Vietnam. Vietnamese nationals have been regularly implicated in the illegal trade in horn originating from South Africa.

It is also necessary to acknowledge that TCM has been practised for the better part of three millennia and, as such, many of its practises are strongly entrenched in the cultural and medicinal practises of much of South East Asia. Furthermore, like many traditional medicinal practises there may be grains of truth amongst the myths. One scientific study claims to have shown powdered rhino horn to have some very mild anti-pyretic properties in lab rats when administered at suitably high concentrations (however, the results are disputed by other researchers).

Whilst this may be a point to argue by the medicinal horn-advocates, it should be remembered that there are many existing, sustainable, over the counter equivalents like aspirin which essentially do the same thing, at no harm to the environment. Considering the current black market price of processed rhino horn (between US$20, 000 and $55, 000/kg) I can’t imagine that this use is what is driving the demand. More likely it is as a purported use for more serious life threatening ailments like cancer.

If, like me, you have lived with someone suffering with terminal cancer, you will know firsthand the desperation those persons felt at one time or another in finding an effective palliative medicine (to reduce suffering and pain), notwithstanding the hope of a miracle cure. It is very difficult to be completely objective in such situations, but even here we have to draw a line. My father was afflicted by a malignant brain tumour from 2003 until his death from complications arising from treatment in early 2006. Whilst he suffered acutely, mainly from the side-effects of powerful corticosteroids prescribed him, in his last year of life he conceived of a notion (whose provenance remains a mystery) that an infusion of cobra venom into the tumour itself would cure him of the cancer. We searched online and could find no pharmaceutical medication derived from the said snake venom and, with difficulty, I had to emphasize this several times. Perhaps it was something said once upon a time or a speculation made by one doctor or another, but the point is that the promise of a cure was very real for him. Had there been a complementary medicine derived from snake venom it probably wasn’t the sort of thing you would find online and quite likely very dangerous, unless it had been denatured. However, had it been offered to my father he most likely would have taken it out of desperation and I have little doubt that he would have paid for it, regardless of the cost.

I imagine it is the same for people suffering terminal cancer or other serious malady in traditional Chinese society. When one’s very life is at stake what financial price is too much to pay? But we have to draw a line and adhere to the rational approach to medicine that has advanced the life expectancy and quality of life for people everywhere it is practised effectively. And this includes traditional medicine (TM) too. There are many examples of how TM has been employed effectively, often in a palliative way and in some cases as a cure. (St John’s wort springs to mind, used extensively in European TM apparently?). Where proven to be effective many TMs have been incorporated into pharmaceuticals, BUT only after having proven to be safe and effective through rigorous and controlled clinical trial testing.

Returning to the subject of rhino horn and its use as an anti-cancer treatment, the denials come from both within and from without the TCM practitioners. Two authoritative quotes I found on the site

“There is no evidence that rhino horn is an effective cure for cancer and this is not documented in TCM nor is it approved by the clinical research in traditional Chinese medicine.” – Lixin Huang, Statement opposing the use of rhino horn in medicines by the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

“To all this, I say that something that works for everything usually works for nothing. I also say that something that has been used for hundreds or thousands of years does not make it right.” – Dr. Albert Lim Kok Hooi, oncologist based in Kuala Lumpur, A horny story

Considering that rhino populations are in such a perilous position, the question has to be asked “how much can the use of rhino horn in TCM be accommodated considering the threat to the survival of the species?” The rational answer is that it cannot. But is the world quite as rational as we would hope? Consider that the UK market for herbal, homeopathic and aromatherapy products stood at a not inconsiderable £188 million in 2010.

Worldwide the alternative or complementary medicines must be over a billion sterling, by conjecture? Ok, so I concede that many of these products are regulated and authorised by government agencies before being allowed to go to market. However, my understanding is that they only have to prove safe for human consumption, the substance being administered at the discretion of the TM or CM practitioner and its effectiveness not clinically proven. The efficacy of many of these medicines is assumed by consumers because of the perceived integrity of the TM cultures, their tradition and longevity.

