Happy New Year

We’re behaving as if we had 1.5 earths available to us, and our behaviour is getting worse. Every year the Global Footprint Network calculates the date on which people use up one year’s worth of the planet’s biocapacity. In 2013 we achieved this on 20 August. This year we’ve done it a day earlier. In the 1960s there was no overshoot; we were only using around three-quarters of the earth’s capacity. Britain uses the biocapacity of a land area more than three times its size, making it worse than the United States, which behaves as if it were merely twice as big.

Among the Alconauts

Over a drink, an English investment fund manager working in Moscow told a friend of mine that the war in Ukraine meant everyone in his office had had to ‘downgrade their own futures’. They had been calculating that Putin would eventually calm down and things would get back to normal. He hasn’t, and it looks like nothing will ever be normal again. At the fund manager’s office, they’re talking about the possibility of 30 per cent inflation and GDP contracting by 10 per cent. Some of them have decided to relax and enjoy the apocalypse. Since the Kremlin banned food imports from the EU and US earlier this month, there’s a sense of needing to party before the good things run out. They start drinking on Tuesdays now. More »

Boris Johnson, Agent of Chaos

Agent of ChaosPoliticians’ fictional namesakes aren’t hard to come by: as well as George Osborne in Vanity Fair, there’s a one-legged vagabond called Tony Blair in Uncle Rutherford’s Nieces: A Story for Girls (1869), and in David Cameron’s Adventures (1950), the eponymous hero is kidnapped in Aberdeen and sent to work on a plantation in Virginia. In Agent of Chaos by Norman Spinrad (1967), Boris Johnson is the unlikely leader of the Democratic League, an interplanetary resistance movement fighting against the totalitarian regime of the Hegemony, which has turned the entire solar system into a surveillance state. Their political efforts are hampered by his bumbling nature. ‘Boris Johnson was quite willing to babble on – and did so at every opportunity – but the man was a fool.’ More »

At the Soane Museum

Les Anglais à Paris

Les Anglais à Paris

Peace Breaks Out! at Sir John Soane’s Museum focuses on the celebratory mood in London and Paris in the summer of 1814, following Napoleon’s abdication. Around Britain, Peace Fêtes were organised in cities, towns and villages. Everyone was celebrating, and some were travelling. Parisians watched the British return in droves, after a 12 year absence, caricaturing them as portly gluttons or drab country cousins. Soane was one of the first to rush over to Paris, where he had last been as a student in the late 1770s. (His wife, Eliza, meanwhile went to Dieppe.) He returned with illustrations of a new generation of Parisian buildings to use in his lectures. He was also avidly collecting ephemera and artefacts of the moment, and his possessions, amplified by the collection of one of the exhibition’s curators, Alexander Rich, make up a remarkable cabinet of curiosities, a window onto those euphoric summer weeks. More »

In Brighton Beach

The immigrant who arrives too late in life to adapt to his new country, but too early to survive on nostalgia for the old country, has to create a third, imagined country to live in. When my grandmother got Alzheimer’s I was tempted to see it as an expression of her late-life immigration from the USSR to the USA, leaving one civilisation and never arriving at the other. (I was a teenager.) One of her daughters had cut off her past and been reborn as an American; the other returned over and over to Russia, making documentaries, unearthing graves and exploring gulags so she was all ‘memory’. But my grandmother had neither future nor past. As her illness got worse she would be found walking dazed along the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, the Russian ghetto where Brooklyn meets the ocean, a last stop on the subway from Manhattan. In the evening the boardwalk would be full of Russian immigrants with gaudy haircuts and fur-wrap finery, and as the light faded you could forget you were in America. More »

Outside the National Gallery

Rembrandt: The Late Works will open at the National Gallery on 15 October. It has been described as the first major show focused on the artist’s later years. The curators say it will ‘illuminate his versatile mastery by dividing paintings, drawings and prints thematically in order to examine the ideas that preoccupied him’. The gallery’s workforce meanwhile are preoccupied by plans to outsource security and visitor services to a private company. More »

In Carthage

Earlier this month a double celebration took place at Carthage, once the greatest city in the Mediterranean, destroyed by the Romans at the end of the Punic Wars and now a seaside suburb of Tunis. The anniversary of Hannibal’s defeat of the Roman army at Cannae in southern Italy on 2 August 216 BCE could be commemorated on the same day (2/8) as the beginning of the 2828th year since the foundation of the city by the Tyrian princess Dido in 814 BCE. Scholarly talks on Carthage and its heroes were followed by a carnival, including a parade from the acropolis to the amphitheatre with Carthaginian and Roman soldiers.

The Tunisian embrace of Dido, Hannibal and their city might seem surprising. The Phoenician colony of Carthage was as much a foreign power in North Africa as Rome was, even if Dido is supposed to have won over the local population with trickery rather than war: promising to live on no more land than she could cover with ox-hide, she cut the animal skin into such thin strips it could encircle the entire hill on which she then built her city. But its earliest known invader has helped to define the nation of Tunisia since independence from France in 1956. More »

The Responsible Face of Stonerdom

A couple of years ago I went to the 25th annual Cannabis World Cup in Amsterdam. The cup, organised by High Times magazine, part trade-show and part awards ceremony, has been held in Amsterdam since 1987. In a large dank hanger in an old shipyard in the east of the city, hundreds of young men gathered under a thick fug of smoke. They discussed marijuana cultivation and argued about the terroir of their favourite strains of hashish. There were ‘cooking with weed’ demonstrations and lectures on the history of cannabis. Stands sold seeds and smoking paraphernalia. One man was pushing his stealth smoking pipes disguised as asthma inhalers. More »

Boris Johnson’s Great and Glorious Future

The mayor of London riding sidecar to the Polish foreign minister

The mayor of London riding sidecar to the Polish foreign minister

The text of Boris Johnson’s speech at Bloomberg headquarters on Wednesday has the following helpful subheadings: ‘The European Nightmare’, ‘The Solution – Reform and Referendum’, ‘But Be Prepared for a New Future’, ‘The Dream’. The first part of the speech is devoted to the nightmare of EU health and safety regulations (truck drivers must not drive for more than nine hours a day etc), but Britain could have ‘a great and glorious’ future if it leaves the EU. London is already ‘the America of the European Union’ (because it’s a place of ‘massive opportunity’, not because it’s one of the most unequal cities on earth). More »

Gallows Humour

Stupidity knows no bounds, especially when fuelled by narcissism and a tongue laced with demagogy. There is no other way to describe George Galloway’s absurd and offensive suggestion that Bradford should impose a total ban on Israeli tourists. Statistically it would be interesting to see how many tourists from any country visit Bradford (even after Galloway’s election as the Respect MP, an election that some of us welcomed at the time). More »

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