Chaucer’s Fault

The earliest known Valentine's card

The earliest known Valentine’s card

Don’t like Valentine’s Day? Blame Chaucer. Saint Valentine was a third century Roman martyr. We don’t know much about him. There may in fact have been two Valentines, one a bishop from Terni, the other a priest martyred on the Flaminian Way, though they may also have been the same person. Or possibly neither of them existed. The two hagiographies conform to the usual pattern: vicious Roman leaders in conflict with unrepentant martyrs who keep the faith. But no mention of lovers. More »

What does Russia want?

There is a dangerous false assumption at the heart of the West’s negotiations at, and reporting of, peace talks in Minsk over the fighting in eastern Ukraine. It is that Russia wants to have direct control over a small area of Ukraine – about 3 per cent of the country; the area, slightly smaller than Kuwait, now under separatist rule – and that Ukrainian forces are fighting to win this area back.

You can’t blame Western negotiators or journalists for thinking this is what is going on, because it’s what the Ukrainians are bound to tell them. That doesn’t mean it is the underlying truth. The evidence so far is that what Russia actually wants is indirect influence over the whole of Ukraine, and for the West to pay for it. More »

On Stockholm’s Streets

Three years ago there weren’t many beggars on Stockholm’s streets. Some homeless, yes, selling Situation (the Swedish equivalent of the Big Issue), a few buskers in the Tunnelbana; but not men and women huddled in doorways, wrapped in blankets – it’s well below freezing here now – with stories of sick children, homelessness and hunger scrawled on squares of cardboard beside them, and paper coffee cups for passers-by to put coins into, or not. This is new. It’s a shock for someone who’s been coming to Sweden for years, always impressed by the absence of obvious signs of poverty, only too familiar in the UK and elsewhere in Western Europe, but relieved in Sweden by the generous welfare safety net. It seems so very osvensk. More »

The real problem with Tony Abbott

After Tony Abbott decided to give a knighthood to Prince Philip last month, the right-wing Melbourne shock-jock Andrew Bolt laid into the prime minister: ‘This is just such a pathetically stupid – gosh, I didn’t mean to be that strong because I actually like Tony Abbott very much – but this is just such a very, very, very stupid decision, so damaging that it could be fatal.’ Rupert Murdoch agreed that there had been a failure of leadership: ‘Tough to write, but if he won’t replace top aide Peta Credlin she must do her patriotic duty and resign,’ he tweeted.

Abbott has narrowly survived a vote on whether or not to open up his position to challengers, but his troubles are far from over. His collapsing poll numbers and waning credibility are for once about substance, not style. Leadership may be a lightning rod for discontent, but the underlying cause is the government’s inability to convince the public of the merits of its neoliberal economic agenda. More »

What price a visa?

From the reaction to the Home Office’s decision to grant visas to the family of Andrea Gada, a five-year-old killed by a car in Eastbourne before Christmas, you’d think a corner had been turned on immigration policy. Gada’s Zimbabwean grandparents and aunt were at first denied visas, ostensibly because of fears that they would remain in the UK. Stephen Lloyd, Eastbourne’s MP, said he would personally guarantee the family’s departure from the country and raised the case in the House of Commons. David Cameron wrote to the Home Office. The case was reviewed and the decision upheld. Finally, after a petition with 100,000 signatures asking that the Gadas be allowed to come was delivered to Downing Street, the decision was overturned last week ‘on compassionate grounds’ (and because of some mysterious ‘new information and assurances’ that the family would return home after the funeral). But it was political expediency that won out. More »

In Aberdeen

There was an emergency conference on North Sea oil in Aberdeen on Monday. More than a thousand jobs have been lost since the global oil price collapsed from $110 dollars a barrel to under $50. Two men I met in the lounge car of the Caledonian Sleeper on Sunday evening – strangers to each other – had both held senior positions at major oil companies. They had different axes to grind, but agreed that the North Sea was no longer a profitable option for the major firms, who would pull out altogether before long. More »

Extremist Ideas

The Counterterrorism and Security Bill 2014-15 has all but completed its swift passage into law. Sponsored by Theresa May and Lord Bates of the Home Office, it promises to expand the state’s paranoid reach in predictable ways: new powers to seize passports and bar UK citizens from returning home; a requirement that internet service providers collect data on users; a provision that airlines and rail and shipping companies may have to seek permission from the Home Office to carry certain groups of people. More »

At the BnF

The past decade has been a strange one for the Oulipo. For most of its existence, the Parisian literary collective has been, if not quite clandestine, then hardly in the spotlight. A rare survivor from the avant-garde movements of the last century, the Oulipo’s mission has always been to explore the possibilities of ‘constrained writing’, as in Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, which avoids any use of the letter e. Unlike some of its antecedents, bound up with the revolutionary politics of the early 20th century, the Oulipo has never set out to change the world; rather, a certain retiring bonhomie – perhaps a reaction to its co-founder Raymond Queneau’s time in the fractiousness of the Surrealist movement of the 1920s – has been written into its structures from the outset. More »

DRC 4, Republic of Congo 2

The Democratic Republic of Congo beat the Republic of Congo 4-2 in the Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final on Saturday. The Republic of Congo team is mostly young and inexperienced, and drawn from a population one-16th the size of the DRC. It was lucky to qualify, getting through only after Rwanda was disqualified for fielding an ineligible player. On paper at least, the result was to be expected. All the same, the game was the most exciting of the tournament so far, with the DRC coming back from two goals down. More »

In Toulouse

I don’t know when ‘banlieue’ became a word in English, but it’s in a 1990 edition of Chambers as ‘precinct, extra-mural area, suburb’. Many people living in the rougher outskirts of France’s cities prefer the expression ‘quartiers populaires’; others use the word ‘cités’: working-class neighbourhoods where architects, planners and commissioning bodies created huge, affordable housing projects half a century ago (long horizontal ‘barres’ and grandiose high rise set the tone). The rundown cités at the margins of Paris, Marseille, Lyon and other major cities are once again under inspection after the 7-9 January killings: Amady Coulibaly, who murdered the policewoman in Montrouge and the four Jews in Paris, grew up in a dismal estate south of the capital. ‘Ghetto’ and ‘apartheid’, words already murmured whenever France talks to itself about these places, are now spoken openly. The prime minister, Manuel Valls, used ‘apartheid’ in a recent speech about urban segregation. More »

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