Am I on the domestic extremist database?

On 4 March the UK Supreme Court ruled that police surveillance of John Catt, a law-abiding 90-year-old peace campaigner, was legal, and that a detailed record of his movements would remain in the national domestic extremist database. ‘The composition, organisation and leadership of protest groups,’ Lord Sumption said, ‘is a matter of proper interest to the police even if some of the individuals are not themselves involved in any criminality.’ Using the data protection act, Catt obtained a copy of his police file in 2010. At one protest, it recorded, he ‘sat on a folding chair… and appeared to be sketching’. At another, ‘he was using his drawing pad to sketch a picture of the protest and police presence.’ Another entry noted he was clean-shaven. The Network for Police Monitoring said that the ruling ‘allows the police extraordinary discretion to gather personal information of individuals for purposes that are never fully defined’. More »

The Enron Fallacy

Last month Amsterdam students occupied the Bungehuis building on Spuistraat, in protest against the university’s ‘Profiel 2016’ plan to shred jobs and academic programmes. Hardest hit is the humanities faculty, rated in the top thirty globally in 2011, where around 100 staff face the axe. Within humanities, ‘small’ languages such as Arabic, Polish and Italian will no longer exist as majors. Falling enrolment is blamed, though humanities admissions rose from 1417 in 2006 to 1875 in 2010. The cuts aim to save €7 million from 2017; other humanities programmes may be ‘consolidated’ into a generic liberal arts structure. More »

Iran’s Physicists

The Iran University of Science and Technology in Tehran was founded in 1929 as a school of engineering. It became a general technological institute in 1972. It now has more than a dozen departments with thousands of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Few if any American universities have a more complete list of undergraduate physics courses. Looking at the faculty reveals an interesting split. The senior professors all did much of their degree work abroad. One of them for example was an undergraduate at Columbia. The junior faculty, including one woman, all did their degree work in Iran. In another generation, it may be that all of Iran’s physicists will have been educated in Iran. No other country in the Middle East would show a demographic like this. Taken in the large this means that Iran has a serious scientific infrastructure, which must be taken into account in any negotiations over its nuclear programme. The notion that the country can be negotiated into a scientific stone age is nonsense. More »

In Battersea

battersea town hall 1891

Battersea Arts Centre, badly damaged by a fire last Friday, started life as the town hall. In the spirit of late Victorian civic pride and aspiration, the capacious porch is decorated with figures representing Labour, Progress, Art and Literature instructing the infant Battersea, who looks remarkably confident about the likely benefits coming his way. Built in 1892-93 to the designs of E.W. Mountford (the architect of the Old Bailey), the imposing exterior anticipates Edwardian Baroque while the interior is tinged with the dawning of art nouveau, most strikingly in the great coloured glass dome, painted with tendrils of golden foliage, like a giant Tiffany lampshade. More »

In Baghdad

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A 10cm clay female figurine from the Samarra period (c.5000 BC), found at Tell Songor A

The Iraq National Museum reopened on 28 February. Many of the treasures of ancient Mesopotamia are in the British Museum or the Pergamon in Berlin, or were lost to looting after the 2003 invasion, but some wonderful objects are now on show in Baghdad. I visited last week. As I was looking at pieces of Iraq’s great civilisations in glass cases, the extremists of Daesh (as the Islamic State is known in Arabic) were smashing up the original sites for being idolatrous. More »

Frei Otto

The biodomes of the Eden Project in Cornwall, joined together like soap bubbles.

The biodomes of the Eden Project in Cornwall, joined together like soap bubbles.

In 1958 the leonine young German architect-engineer Frei Otto made a public attack on the new, American-funded Berlin Kongresshalle. The building’s clunky bivalve form meant it was already known as ‘the pregnant oyster’. On a public platform alongside the architect, Hugh Stubbins, Otto fumed that it was a cumbersome, essentially fraudulent structure: ‘Can a suspended roof be a symbol of free speech?’ In 1980 he might have enjoyed a moment of Schadenfreude when a ring beam collapsed and the Congress Hall had to be rebuilt. More »

At the Bedlam Burial Ground

Tom LawsonDead bodies are being evicted from East London to make way for the new Crossrail station at Liverpool Street. Crossrail is gentrifying the soil. Last week archaeologists began digging up skeletons from what used to be the Bedlam, or Bethlehem, burial ground. The cemetery took its name from the lunatic asylum, which was close by, and some of the people buried there were former inmates. But it was mostly used, between 1569 and 1738, by East London parishes as an overflow cemetery for ill-favoured corpses, an underground slum for the dead. More »

Cosmetically Virginised

Last week the government ‘delivered’ on its plan to privatise the successful East Coast main line. Stagecoach and Virgin now co-own it. My first experience of the new regime came while buying a ticket for my daughter, when I saw that the old East Coast booking site has been cosmetically Virginised. I was charged £6.45 for ‘special delivery next day’. Five days later, the travel time booked for had come and gone. Two messages of complaint, no reply, and Virgin still has my cash safely trousered. More »

Random Psychopathic Dog Haters

At Crufts last week, as a five-year-old Scottish Terrier called Knopa (who competes under the name ‘McVan’s to Russia with Love’) was being awarded Best in Show, a protester stormed the floor holding a sign that read ‘Mutts against Crufts’, before being dragged off by security staff. PETA explained that the protest was against the practice of pedigree breeding, which leads to chronic health problems in purebred dogs as well as the neglect of mixed-breed dogs. (The BBC dropped its coverage of Crufts in 2008 after the Kennel Club refused to exclude from the competition some breeds particularly at risk because of generations of inbreeding.) More »

‘L’Arabe du futur’

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Riad Sattouf’s father travelled from a small Syrian village to Paris in the 1970s. He met Sattouf’s French mother at university there. After they graduated and their son was born, the family went first to Libya under Gaddafi and then to Syria under Assad. L’Arabe du futur, Sattouf’s autobiographical graphic novel, tells of his strange childhood spent in the shadow of Arab dictators and his father’s delusions. Two more volumes are forthcoming, and an English translation is under way. More »

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