The fact of the matter is that within cultures we place a great deal of emphasis on human life (contrary to the practises of wars of ideology or conquest). If it were scientifically validated that rhino horn was indeed the elixir of life the hapless rhinoceros would probably be eliminated tomorrow. If we were somehow able to preserve the species, against the odds, at the very least there would be some sort of highly regulated dispensation of the stuff, probably at mind boggling costs. Certainly there would be great financial incentive to start farming the pachyderms to meet the enormous demand. But I ask you to pause for a second… rhino horn is selling for mind boggling amounts which strongly suggests that it is being peddled as this very elixir of life. Interestingly it is not just criminal syndicates looking to cash in on illegal poaching and rhino horn smuggling operations but legitimate businesses too, as a recent expose by Time magazine revealed.

Chinese nationals have allegedly invested, beginning some five or so years ago, in a multi-million dollar project to start a rhino-harvesting project on China’s Hainan Island in the South China Sea, in contravention of CITES. Despite a cover that it is to be a tourist-oriented safari park called  Africa View, there was no evidence of this objective when visited by a local journalist in 2006. The sixty rhinos penned there were being kept in concrete pens with not a tourist in sight. A business portfolio published by Longhui, the company investing in the project, and a subsidiary of an arms manufacturing group, states the real objectives: to produce various rhino horn products, including detoxification tablets, for retail in the TCM market. Sales revenues are projected to be of the order of US $60 million per annum if all goes to plan.,9171,2075283-4,00.html

One might applaud this approach as being better than the poaching and slaughter that is occurring elsewhere. I have found myself enticed by this approach, initially anyway. Is it feasible? Well, certainly none of the web sites referenced above advocate it in any way, most citing the strict CITES regulations on the trade in rhino horn which clearly rule out commercial trade in, or refining of, rhino horn in any way whatsoever. I can only assume that the commercial aspects have been debated at length by those involved in formulating CITES agreements. I can only assume that their collective wisdom has been brought to bear in the arguments for and against farming the animals for sustainable harvesting of horn. Personally I can’t imagine it would bode well for the rhinoceros anyhow, considering the size of the market and the apparent demand, coupled with the obvious difficulties in scaling up the farming of the beasts to a level necessary to satisfy this market.

The unfortunate truth is that the construction of the farm on Hainan may well have contributed to the surge in demand for rhino horn in the last five years or so. There is a corollary in the story of elephant conservation and the efforts of CITES legislation. I read of the effects of the brief lifting of the CITES ban on the trade in ivory in the 1990s which permitted several African governments to sell off considerable ivory stockpiled from animals who died natural deaths or from regulated hunting/culling operations. It prompted the swift emergence of a number of ivory carving operations in South-East Asia (mainly China I think) to process this ivory, but which also boosted demand and led to an upswing in poaching operations shortly thereafter, a trend which perpetuated for several years I recall reading. Given the robust status of the elephant in some regions, like the Hwange National Park in my home country of Zimbabwe, it is possible that some sort of long-term regulated trade might just be entertained. The problem is that an increase in the demand for ivory, like rhino horn, affects elephants everywhere and there are marginal and fragile populations which are very sensitive to interference.

It seems as if a “hands off” conservation approach coupled with strong condemnation of anyone involved in the illegal trade of horn, indeed criminalising it, is the best approach for those countries hosting existent rhino populations. But this is not enough I’m sure you will agree and we need to appeal to the market itself; those practising TCM and more especially those who consume rhino horn derivatives for whatever ailment. It is perhaps heartening to read that the issuing of a Fatwa (a strict Islamic edict) by the Grand Mufti in Yemen, at the time they became a CITES signatory in 1997, saying it was against the will of Islam to kill rhinos for dagger handles, that the practise was largely abandoned and alternatives used (water buffalo horn for instance).

This shows the effect that someone in power, someone respected by the people, can have in effecting a major shift in an a formerly entrenched cultural practise or belief. We have to appeal to the leaders of China, Vietnam, Laos and others in the region that may be involved in the consumption of horn products as advocated by TCM. To this end there is a petition penned by Africa Geographic appealing to the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, H E Mr Nguyen Manh Hung, of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, to help implement a nation-wide education campaign in his country, and to produce “a legally binding Memorandum of Understanding between South Africa and Vietnam aimed at combating the trade, sale and use of rhino horn (which) must be signed and implemented without delay.”

