Patently Mendacious

The Queen’s Speech has all the pomposity and solemnity of a panto you’re not allowed to laugh at. This bowdlerises its political content, grimly apparent were it delivered by a nerd in a lounge suit. Elizabeth lumbers in, glazed and jowly, with the familiar cast of attendant lords, including her husband, her heir and her heir’s duchess, who’s kitted out with a purple sash that could be left over from the Ukip election campaign. As ever the queen herself looks as if her breakfast porridge had too much mogadon in it. Since she always reads her script as if she were reciting the E numbers on a packet of jelly, it’s anyone’s guess what, if anything, she thinks about it. The custodian of the speech is a nerd usually seen in a lounge suit, Michael Gove, who from journeyman beginnings as a Times hack and a Commons expenses home-flipper, has now hit it big as lord chancellor. Yesterday he got to try out his new 18th-century chancellorial garb. More »

Negative Typecasting

‘Gothic’ or ‘Black Letter’ script was used by monastic scribes in many parts of Europe from the 12th century. Early printer-typefounders, including Gutenberg and Caxton, imitated handwritten Black Letter in the first moveable type. In Italy, Gothic typefaces were soon challenged by Roman or ‘Antiqua’ letters (which owed their forms to classical Latin inscriptions) and Italics; and in much of Northern Europe, too, Black Letter forms were largely obsolete by the mid-17th century. In Britain, the ‘Old English’ variant survived in the ceremonial ‘Whereases’ of indentures and statutory preambles. It lingers on in ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’ signs, Heavy Metal rock graphics, neo-Nazi tattoos and the mastheads of the dailies Telegraph and Mail. More »

Brodsky among Us

Brodsky teaching at Michigan University in the early 1970s

Brodsky teaching at Michigan University in the early 1970s

Joseph Brodsky would have turned 75 on Sunday. In March, the Moscow publisher Corpus released Бродский среди нас (‘Brodsky among Us’), a memoir by Ellendea Proffer Teasley, who met the poet in 1969 in Leningrad and remained friends with him until his death in 1996. She was a graduate student at Indiana University when she went to the Soviet Union with her husband, Carl Proffer, who taught Russian at Michigan. In 1971 they set up the Ardis press in Ann Arbor, to publish the work of writers banned in the USSR, including Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Bely, Nabokov, Sokolov and Aksenov. More »

The Migration Business

Taking part in a panel on European border control at the LSE last autumn, I found myself saying that the behaviour of people smugglers over the last twenty years or more was as worrying as the increasing number of migrants and asylum seekers using their services. Cecilia Malmström, then the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, nodded vigorously. She described the mechanics of getting people in danger across frontiers in the last century as an innocent process, a ‘cottage industry’. I remember hearing a similar remark about the older coyotes from an NGO worker on the US-Mexican border in 2011.

I haven’t met a people smuggler for 16 years: my evidence that they treat their charges more harshly than they used to comes from sources we can all access – mainly accounts in the press about migrants and asylum seekers who have suffered at their hands, and briefings from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. More »

A Headteacher Writes

Dennis O’Sullivan, the headteacher of a secondary school in Hertfordshire, has written an open letter to David Cameron setting out the funding crisis facing schools in England and Wales: ‘a school like mine needs to find £500,000 in savings on an income of just under £6,000,000 in each of the next three years.’ This is because: More »

On the Road

I am writing this in the car on the way from Haifa to Ramallah. Cell phones beep as we cross between Israeli and West Bank coverage. The view out the window has changed from the dark green mountains and manicured landscapes of northern Israel to the rocky textures of the West Bank mountains.

On 23 May, more than a dozen writers will arrive in Ramallah from different parts of the world to take part in the Palestine Festival of Literature, which I help organise. Every year since 2008, it has put on public literary events with Palestinian and visiting writers in different cities in the evenings. Over the course of the week, it also aims to show the visitors something of Palestinian history and present-day reality. A lot of time is spent on the road, travelling through the geography of occupation: the checkpoints, the walls, the segregated motorways. More »

Who are the Rohingya?

There was a sign on the floor of one of the boats abandoned off the coast of Aceh this week. ‘We are Myanmar Rohingya,’ it said in white capital letters. Its occupants may have been picked up by Indonesian fishermen, or they may have drowned. In the last couple of days, Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to give temporary shelter to 7000 or more people stranded on boats in the Andaman Sea, some for as long as four months. The Malaysian navy has also begun to look for boats in its own waters. Thailand won’t be joining them, though it has agreed not to turn the boats away for the moment. ‘Our country has more problems than theirs,’ the Thai prime minister said. He may well be right: a mass grave was discovered in the south of Thailand earlier this month, containing the bodies of 26 Rohingya. There are probably more. On 29 May, there will be a meeting in Bangkok of 15 countries including the US, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Burma, which is attending on condition that no one use the word ‘Rohingya’. More »

Labour’s Fight

The crisis that now confronts the Labour Party is difficult to overstate. Had forthcoming boundary changes been in place for the general election, the Conservatives would have won a parliamentary majority of around 50 seats. The SNP has wiped Labour out in Scotland. The rise of both the Green Party and Ukip in England and Wales looks set to continue, and the Liberal Democrats may well take back a few seats in five years time. Labour may well struggle to maintain its current footing in 2020, let alone build on it. More »

Der britische Historikerstreit

The German word Historikerstreit, meaning a quarrel between historians, gained popularity in the 1980s, to describe arguments over whether Nazism represented a continuity or rupture in the German story, or over the comparative evils of Fascism and Stalinism. Historical debates over questions bearing on political decision-taking – such as Greece’s debt to Germany (or vice versa), or whether Turkey is a European country – have kept the practice going in the 21st century.

The British historical guild has been slow to emulate the European model, but the self-styled ‘Historians for Britain’ in October last year launched a manifesto using a selective reading of the past to argue for British uniqueness and superiority vis-à-vis the EU. More »

The Segregation Wall

Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. © Karen Zack

Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. © Karen Zack

Some people call the wall in the West Bank a ‘security fence’; others refer to it as an ‘apartheid wall’. The International Court of Justice, in its 2004 advisory opinion declaring the construction illegal, called it simply ‘the wall’. Media style guides tend to suggest ‘West Bank barrier’ or ‘separation barrier/wall’.

But the wall doesn’t only separate; it segregates. In 1963, Malcolm X gave a speech in which he spelled out the difference: separation is between equals; segregation is forced on the weak by the strong. A segregated community is ‘regulated from the outside by outsiders’. More »

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