Riffled

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The men who carried an industrial drill down a lift shaft to break into Safe Deposit Ltd last month were joining a long tradition of Hatton Garden thieves. Late in the 18th century, a Bedfordshire labourer called William Smith (just over five feet tall, with grey eyes and a ‘fresh Complexion’ according to the criminal register) was tried for a ‘Singular and daring Robbery Committed on a Bankers Clerk in Hatton Street’. And a 17th-century pamphlet, Strange and Wonderful News from London: or, A True Narrative of Several most Remarkable Occurrences there, tells the story of an earlier heist. More »

Did it have to be the hair?

‘Going with the natural look as I start my 36th year,’ said the caption above a series of selfies of a woman with caramel-coloured skin and a loose afro (type 3b/3c), admiring the silhouette of her hair from different angles. Rachel Doležal is reported to have published the photos on Facebook in November 2013, around the time she was elected president of her local chapter of the NAACP. Last week it transpired that Rachel Doležal’s skin shade and hair texture might be the result of a spray tan and a wig, rather than the natural complexion of a person with African or African American heritage in her immediate family history. It appears that Doležal is a white woman who has gone out of her way to pass as black: ‘our’ hair, she said in a lecture on the history and politics of African American hair – while seemingly wearing an afro wig over her naturally straight, blonde hair. More »

In Belfast

Saturday was one of those days in Belfast, if you didn’t have to be in two places at once then at least you had to get from one place to another pretty sharpish. (If you live in the east, as I do, you had to move pretty nimbly too, to avoid the Orange parades: marching season is already well begun.) The biggest event was a rally in support of marriage equality, organised by Amnesty International, the Rainbow Project and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Following the Yes vote in the 23 May referendum in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland is now the only part of this island – and of the United Kingdom – where same-sex marriage is neither performed nor recognised. As many as 20,000 people took part and stood in good humour and good order (and sunshine) while speaker after speaker told them love stories and asked a simple question of our politicians: why can’t I be married too? More »

How did you get my name?

Many people imagine that Afrikaners are the ‘pure’ descendants of Dutch or Huguenot settlers of the 17th and 18th century. According to the historian Hermann Giliomee, ‘a sense of being Afrikaners rather than being Dutch or French or German had crystallised by the end of the 18th century’. But relationships across language (and, less frequently, ethnic) lines were not uncommon. Die groot Afrikaanse familienaamboek says that most descendants of John Higgo, a Cornishman who went to South Africa in the mid 19th century, are Afrikaans speaking. But one them is my father, Robert Higgo, an English-speaker from Cape Town.
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On Your Bike

Being a bicycle courier is incredibly dangerous. In terms of days lost through injury it’s up there with farming, meat-packing and deep-sea fishing. Most couriers are classified as self-employed subcontractors for tax purposes, but many courier companies treat them as contracted employees. The freedom to chose what work you do turns out to be a mirage: turn down a job or two and you’ll quickly be asked to hand back your radio and find a new company to work for.

It’s also badly paid. At CitySprint, one of London’s largest courier companies, a low-priority bicycle delivery from EC2 to SW1 pays the rider £1.25. The company defends its rates by arguing that no courier is ever asked to go on these schleps across the city with just one job in the bag: if you’re quick you can pick up several packages in one part of town and deliver them all at the other end. But what you’ll earn for the work is pretty much the same as it was twenty years ago. More »

‘On the Frontline’

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For the last three months I’ve been in Johannesburg helping to curate an exhibition of photographs at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, part of the Mandela Foundation. On the Frontline looks back over the difficult years, from 1975 to the early 1990s, when South Africa’s neighbours gave their support to the liberation movements in South Africa – both the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress – and the South-West Africa People’s Organisation, in return for harsh treatment by the apartheid regime. Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and other leaders acted on the conviction that their newly won freedom was illusory until apartheid was a thing of the past. More »

Avnery on ‘the real Nakba’

Uri Avnery on the myths and realities of the 1948 war:

According to the Arab version, the Jews came from nowhere, attacked a peace-loving people and drove them out of their country.

According to the Zionist version, the Jews had accepted the United Nations compromise plan, but the Arabs had rejected it and started a bloody war, during which they were convinced by the Arab states to leave their homes in order to return with the victorious Arab armies.

Both these versions are utter nonsense – a mixture of propaganda, legend and hidden guilt feelings.

During the war I was a member of a mobile commando unit that was active all over the southern front. I was an eye-witness to what happened…. More »

History Man

A few days before telling Shami Chakrabarti to ‘shut up’ about the Human Rights Act, David Starkey gave a lecture on Magna Carta at the British Library. Asked his opinion on Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, he said that it was historically inaccurate and ‘lady novelists need a hero’. (Earlier this year he called the novel a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’.) To hear Starkey tell it, you’d think Wolf Hall was full of scenes of a shirtless Cromwell scything in the summer heat. His view isn’t only misogynist, but completely misses the point. It’s a bit like saying Shakespeare’s history plays are bad history.
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Aubrey & Soane

When John Aubrey was learning to read, he found himself in a rich tilth of old manuscripts, reminders of the iconoclasm of the Dissolution a century before. His Wiltshire schoolmaster, the rector, had inherited many volumes taken from the great libraries of vandalised abbeys and priories at Malmesbury, Bath, Cirencester and elsewhere. The pages came in handy in a hundred and one ways – covering new volumes, wrapping a pair of gloves, making a serviceable lining for a storage chest, stoppering a barrel of ale. Paper was scarce and valuable, and old leases or surplus parchment scrolls had their uses for a tailor who wanted to cut out a pattern or a cook who needed to line a dish. Every sheet could find a second life. More »

181 Terrorist Groups

Last week China claimed it had arrested 181 terrorist groups in Xinjiang over the past year. Mass arrests, wide spread surveillance and an increased military presence have targeted ‘religious extremism'; some Xinjiang terrorist groups have been said to have links to Isis. The crackdown followed a number of violent incidents including bombings and knife attacks. According to one estimate, 72 people were killed in less than eight months. At the start of the campaign last year, President Xi Jinping said that terrorists must be made to ‘become like rats scurrying across a street, with everybody shouting “beat them!”’ More »

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