Petition post-script: In South Africa a rhino is brutally killed every 22 hours. There is no time to waste!

Certainly a similar appeal must be made to those in authority in China, and ratcheted up until they feel obliged to act.

I would like to live in a world where sustainable utilisation and an appreciation for biodiversity becomes universal. If this were the case right now the market for rhino horn would dissipate for the simple reason that it is threatening the very existence of discrete groups of animals. I think it’s probably fanciful to believe that there could be such an abundance of animals that we could entertain the harvesting of horn from wild animals for whatever reason, but as an ideal we should consider it. Would it be any different to wearing leather if utilising the animal horn or hide? Or different to many of the CMs presently out there, harmless but without proven curative or palliative effects, if consumed?

The waters have been muddied by the findings that there may be a mild, but discernible anti-pyretic effect induced by a sufficiently concentrated infusion of horn extract. Never mind that the studies were conducted using lab rats and the levels required to have an equivalent effect in humans were not determined by the researchers. Most probably they are impractically high. Never mind that the effects are mild and short-lived. It is important to ensure that these findings are understood by the public in this context so that they cannot be used for the purposes of propaganda by profit-seeking healers or criminal entities involved in the illegal trade. The future of these irreplaceable and awe-inspiring beasts depends on it.

UPDATE 26-01-2013:

I am very sad to report that the figure for total rhinos poached in South Africa in 2012 is reported at 668 animals, substantially higher than the projection on my graph at top (c500) (as reported at Already 32 animals have been poached in the country since the beginning of the year (including 18 in the Kruger NP alone) (


Reflections on Population and Fertility in the UK

I am a self-professed science geek (not to be confused with the “techno” variety) but with a curiosity that extends into various other categories. I enjoy scientific magazines most of all, but one can never get too far from the human interest perspective, otherwise it becomes dull. As it was, it was a National Geographic magazine special entitled “Population 7 Billion” which caught my attention one particular morning at my local library ( I expected it to reinforce my perceptions of population distribution and growth i.e. there are too many people just about everywhere and these populations are inevitably expanding too fast, whether through migration or natural reproduction.

I was fascinated to read that the world’s population growth rate actually appears to be slowing faster than expected. We have been rapidly approaching the birth of the planet’s 7 billionth inhabitant (he or she may already have arrived), yet the brakes are slowly being applied: “the UN projects that the world will reach replacement fertility by 2030” it is stated. It is speculated that world population growth would probably continue for another quarter of a century at least due to the huge swell of adolescents moving up the population pyramid.

However, the present decline in birth rates is considered “mind boggling” by the director of the UN Population Division, Hania Zlotnik although I doubt that the comments of demographers like Hania Zlotnik really filter through to the subjective mindset of the average non-policy-making citizen of planet Earth. Ask the average man (or woman) in the street whether or not he (or she) thinks there are too few or too many people on the planet and it’s a sure bet what the answer’s going to be. Yet, to observe the situation at the scale of a nation or region portrays a very different scenario. Take England and Wales for instance, the stats for which can be gleaned from the website of the Office for National Statistics,

If the figures are to be believed  the fertility rate of women in Europe (the number of children borne per woman over her lifespan) languishes well below the replacement rate (the number of children required to replace her and her partner and maintain a stable gross population): 1.4 versus 2.1. According to figures on the ONS site, the last female cohort in the UK population haveing a FR > 2.1 was from 1948 i.e. the generation of women born that year. They reached the end of their reproductive lives in 1993 (age 45); the trend for successive cohorts thereafter has been downward (see fig 1.). Note that the upper trend terminates at the 1964 cohort. This is last cohort to have completed their childbearing for which there is available data (up to 2009). The data trends are similar throughout most of Europe.

Average number of live children born, England & Wales, at ages 30 & 45 (credit ONS)

So it’s obvious that if Europe remained a closed system without migration to and from its borders, its population would, with time, diminish. Following naturally is the question of whether this would be a good situation, or a bad situation?

