The Girl Who Wasn’t There

On Tuesday 19 September, the 32nd anniversary of the magnitude 8 earthquake that levelled large parts of Mexico City in 1985, an earthquake of magnitude 7.1 hit the city and neighbouring states. In 1985 the epicentre was off the Pacific coast, and the death toll reached at least 10,000. When that one set our house rocking back and forth at 7.17 a.m., my wife Betty and I were about to send our daughters to school. They boarded the bus and we turned on the television. For the next three days we witnessed the havoc at collapsed hospitals, hotels, and residential and office buildings. This time I was crossing Chapultepec Park, on my way to pick Betty up from the ABC Hospital. At 1.14 p.m., two hours after a planned earthquake drill and 12 days after a quake in Chiapas and Oaxaca killed at least 98 people, my taxi suddenly halted and began moving to and fro on the undulating road, while trees swayed towards and away from me. At the hospital, staff and patients were hugging the walls. More »

On Weeds

Weeding in the garden of my ex-council bungalow this summer, I came across a young dandelion. It poked up next to the arthritic rose planted by the previous tenant, a Greek Cypriot woman who lived here for 16 years until her death. Her son visited us when we moved in and told us about the barbecues they had in the garden and the dolmades his mother made from the vine she grew here. After she died, he cut it back, but stopped short of digging it out, unsure whether the strangers moving in would want it. We did. More »

In Helsinki

‘People are like boats, we head off for a place we’ve been longing to visit for ages,’ says a character in ‘Pirate Rum’, a short story by Tove Jansson. ‘Maybe an island. Finally we get there. And what happens? We go right past, further out.’ Having set off in a canoe, the man gets caught in a storm and is sheltered by two women living on a secluded island. More »

Credible Fear

According to US asylum law, women who have crossed the southern border and want to stay in the United States must prove ‘credible fear’ in an interview with an asylum officer. At the South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest detention facility in the US, I talked to thirty women about why they’d risked the perilous journey north. The word ‘credible’, it soon became clear, was mostly redundant. More »

In Tewkesbury

Ten years ago, Tewkesbury Abbey was surrounded by muddy brown flood waters. Following the wettest June on record, in which tens of thousands of buildings were flooded, from Scotland to the Midlands, an extreme weather event hit the Cotswolds on 20 July 2007. The region was already saturated, drains were overflowing and run-offs ineffective. At the confluence of the rivers Severn and Avon, Tewkesbury was swamped. Within hours it was completely cut off. The flood waters breached the Mythe waterworks, depriving 350,000 people of running water. More »

‘Herr Müller wants to talk to you’

Margot Hielscher, the German TV actress and Eurovision star, died on 20 August, aged 97. A singer and general forces’ sweetheart during the Second World War, she was also probably the last surviving woman to have had an affair with Goebbels. She had been working in the film studio at Babelsberg as a costume designer when she caught the propaganda minister’s eye. Her first role was as a handmaid to Mary Queen of Scots in the anti-English Das Herz der Königin (‘The Queen’s Heart’, 1940); she went on to star in Frauen sind Keine Engel (‘Women are no Angels’, 1943), singing the title song which became her signature tune.

She was still a large-eyed, striking and very well-preserved brunette when I interviewed her in the early 1990s. More »

In Praise of Process

The Commons vote on Tuesday night to give the Tories majorities on all the committees that are supposed to scrutinise legislation, including Brexit legislation, despite their not having a majority of seats in the Commons, has been described by the shadow leader of the house as a ‘power grab’. It’s also deeply unconstitutional. Britain is a parliamentary democracy, which expresses and enacts the ‘will of the people’, but only once that will has been scrutinised, debated and tested over a (fairly short) period of time.

The idea that the ‘will of the people’ as expressed on a single day in June 2016 should be set in stone, never to be amended, runs against the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy; More »

In Hurricane Season

Old Florida hands (and there are some, even in this new, garish, flattest and most rootless of states) measure out their lives in hurricane names. They remember particular angles of attack, depths of flooding, wind velocities and force measurements, destructiveness in dollar amounts. I can see objects being pushed illustratively around a bar-room table. It’s a form of higher geekishness, each man (and of course they’re usually men) his own survivalist. It’s one of those occasional bits of Floridiana that remind me that people were never actually meant to live here, and that being here converts you into a leathery, eccentric kind of specialist, something like the ‘old sailor,/Drunk and asleep in his boots’ of Stevens’s poem, who ‘Catches tigers/In red weather’. More »

Uncertainty in Saudi Arabia

At least three prominent Saudi clerics, Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Umari, have been arrested in the last few days. They are not part of the state-backed clerical establishment. Saudi Arabia has always had problems with clerics whose loyalties are not to the royal family, going back to the revolt of the Ikhwan which was ruthlessly suppressed by Ibn Saud in 1929. Nowadays the problem has a new dimension: large online followings. Nearly 60 per cent of the Saudi population are said to be active on social media; al-Awda has more than 14 million followers on Twitter. Le Monde describes him as a defender of individual liberty and one of the most popular challengers of authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia. More »

A Meteor in the Saturnian Sky

One of Cassini’s last looks at Saturn from a distance
© NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Late one night in January 2005, I stood, freezing, in a car park on an industrial estate in Darmstadt, outside the European Space Operations Centre. The sky was beautifully clear, allowing the smattering of amateur astronomers present to point their telescopes at Saturn. A quick glance through a relatively modest instrument shows the orange disk of the planet, its system of rings and, visible as a point of light to one side, its largest moon, Titan. More »

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    • Mark Dando on The Eighth Hill of Rome: Decades later on the other side of the world, I feel slightly guilty when I look at some pieces of broken amphora on my terrace pilfered when we livin...
    • Chris Lintott on A Meteor in the Saturnian Sky: I'm not sure it's true that Cassini could have been solar powered - no mission relying on solar power has operated so far from the Sun. Technology is ...
    • IPFreely on ‘Herr Müller wants to talk to you’: An AfD leader, Gauland, is now saying that Germans have nothing to do with the Nazi era and that it is time to move on - quite what he wants to move o...
    • vanini on A Meteor in the Saturnian Sky: While it's appropriate to celebrate Cassini's amazing scientific discoveries, there should be a mention of Cassini's dark side: it carried 72 lb of th...
    • Stu Bry on In Praise of Process: While I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments in the blog I find it strange that there is no consideration of Process in terms of EU accountability...

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