My Grandfather in the Trees

One day in 1982 I got home from school to the phone ringing in the kitchen. It was my mother calling from work. ‘The neighbours called. Your grandfather’s in the tree tied to a rope.’ I ran to the back garden. He was six feet up the old oak, a fifty-footer, twice the height of our 1950s suburban ranch house. The tree was infested with oakworm, and my grandfather had been monitoring its lean towards the house. But every time he mentioned cutting it down himself, my mother would dissuade him. She didn’t point out that he was 76 years old with angina, high blood pressure and arthritis, but bemoaned the American legal system’s permit and insurance requirements. More »

Not Just Security

Many of the rooms at the National Gallery were closed last week. More than 200 staff were on their second five-day strike over plans to outsource security and visitor services. In the rooms that were open, the remaining attendants were hovering awkwardly near their chairs. CIS, the private contractor brought in to staff the recent Rembrandt exhibition, bans its employees from sitting down. I asked one of them how he felt about the arrangement. ‘I honestly don’t know why they’ve put chairs here,’ he said. ‘But I like walking around, it means I can speak to people. If I was sat down nobody would speak to me.’ More »

Mediterranean Oaks

Quercus coccifera

Quercus coccifera

Fernand Braudel began work on The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II in 1923. He finished it in 1946. Three years later it was published in Paris, and a revised and expanded second edition appeared in 1966. In 1972, almost fifty years after he started it, an English translation was published. More »

Turkish versions of ‘The Little Prince’

turkish astronomer

The copyright in The Little Prince expired in most of the world at the end of last year (it has thirty more years to run in France because Antoine de Saint-Exupéry died in the Second World War, ‘Mort pour la France’). In the first two weeks of January, more than thirty Turkish publishers released translations of the 1943 novella. Between them they bought 130,000 bandrols, holographic stickers required for every book sold in Turkey. More »

Really Good Friends Like These

‘People of the same trade seldom meet together,’ Adam Smith said, ‘but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.’ Smith was wiser to the wheezes of the marketplace than many of his latterday disciples. But even he might have found it hard to credit that democratic governments could conspire to bind themselves to accepting private supply of essential services. More »

Friends Like These

On 14 January 2014 I saw Jack Straw speak at the Westminster Russia Forum at the Baltic Restaurant on Blackfriars.

The Forum, formerly known as Conservative Friends of Russia, was launched in August 2012. Leaked e-mails from Russian officials soon appeared, saying they had been urged to use the organisation to campaign against the Magnitsky Act in Westminster. CFoR tweeted photographs of the anti-Kremlin head of the Parliamentary Committee on Russia, Chris Bryant, in his underpants. The Russian diplomat liaising with the group was Sergey Nalobin, first secretary in the embassy’s political section (his father was a senior figure in the KGB and FSB). They were accused by the Guardian, World Affairs and Private Eye of being a lobby group for the Kremlin. More »

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 »

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