This must surely be viewed in light of what criteria we attach to the word “good”. Quality of life, access to education, healthcare and social welfare are all part of the equation we are familiar with and would want to perpetuate in some form or another. Usually this is tarried to economics and the state of government finances. The situation today is weighted favourably towards countries like Britain which have a strong currency, can afford to out-source primary industry and manufacturing to a large degree, import the finished goods and sell them back to us with a considerable mark-up. Hence the economy of countries like the UK become service oriented, which means we can indulge in consumerism, the arts, science, knowledge and technological advancement. The notion is that such things feed back into the equation and perpetuate, if not reinforce, the primary position. This is all good and well provided that the “things”, the services and institutions, maintain their productivity on the one hand, and the export economies don’t reduce supply or become too expensive in their provision of manufactured goods on the other.

It is my guess that the latter is unlikely to happen for a good while yet. The factories are there and the resources have not yet been plundered entirely (are we not only now entering entering peak oil?). In fact, as I write, it occurs to me that the question of global population is unhelpful. It doesn’t really say much at all about what it means to be a person at a particular location in time; their quality of life, their aspirations, their opportunities. After all, of the state of Texas were as densely populated as New York, the author of the NG special states, it could encompass the population of the entire globe. Not that we would want that of course, but the quality of life of the average New Yorker is not all that bad, from a New Yorker’s perspective. But we don’t all want to be New Yorkers, nor can the world support a global population of such inhabitants. However, it serves to illustrate a point, if only by alluding to an extreme.

There seems to be a contradiction, however, between the data and reality. I speak somewhat subjectively, through my experience of living and working in the UK, and my speculation pertains to the situation here. The baby-boomers are moving into the age of retirement, the population is fairly static, yet unemployment is rising and specifically, youth unemployment is at an all-time high. As I am to understand it, over a million young men and women between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed in the UK. This could be put down to a lack of initiative shown by these people, so say those of a cynical disposition. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but it is a minor truth.

A major truth is that the basic service jobs (the one’s that must by necessity employ a good proportion of your labour force: 30%? 50%?) are not exactly abundant. (anyone who has perused the Gumtree, Reed, Monster Jobs, Jobsite and the many other job pages can testify from the stats feedback i.e. commonly dozens, sometimes a hundred + applicants to compete with). London stands out as a possible exception as it does on so many indicators due to its size and the positive feedback mechanisms generating further growth in its economy and job provision. But my anecdotal experience in the south-west – Plymouth, Bristol and Swindon – was a bit more grim. In my experience it also far easier to find work as a casual employee than a permanent. The flexibility suits many people e.g. those with more than one job, mothers with children etc, but probably gives a false picture of the overall employment situation. Against this backdrop are businesses becoming more streamlined, more efficient, less people-intensive? I can’t answer that, but I suspect that is a factor.

It could be tentatively suggested that we are entering a period, perhaps a sustained one, in the UK and most other Western nations of low real growth, as indicated by GDP and per capita income, married with moderate to high unemployment. Couple this with problems in public sector finances and oft-toted “efficiency savings” by respective governments, increased costs of living and attendant loss of savings, what impact could this have on demographics? Most likely family size will be increasingly constrained by family income and what assistance the state is prepared to give. Inflation, higher VAT and other expenses have hit family incomes, this is no secret. Likewise, welfare payments are unlikely to bridge the gap and for middle-income families, increasingly less attainable. If economic indicators are a major factor in fertility and conception rates then the current downturn mitigates against any change in their gross downward trajectory over the last half century.

But the picture is more complicated than at first glance. A trend that has emerged in the last twenty years can be seen in the graph below (fig. 2):

Figure 2: Relative changes in age-specific conception rates, England and Wales, 1990-2009 (credit ONS)

It is obvious that women are choosing to have children at an increasingly older age, with the greatest increase in the 40 + age group. However, these changes are relative, not absolute. They don’t tell the observer if the actual increase in fertility of woman over 30 compensates for the slight decline in the lower groups. A similar but more informative graph is shown in fig. 3,  comparing the fertility rates in terms of conceptions per 1000 women in each  reproductive year (consecutive years between 15 and 45 years of age) at four different times: 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2009 (most recent data).

