John Kerry’s Eureka Moment

It has been a bizarre week for US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On 23 December, the Obama administration narrowly avoided becoming the first since Harry Truman’s to leave office without a single United Nations Security Council resolution censuring Israel to its credit. Washington has spent the past eight years shielding what John Kerry on 28 December called ‘the most right-wing [government] in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements’ from international scrutiny. More »

George Michael and Me

I used to listen to Wham! in secret. It was 1984 and I was nine. My school was in a white and mostly working-class village in Lancashire. I knew only one other Wham! fan and, though it’s been thirty years since we last met, he was the first person I contacted after I heard George Michael had died. He once claimed to have reached the singer on a secret number he found in a magazine and had a hilarious conversation with him. I still wonder if this might have been true. We used to listen to the albums over and over at one another’s houses, but at school we kept our adoration to ourselves. It was normal for boys to like Duran Duran. They said Wham! were ‘poofs’. George Michael was loved by older girls, teenagers, but in my class the girls hated him too (they liked Madonna). ‘He loves himself,’ they said. ‘He looks at himself in shiny floors when he’s dancing.’ More »

Booooooooooooooo!

I went to the pantomime in Bridlington yesterday: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with a special guest star who had ‘stepped in at the last minute’ to play the wicked queen – ‘the Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe’. I lost my voice booing in Act One; after the interval I wondered if contemptuous silence wasn’t anyway better. I might have found it easier to suspend my disbelief if her acting hadn’t been so wooden, but as she strutted about the stage, cracking Brexit jokes or saying that her henchman had ‘something of the night’ about him, I couldn’t help remembering how in 1996, when she was the junior home office minister in charge of prisons and immigration, she had defended the practice of shackling women who had just given birth. More »

On the Cresta Run

Riding a skeleton on the Cresta Run, before women were inexplicably banned in 1929.

Riding a skeleton on the Cresta Run, before women were inexplicably banned in 1929.

I made my first trip to Tibet in 1987. One of my companions was a former British army officer called Garry Daintry, who told me that during the winter he helped out on the Cresta Run in St Moritz. The Cresta is an ice chute that you descend on a ‘skeleton’, a toboggan that you lie down on head first, and which has neither brakes nor any steering mechanism. You can try to control the speed by ‘raking’, rubbing the spikes of your special shoes on the ice, but you will inevitably reach speeds approaching sixty miles an hour. More »

Agent Wanted

cov0706I have spent 15 years or so looking for a new agent. I had one once, but he died. I am being slightly economical with the truth when I say that. I shall tell the whole story. I have spent most of my time writing since 1978. This has only ever been subsidised by part-time work. Writing is much more than a hobby or interest in my case. While my first love is poetry, I also write novels, travel books and journalism.

In the early 1980s I began to get more and more work published in magazines (including the London Review of Books, who once put my photo on the cover), anthologies and collections brought out by small publishers. My breakthrough came with the publication of Sky Ray Lolly by Chatto and Windus in 1986. More »

In Berlin

The first I heard was a text message from a friend in London, around 9 p.m. When I opened my laptop it was already filled with images of the Gedächtniskirche in the centre of former West Berlin, its broken spire left there after the war as a memorial. But now, in front of it, a lorry had been driven into one of Berlin’s busiest Christmas markets: the wooden huts festooned with fairy lights were surrounded by the blue and red lights of the ambulances, fire engines and police cars. Blood stained the pavement and windswept reporters repeated the little information they had. Nine dead, many injured, the lorry’s passenger killed at the scene. The driver in custody. Was it worse that we weren’t even surprised? More »

Assassination of an Ambassador

At 7.05 p.m. Turkish time yesterday, the Russian ambassador, Andrei Karlov, was shot dead in an Ankara art gallery. The assassin, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, an off-duty Turkish police officer in a suit and tie, calmly shot Karlov in the back several times; spoke in Turkish about Aleppo, with his hand in the air, one finger pointed upward (a jihadi sign, symbolising ‘takbir’, the greatness and oneness of Allah); and then said, in accented Arabic, a few sentences associated with Jabhat al-Nusra. (We can be sure of all this because the shooting was captured by an Associated Press photographer.) Altıntaş was killed by security forces who stormed the building. Vladimir Putin was informed of the assassination while on his way to watch a play written by Alexander Griboyedov, Nicholas I’s ambassador to Persia, who was killed in 1829 when a mob stormed the Russian embassy in Tehran. More »

Cameron Vanishes

‘We will introduce a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill to make it clear that ultimate authority stays in this country, in our Parliament,’ the Conservative Party’s 2010 manifesto said. It was a promise they never kept. Six years later it’s a promise that’s completely obsolete, thanks to the EU referendum, although just now even that ‘ultimate authority’ is in some doubt, as the Supreme Court deliberates on Miller v. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. ‘Our approach to foreign affairs is based on a belief in freedom, human rights and democracy,’ the 2010 manifesto also said. ‘We are sceptical about grand utopian schemes to remake the world. We will work patiently with the grain of other societies, but we will always support liberal values.’ More »

Shameless

Back in the day, the rhetoric of American power was thick with talk of high moral purpose. The ‘international community’, the label of choice for the United States’ Facebook fanbase, proved compliant in the face of US-sponsored mass killing in Indonesia under Suharto, the fire-bombing of civilians in Vietnam, and the decades-long portfolio of Monroe Doctrine-inspired murderous dictatorships in Latin America. Hot on the heels of Vietnam and the secret bombing of Cambodia, Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. Latterly the high moral tone took a bit of a knock from the bungled crusades in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. But now, in the dying days of the Obama regime, it’s back. More »

Southern Fail

At the High Court last week, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), the parent company of Southern rail, failed to secure an injunction against Aslef, the train drivers’ union. On Monday they took the case to the Court of Appeal, which also dismissed it, allowing the first drivers’ strike in the company to go ahead on Tuesday. More »

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