‘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 »

A Tale of Two Velodromes

A sprint race at the Herne Hill track on 14 September 1929.

A sprint race at the Herne Hill track on 14 September 1929.

London’s two velodromes were built in the 19th and 21st centuries. The indoor track at the Lee Valley Velodrome, one of the fastest in the world, is housed in a beautiful stadium built at cost of £94 million. Its distinctive roof, a hyperbolic paraboloid clad in 5000m2 of custom-cut Western red cedar, is a prominent landmark at the edge of the 2012 Olympic park. The open-air track at Herne Hill is completely hidden in a South London suburb. More »

‘Timbuktu’

timbuktu

In his film Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako shows a traditional Muslim society overrun by outsiders claiming they have the God-given authority to tell everyone what to do. The film is inspired by the 2012 takeover of much of Northern Mali by jihadist and other rebel groups. It is both specific to its setting and raises questions about struggles playing out across the Muslim world. I can’t think of another creative work that takes such an imaginative, subtle, assured look at Islamist militancy and its effects. More »

Patently Mendacious

The Queen’s Speech has all the pomposity and solemnity of a panto you’re not allowed to laugh at. This bowdlerises its political content, grimly apparent were it delivered by a nerd in a lounge suit. Elizabeth lumbers in, glazed and jowly, with the familiar cast of attendant lords, including her husband, her heir and her heir’s duchess, who’s kitted out with a purple sash that could be left over from the Ukip election campaign. As ever the queen herself looks as if her breakfast porridge had too much mogadon in it. Since she always reads her script as if she were reciting the E numbers on a packet of jelly, it’s anyone’s guess what, if anything, she thinks about it. The custodian of the speech is a nerd usually seen in a lounge suit, Michael Gove, who from journeyman beginnings as a Times hack and a Commons expenses home-flipper, has now hit it big as lord chancellor. Yesterday he got to try out his new 18th-century chancellorial garb. More »

Negative Typecasting

‘Gothic’ or ‘Black Letter’ script was used by monastic scribes in many parts of Europe from the 12th century. Early printer-typefounders, including Gutenberg and Caxton, imitated handwritten Black Letter in the first moveable type. In Italy, Gothic typefaces were soon challenged by Roman or ‘Antiqua’ letters (which owed their forms to classical Latin inscriptions) and Italics; and in much of Northern Europe, too, Black Letter forms were largely obsolete by the mid-17th century. In Britain, the ‘Old English’ variant survived in the ceremonial ‘Whereases’ of indentures and statutory preambles. It lingers on in ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’ signs, Heavy Metal rock graphics, neo-Nazi tattoos and the mastheads of the dailies Telegraph and Mail. More »

Brodsky among Us

Brodsky teaching at Michigan University in the early 1970s

Brodsky teaching at Michigan University in the early 1970s

Joseph Brodsky would have turned 75 on Sunday. In March, the Moscow publisher Corpus released Бродский среди нас (‘Brodsky among Us’), a memoir by Ellendea Proffer Teasley, who met the poet in 1969 in Leningrad and remained friends with him until his death in 1996. She was a graduate student at Indiana University when she went to the Soviet Union with her husband, Carl Proffer, who taught Russian at Michigan. In 1971 they set up the Ardis press in Ann Arbor, to publish the work of writers banned in the USSR, including Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Bely, Nabokov, Sokolov and Aksenov. More »

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