Figure 3. Age Specific Fertility Rates for select intervals (Data from ONS)

By integrating the areas under the respective curves one should get a cumulative fertility rate for the year in question. It is obvious that the curves have flattened and skewed towards the right with time i.e. towards older women. The flattening reveals that peak age-specific fertility rates (shown here as live births/1000 women at age x) have fallen drastically between 1970 and 2009 (by 1/3 from ~180 to 120). The peak reproductive age group has also shifted from 24 yrs to 30 yrs.

One other point to consider when talking of fertility rates are terminations as a proportion of total conceptions. I am quite staggered by the data: 21% of all conceptions in 2009 (~900, 000) were terminated by legal abortion. That’s almost 190, 000 pregnancies terminated, of which about 40, 000 are in the under 20 age-group. Half of them occur in the 20 – 29 year age-group. This is the data which jumps out at me although there is plenty more to be found on the sheets which can be downloaded from the ONS website.

On the question of migration I have read (once again anecdotal) that migrant fertility rates soon fall in line with those of the host country (another contradiction of popular perception?). There is more data on the ONS site that I haven’t had the chance to peruse.

An article of anecdotal interest is one I read in an Economist earlier this year (which one I can’t remember off the top of my head). The topic under discussion was one of “assortive mating”, a phenomenon which is increased substantially over the last half-century i.e. the percentage of degree-educated men procreating with degree-educated women. This probably has as much to do with the fact that the percentage of women with Bachelor degrees today (in the West? Or just the UK?)  is on a par with men, whilst 40 years ago, the percentage of women with Bachelors was a paltry 9%. So educated men and women should have a fair chance of meeting and mating. However, the fertility rate of such women is below the replacement rate: only 1.6. For high school drop-outs, by comparison, the rate is 2.4.

Ok, so it’s obvious that education equals lower fertility in Western women, and degree-holders are not a self-sustaining subset of the female population. Once again, lets consider what were to happen if this was a closed system. Essentially, given sufficient time the system (read “population”) could sustain itself, perhaps even grow, but it would be increasingly dependent on the progeny of the drop-outs to grow up, get a degree, and fill those job vacancies requiring degrees, because the degreed subset is unsustainable (FR = 1.6). One might be tempted to say that the gene-pool becomes diluted by less-desirable individuals, if intellectual achievement is considered a proxy for the possession of “intelligent genes”. There is probably some truth in this, and it must be some cause for concern. Of course, the intelligentsia are a class which draw on individuals from all backgrounds, so this picture is a simplification.

Food for thought I hope. Comments and discussion most welcome.

Bob Dylan in Concert, 11 October, MEN Arena, Manchester

About a month ago I splashed out on a ticket for a concert in Manchester. The face value of the ticket was £60, but I paid a further £10 in “card handling fees.” Tack on the costs of transport and accommodation, not an inconsiderable sum, but considering the headline act would be none other than Bob Dylan, supported by the distinguished Mark Knopfler and his band as an opening act, it was an outlay I was happy to make.

September had been a good month from a financial perspective, probably my best since arriving in the UK in ’09. I felt enabled; besides which, I had missed out on so much of the mainstream summer entertainment – the outdoor festivals and concerts – that I almost felt obliged to attend a big name event. Did I have any reservations? I did. A couple of months earlier I had worked with a blues/folk musician on a landscaping job in north London. I’ve checked out his band on YouTube and they’re okay, good enough anyway for me to take Francis’ opinion seriously. “Has Dylan been an influence?” I asked him.

“Of course, but it’s a pity he still insists on playing his old stuff. His voice isn’t what it was and he’s just spoiling them” he replied, somewhat to my consternation. He was playing at Finsbury Park in the capital that weekend and I half-hoped that I could scrape together the funds to attend. I couldn’t and I didn’t. Another member of the team, Bodie, had attended and I eagerly anticipated his verdict the following Monday. Alas, the young man had been in a state of insobriety and couldn’t enlighten me on the calibre of the great troubadour’s performance.

