After Rana Plaza

The details of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka a year ago have become familiar: the workers coerced into entering the structurally unsound building, the first tremors, the two minutes it took for the factory to fall to its foundations, the 17 days of searching for survivors in the rubble, the tally of 1138 bodies. Despite the photographs and the personal accounts, the event seems oddly distant and too readily memorialised in much of the recent coverage. In the UK, 24 April is Fashion Revolution Day: shoppers are encouraged to wear their clothes inside out to bring attention to the conditions in which they were produced. But the general popular response to the Rana Plaza disaster – aside from the dogged work of long-running campaigns such as Clean Clothes, Labour Behind the Label and Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops – has been limited and fragmentary.
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At the Met

Charles Marville, Rue de Constantine, c.1865.

Charles Marville, Rue de Constantine, c.1865.

New Yorkers have been mobbing the Charles Marville exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until 4 May). ‘Paris has gotten so expensive,’ I overheard one woman saying to her friend. ‘I used to stay at the Meurice all the time but now it’s $1500 a night!’

Marville was hired as Paris’s official photographer in the 1860s to preserve traces of the old city, but also to capture Haussmannisation in action, the demolition and rebuilding necessitated by the new streets, regularised building façades and such monuments as Garnier’s new opera house. Still, to judge from the response of the crowds at the Met, it’s the vanished cobblestones and shadowy courtyards, not the rubble and scaffolding, that are the stars of the show. More »

Rogues Galleries

Histories of roguery tend to the tricolon (alliteration optional). Last summer’s Criminal Investigators, Villains and Tricksters followed Of Tricksters, Tyrants and Turncoats, and Rogues, Rascals and Other Villainous Mainers will be published in October. Paul Martin’s Villains, Scoundrels and Rogues: Incredible True Tales of Mischief and Mayhem, out this week, showcases a group of ‘lesser-known Americans’ who are ‘undeniably memorable’. It’s a follow-up to Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World, which gets several mentions in the introduction of his new book, alongside ‘English poet John Milton’ who knew, like Martin, that ‘it’s easier to recognise good by knowing evil.’ More »

The Art of Losing

In 1919, 130 cyclists registered to race in the Tour de France. Only 69 turned up at the start line: the war had made rubber scarce, and many couldn’t find tyres. Riders were instructed to bring their passports with them as they’d be travelling through contested territory, and there wasn’t enough sugar around for the organisers to keep them properly fed. By the time the peloton arrived at the foot of the Pyrenees, only 25 riders were left in the race. Ten made it to the finish line. The last rider to complete the race, Jules Nempon, limped home 21 hours after the winner, Firmin Lambot. Géo Lefèvre, the tour’s originator and its most breathless early chronicler, called it ‘the most beautiful Tour de France I have ever seen’. More »

Orbán’s ‘Personal Leadership’

Everything appears to be going according to plan for Viktor Orbán. The Hungarian prime minister was re-elected on 6 April; after another week of counting absentee ballots and the votes of newly enfranchised ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring states, it is now clear that Orbán’s Fidesz party will retain its two-thirds majority in parliament – enough to change the constitution at any time it sees fit. Such concentration of power is unusual in Europe. But it conforms to the political vision Orbán outlined in a speech in 2009: Hungary, he claimed then, needed a dominant ‘central force’ to overcome not only the legacies of state socialism, but also what Orbán portrays as a failed transition after 1989. More »

Philby’s Bouillabaisse

In his autobiography, My Silent War, Kim Philby reminisces about the food he knew in London in the 1930s. ‘Haute cuisine’, he liked to label it, only the ‘haute’ element was more about his appreciation than it was about the food itself. His taste, as two new books about him suggest, was for Mediterranean cooking, food that Elizabeth David would make better known after the war – bouillabaisse, paella, that sort of thing. He apparently wasn’t a bad cook, either, which was less typical of men of Philby’s background. More »

Three Hours and Thirty-Seven Minutes

Before I ran the London Marathon on Sunday I was told that I would ‘enjoy the first 15 miles’ and ‘be buoyed by the crowd’. No such luck. It hurt from the start – I never hit the famous ‘wall’, just felt a steady increase of pain over time – and the crowd might as well not have been there, as far as I was concerned. I posted 3 hours and 37 minutes, which if I have some kind of memory lapse, I will probably try to better in the future.

It would be ungrateful of me, however, not to recognise that it’s been a bit of a struggle in the last century for women to be allowed to compete in marathons at all. Women have fought for my right to feel that amount of discomfort. For many years it was felt that women’s bodies could not withstand the stress of 26.3 miles. More »

In the Tenderloin National Forest

I took a walk in the forest the other day, a national forest. I’m not, customarily, big on walking in the forest unless there’s a Hansel and Gretel Bar & Grill about 300 yards in, but I’m glad I did. It was an uncommonly sultry April afternoon for San Francisco, and windless, rarer still. More »

On the Katzenklavier

cropped-cat-piano

On April Fools’ Day, the Wire magazine put out an announcement for an avant-garde music festival in Poland. I was completely taken in; but then, none of the performances mentioned sounded unrealistic. So James Ferraro had written an operatic tribute to the Nokia 3310 that was to be ‘simulcast online using Netscape Navigator’? Sounds like a natural move after his elevator music installation last month at MoMA and his Heathrow Airport-themed concept EP. More »

In Donetsk

Most informed sources in Ukraine and Russia believe that the annexation of Crimea was planned and carried out by the siloviki (former KGB and security service officials close to Putin), and not by the foreign policy elite (including the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and defence minister, Sergei Shoigu), whose influence has been waning since Putin veered to the right in the wake of the 2011-12 anti-government protests.

A senior figure in the Yeltsin group told me that Putin is using the Ukraine crisis to cleanse the elite and to consolidate his support with the non-metropolitan public at large. It is no coincidence that the last few weeks have seen the Russian authorities cracking down on liberal and internet media.

A former intelligence officer told me that influential members of the president’s inner circle, such as Sergei Ivanov, Nikolai Patrushev and Igor Sechin, view the confrontation with the United States and European Union as a good thing for Russia, an opportunity to make a long-advocated turn towards China. More »

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