The Verdict

1 a.m. In six hours the sun will rise on another grey morning and I will dress in the cold and drive to Torah prison. I’ll park my car by an old train track that’s now a garbage dump and home to a pack of dogs and walk past a tank with a soldier staring at me and head towards the courtroom at the centre of Egypt’s contemporary justice system. I will flash an expired press card and talk in English to get through a crowd of young men and women arguing with policemen in sunglasses in the hope that they will be allowed inside to wave through layers of opaque glass and metal wiring at the shadows of their friends in the defendants’ cage. More »

Fattypuffs and Thinifers

James Gillray, 'John Bull taking a Luncheon', 1798

James Gillray, ‘John Bull taking a Luncheon’, 1798

In André Maurois’s 1930 children’s novel Patapoufs et Filifers (translated by Rosemary Benét as Fattypuffs and Thinifers in 1940), Terry and Edmund are the children of Mr and Mrs Double. Terry, like his father, is thin; Edmund, like his mother, isn’t. One day, the inseparable brothers descend into an underworld where you’re either a Fattypuff or a Thinifer. The brothers are therefore divided, one packed off to Thiniville, the other to Fattyborough. More »

PJ through the One-Way Glass

PJ Harvey Somerset House

PJ Harvey recorded her eighth album, Let England Shake (2011), in a church on a Dorset clifftop with ‘a graveyard which has trees bent by the wind’. On Saturday, she finished sessions for her ninth album in the basement of Somerset House on the banks of the Thames, whose water had cracked the institutional white paint and seeped mouldily into the carpet. She worked on the songs for a month in a purpose-built white studio with one-way windows, letting the public eavesdrop on her (there were four 45-minute visiting sessions each day; tickets sold out fast). I went on the last day. More »

Mr Freeze

Amid little anticipation and less expectation, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, on Tuesday, 17 February, briefed the Security Council on the progress of the initiative he unveiled last year to ‘freeze’ the conflict that has destroyed the country, extinguished perhaps 1 per cent of its population and displaced more than a quarter of the remainder. It would be an exaggeration to say that hubris has given way to humility, but his performance this week was considerably more subdued than four months ago, shortly before I resigned from his office within weeks of arriving. More »

Who are the women who join Isis?

There isn’t much primary source material on the foreign women who have gone voluntarily to Syria and Iraq and chosen to live under the Islamic State, alongside the thousands of women Isis have kidnapped, beaten, raped, forced to convert and sold into sexual slavery. We know the places the volunteers have left but can only speculate as to why. More »

The HSBC Buccaneers

Austeritarian politics minds less about balancing the books than cutting the state. It aims to bear down on public spending but also distrusts tax, particularly on the well-off. Austeritarians bang on about the debt while failing to plug revenue holes.

Labour muddied the issue last week by merging it with the question of toxic party funding. At prime minister’s questions Ed Miliband attacked Tory donors including Lord Fink, who’d benefited from HSBC’s newly exposed Swiss tax scamming. Miliband apparently saw this as a chance to brand the Tories as high-rollers contemptuous of the fisc. The tactic was doubly doomed. More »

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 »

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