Fast forward four months or so and it seemed as though my prayers had been answered. Dylan was returning to Europe on a whistle-stop tour starting in Dublin, thence to Glasgow, before sweeping down southward to Bournemouth. The last UK venue before the show headed to the continent appealed to me because I have family there. However, seeing that the tour was stopping off in Manchester, at the MEN Arena no less, I was inclined to change my mind. It was at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, now the Radisson Hotel, that Dylan had famously gone electric after opening with an acoustic set. He had been riled and booed, but nonetheless persisted with characteristic obduracy; the performance came to be seen as a watershed moment in contemporary music. One can read about it on numerous sites and commentary pages on the web with particular emphasis on the anguished cry of  “Judas” from a young Keith Butler, to which Dylan retorted, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.”

With the momentous events of yesteryear in mind I booked a ticket for the MEN Arena performance on Monday, October 10th, 2011. At the last minute I secured a coach ticket to and from the city. Despite being unable to print my ticket and almost failing to make my connection in Birmingham as a result, I arrived in a murky Manchester around midday on the 10th. Undecided on when to make the return journey (later in the evening or the following day) I wandered into the city centre, intrigued by the wonderful architecture, and stumbled upon a tourist information bureau. “What is there to see in the way of cultural attractions?” I asked a young lady behind a desk. She referred me to an older woman who punched a URL into a desktop monitor with painful deliberation. What she retrieved I forget, but the city map she gave me proved far more useful, and the suggestion that I might like to visit the Lowry Gallery near the Salford Quays.

At first mention the name Lowry meant nothing to me. When it was pointed out that he had made his name painting the early 20th century industrial landscape of Manchester I large gong sounded in my head. My mother had had a Lowry print in her study when I was growing up. As it was, the exhibition at the Lowry gallery was fascinating. I tagged onto a small group following an animated guide who conveyed her love of the artist through an enthralling zigzag march across the gallery halls. There was the original of my mother’s print – a busy street imposed upon a bland background of factories, but the contrast being the key. I hadn’t realised the breadth of his work, nor the controversy and ambiguity that much of it aroused, especially his drawings; drawings of androgynous individuals, girls and boys in each other’s attire, oddly anthropomorphic cats and dogs set amongst his human subjects, and always a sense of contradiction or conflict tacitly implied.

By all accounts he was a loner who had made his name by being unconventional; a man who turned the judgemental gaze of society back upon itself. Some drew back in disgust, yet most took another look and realised that the mirror-view was not quite so deplorable. Indeed, his work was by turns humorous (take his painting of the cripples and amputees mingling with ordinary folk in the park), testimonial (his pictures of the crowds of men leaning forward in anticipation as they congregate upon the football stadiums), and always insightful, even when the subject matter was the factory-urban landscape laid bare.

Perhaps it was fitting that I was in the city to listen to another man who courted controversy and shook the existing establishment so profoundly through his musical endeavours. In many ways Dylan and Lowry aren’t so different. Both men grew up, at least initially, in urban settlements profoundly influenced by human activity: Dylan in the mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota, and Lowry in sprawling Manchester. These early impressions of blighted landscapes may have set the stage for one or either artist, striving to find a poetic or artistic dimension to the drabness of industry sprawl and gaping holes from which ore was extracted. Will Lowry be remembered as a protest artist, like Dylan, who was acclaimed as a leading, albeit reluctant, voice in the civil rights movement in America? Probably not, although he may have been, but in a different sort of way.

Intriguingly, at the time I was in Manchester to hear Dylan, he had kicked up a storm of controversy back home in the US, through the subject matter of his latest exhibition of artwork, The Asia Series. Many, if not all, of his pieces have turned out to be copies of photographs, some dating back a century or so. He has not, apparently, violated any copyright of the images in question. Assuming that this has been done deliberately, and such a “trick” would appeal very much to the sensibilities of the artist, why did he not accredit the photographers in his reproductions? Perhaps that was the point. It’s quite likely that the curators of the gallery were unaware of this imitation artwork when they inaugurated the exhibition. It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of authenticity, the “aesthetic ideal” and whether it even matters whether one is original.

