‘We are the opposition’

‘Does it look big?’ an elderly woman asked me, craning her neck to see down the street. ‘I’m afraid so,’ I replied, thinking she might be worried about getting to the Tube. ‘Good,’ she said. Like thousands of others, she was in London on Saturday for the national anti-austerity demonstration organised by the People’s Assembly.

As we marched from the Bank of England to Parliament Square, the crowd kept growing. More »

Audis Away

Voters in Spain have put two outsiders in the office of mayor in Madrid and Barcelona. Both are strong, popular figures heading parties associated with the new Spanish left. Both are women. The similarities between the two candidates and the two cities end there. More »

Legless at Waterloo

Lord Uxbridge, before the accident

Lord Uxbridge, before the accident

Legend has it that every English schoolboy knows three things about the battle of Waterloo. Each turns on a supposed remark by the Duke of Wellington. The battle was ‘won on the playing fields of Eton’; English footsoldiers were ‘the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink’; and, in a charge near the battle’s end, when his cavalry commander had his right knee puréed by French grapeshot – ‘By G_d, sir, they have shot off my leg’ – the Duke responded with puckered sangfroid: ‘By G_d, sir, so they have.’ More »

#Jeremy4Leader

A few weeks ago, it seemed impossible that a socialist would be in the running for the Labour leadership. The former miners’ leader Ian Lavery had ruled himself out and supported Andy Burnham; Lisa Nandy had resisted attempts to ‘draft’ her into the race. The debate was firmly anchored to the right, with Ed Miliband under attack for being ‘anti-business’ and focusing on the disenfranchised. More »

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 »

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