In Montreal

At the local fromagerie here in Montreal the other day my meagre store of French quickly exhausted itself, I think while discussing the desired thickness of the jambon about to be sliced. ‘S’il vous plait,’ I said meekly, ‘parlez-vous anglais?’ The proprietor, a tall, sturdily built man in his mid-fifties, gave me a gimlet-eyed, appraising look, then shrugged: ‘Where are you from?’ Had I said Toronto, I don’t know that he would have spat on the floor and thrown me out but I doubt he’d have continued in English. ‘Je viens de San Francisco,’ I said. And we were off to the races, discussing Quebec cheeses, charcuterie, what have you.
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The Schools Privatisation Project

As another teacher said to me recently, one of the scariest words in the jargon of school managers is ‘support’. The government’s plan to ‘support and challenge’ English state schools – the Education and Adoption Bill, which has now passed the committee stage – is very scary indeed. There are 21,500 state-funded schools in England; nearly 5000 of them are academies. Each one is under the control of a trust or private limited company, and each trust has an individual funding agreement with the education secretary to establish and maintain academies. When a local authority school is converted into an academy, once the contract is signed, local government stewardship, with its bothersome requirements for consultation and public oversight, is at an end. More »

Thrash Them Out

After Ed Miliband resigned, the acting Labour leader Harriet Harman said the system for electing his replacement would ‘let the public in’ to the debate:

This is the first time a political party in this country has opened up its leadership contest in this way and I think there will be a real appetite for it out there… We should not be afraid of differences. We should thrash them out.

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Not the Brontë Sisters

Not the Brontë sisters

Not the Brontë sisters

Witches always come in threes, and gothic spinster sisters too, so an early photograph of three severe looking women must be the Brontë sisters – mustn’t it? – especially if the scribble on the back could be read as their pen name, Bell. ‘Relikes been they, as wenen they echoon,’ says Chaucer’s Pardoner; everyone wants to believe in relics and to know what lady novelists looked like (Shakespeare too, but no one seems too fussed by what Smollett or Thackeray looked like, though we have pictures). The photo, bought on eBay for £15, is a collodian positive, the slow process (it takes up to fifteen minutes to develop) which began to replace daguerreotypes in the 1850s, and was itself replaced by gelatin plates not long after. Anne and Emily were both dead by 1850, so to be a picture of the Brontës this would have to be a photograph of an earlier daguerreotype. More »

The Deal with Iran

On 29 January 2002, George W. Bush designated Iran part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, despite Iranian co-operation in Afghanistan the previous year. In summer 2002, the US told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that two nuclear sites were under construction in Iran, at Natanz and Arak, neither of which had been declared to the IAEA as required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran was a signatory.

To defuse the situation, President Khatami offered to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme with the EU3 (France, Germany and the UK). Jack Straw, Joschka Fischer and Dominique de Villepin visited Tehran in October 2003. Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rouhani, agreed to suspend the enrichment facility at Natanz and the construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak, and to sign the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which provides for more intrusive inspections of nuclear sites than the NPT does. More »

Satan’s Paradise

Barack Obama’s plane will land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport this evening. He will be welcomed on the runway by Jomo Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru, Kenya’s fourth president. Both men were born in 1961, three years after the Embakasi Airport was opened (it was renamed in 1978). The website of the Kenya Airports Authority has a page about the airport’s history. It says that it was ‘constructed in the mid-1950s’ before going into considerably more detail about its World Bank-financed refit in the 1970s. It doesn’t mention that the airport was built with the forced labour of thousands of men during the Mau Mau uprising that began in the early 1950s. More »

In Višegrad

In The Bridge on the Drina (1945), which tells Bosnia’s history through 500 years of anecdotes centered on an Ottoman bridge in the town of Višegrad (Basil Davidson called the novel ‘Bosnia’s Waverley’), Ivo Andrić wrote of the persecution of ethnic Serbs by Austrio-Hungarian authorities and their Muslim backers after Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914:

As has so often happened in the history of man, permission was tacitly granted for acts of violence and plunder, even for murder, if they were carried out in the name of higher interests, according to established rules, and against a limited number of men of a particular type and belief.

Saturday, 11 July was the 20th anniversary of the start of the slaughter of 8000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, ninety kilometres north of Višegrad. More »

Read Everywhere

lrb crab

Wherever you happen to find yourself this summer – in the middle of a saltmarsh or at the bottom of a kitchen garden or on the top of a bus – get someone to take a picture of you reading the LRB or the Paris Review, post it on social media with the hashtag #readeverywhere, and you’ll have a chance to win an Astrohaus Freewrite smart typewriter, among other fabulous prizes. While you’re waiting, take out a joint subscription to both magazines. No prizes for spotting literary allusions in blogposts though.

The 94th Element

Pluto photographed from the 'New Horizions' spacecraft. © NASA/APL/SwRI

Pluto photographed from the New Horizions spacecraft. © NASA/APL/SwRI

Glenn Seaborg, Joseph W. Kennedy, Edwin McMillan and Arthur Wahl discovered element 94 in Berkeley in 1941. McMillan and Philip Abelson had discovered element 93 the previous year. When Martin Heinrich Klaproth isolated element 92 in pitchblende in 1789, he called it uranium after the recently discovered planet Uranus. The scientists at Berkeley named elements 93 and 94 after the planets Neptune and Pluto. The discovery of plutonium was kept secret until after the war. At Los Alamos it was called ‘49’. This did not help much since Klaus Fuchs gave all the details about the bomb to the Russians. The Germans also realised the value of element 94 for making bombs but they never could make a reactor to produce the stuff. More »

The Queen’s Childhood

royal heilnessesLife as a royal correspondent has its longueurs. In fact, much of the time, there’s little but longueurs. At the palace tea-parties, everyone’s on their best, terrified of letting rip a Pimm’s burp or treading on a corgi. One yearns for a bit of bad behaviour – a drunken streaker, say, or a blue-blood f-bashing a dithering pap, or a party guest who’s swapped the usual frock coat and topper for a full Afrika Korps service uniform.

One waits in vain, too, for her majesty to appear in SS rig to lead the canapé-rodents in a rendering of the Horst Wessel. Still, the Sun’s ‘Their Royal Heilnesses’ scoop falls not far short of this. More »

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