But this is Bob Dylan we’re talking about, the musician who led the countercultural revolution and spoke up most defiantly against conformity. But then again, if everyone embraces non-conformity, does that not become conformity in itself? Perhaps it is an indictment of Western perceptions of the East. Could one honestly expect to find that silk-gowned woman in the painting “Opium”, clearly modelled on a photograph by early 20th century photographer Léon Busy, in latter-day Japan or China? I don’t know, but I imagine it unlikely. Whatever the verdict, he had courted controversy once again, and I dare say Lowry himself would have given a wry smile and a nod of acknowledgement.

As for the performance itself, it was a disappointment. I found a review on the website by Neal Keeling, who writes: “Bob Dylan arrived and shook the place up. Dressed all in black and snarling from the start he looked and sounded like a survivor from the Alamo.” Yes, and no. It was far punchier than Knopfler’s lyrical Celtic-inspired compositions, but it was too loud (more than one comment on the aforementioned review to this effect). From where I sat in the upper tier of block 213 his voice was lost in the clashing instrumentals. Was this intended to be an affirmation of his ’66 gig, where he went defiantly electric? His opening number, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, was disharmonious, the words indiscernible until it came to the punch-line of the chorus. Three tracks later “Tangled up in Blue” was similarly far removed from the original and, quite frankly, awful. Sure he has the right to sing them his way, but the question remains, why? Perhaps I should have done my homework and listened to the critics like Francis or perhaps gazed at a few You-tube videos of recent performances. Many of us walked out of the show (I after Highway 61 revisited), whilst others whistled and applauded and obviously enjoyed themselves.

For me to walk out is unusual. I’m one of those who try to put myself in the artist’s shoes and empathise with him or her. To walk out is insensitive and offensive. However, here was a man who so evidently delights in doing things his way, via his interpretation, regardless of the opinion of his audience that I did away with such self-imposed notions. The only song that had any merit to my mind had been one I hadn’t heard before, “Things Have Changed”. A perusal of his discography reveals it to be a more recent release (’07) which would explain why it sounded fresher and less contrived than his older stuff.

So, for what it’s worth, I’ll give you my opinion. To be a musician or artist is to create something; perhaps for its own sake, perhaps only for the satisfaction of the creator, but when displayed or performed in a public space it asks to be evaluated, to be judged. In taking a beautiful ballad like “Tangled up in Blue”, “spat out” as Mr. Keeling puts it, he defiled the original recording; the recreation was ugly. Perhaps that is even more pertinent for “Simple Twist of Fate”, the recorded version of which is wistful and nostalgic, whilst the Arena performance is too jaunty and completely indifferent to the original sentiments.

On my walk back to the Aurora Hotel, incidentally managed by a high school friend from Harare, my hometown in Africa, I passed under the alluring bright lights of uptown Manchester and reflected that there was far more to this city than could possibly be taken in on a trip like this. I had failed to find the spirit of musical revolution that Dylan had evoked 45 years ago (yes, 45 years!), but to label him “Judas” would be unjust. Not far away in the shadow of St Peter’s Square, I had earlier set eyes upon a small, tented encampment of those protesting against the global financial system and advocating reform in banking and corporations. Whilst I stood there a man called Mike had approached me and asked if he could help. “What are you standing for?” I had asked him.

“I’m just fed up,” he had replied without being specific, and in his eyes I sensed his frustration, perhaps a hint of resignation? He looked like a man who needed to hear the words of a prophet. A generation ago many would have pointed to Dylan as that prophet, but when I mentioned to Mike why I was there he only raised his eyebrows ever so slightly before turning away and muttering something about returning to the camp. “Find us on Facebook and support the cause” was his parting declaration. I didn’t, but the “Occupy” movement swiftly gained momentum, grabbing the headlines in the process. But who is their voice? Perhaps we need a latter-day Dylan or Lowry, to inspire and deride the status quo, to set us stomping off fervently in a definite direction. I’ve no doubt he (or she) is out there somewhere; they always will be I fancy. They just weren’t in Manchester that evening of the 8th of October, 2011.

certiores petere, appetere edoceri (seek to inform; seek to be informed)


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