There’s a long history of describing laid-off workers using metaphors of disease. The first comprehensive policy effort to deal with unemployment in the UK was the Labour Exchanges Act of 1909. ‘Relief works cannot seriously be regarded as a cure for unemployment,’ Gavin Hamilton said, proposing the bill in the House of Lords. ‘At the best they are only a palliative. What is wanted is not a drug to still the pain of this disease, but a cure which will reach deep down to its roots.’ Only recently, though, has unemployment come to be seen as a disease of the individual rather than social body.

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18 September 2020

The National Trust flexes its mansion offer

Nicholas Penny

The National Trust, unsurprisingly, has had a bad year. An honest statement of how the fulfilment of its duty to preserve places of historical interest and beauty has come under great pressure might have persuaded many of its members to double their subscriptions – especially if the Trust were to abandon some of its more extravagant and sillier initiatives. But the PowerPoint presentation entitled ‘Towards a Ten-Year Vision for Places and Experiences’, written by the director of visitor experience and leaked last month, must have left many people feeling that further support for the organisation should be conditional on the removal from office of those in the executive who endorsed such a document.

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17 September 2020

How bad can he be?

Patrick Mackie

Kenneth Branagh walks away from (or is it towards?) an exploding car. 

Christopher Nolan’s rampant new movie Tenet is the blockbuster charged with drawing us back to the cinema, so its spectacular opening carries a bit of an affront. There is an armed assault on the opera house in Kiev just as the audience has settled for a performance; they are quickly knocked out by some sort of nerve agent. It may be that Nolan’s ideal viewer is someone stupefied into passivity while bullets whoosh and thud around. Maybe he worries that that is our culture’s ideal. We had moved stolidly in our masks through the polite new biopolitical arrangements at the little multiplex in Witney, but here was an audience in far worse shape. Our air may have been thick with all sorts of threat over the last few months, but at least we were not actually being raked with bullets. The sound design is scintillating enough to make you feel close to it, though.

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16 September 2020

Aliens, Penguins and Bacteria-Hunting Balloons

Chris Lintott

‘Hello?’

There’s a long history of astronomers looking for signs of life on Venus. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, reports circulated of a mysterious glow, known as the Ashen Light, which sporadically appeared on the planet’s night side. Could it be a product of civilisation, perhaps the glow of vast ritual bonfires breaking through the thick clouds that were known to blanket the planet? Later writers speculated about vast underground cities, or intelligent creatures who made the most of the thick atmosphere for aerial acrobatics. When spacecraft finally visited our neighbouring planet, in the 1960s, dreams of life on Venus receded. A runaway version of the greenhouse effect has changed what may once have been a pleasant world to a decent approximation of hell; the surface temperature is hot enough to melt lead, the pressure on the ground high enough to crush a visiting astronaut, and those thick clouds are mostly sulphuric acid. A few dreamers still wrote of floating cities in Venusian clouds, but attention turned to Mars as the best bet for searching for past or present life. Until this week, that is.

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15 September 2020

Two-Chord Vamps

Alex Abramovich

Toots Hibbert performing with the Maytals at the Rudolstadt Festival in 2017. Photo © Schlore

The lack of specific dates speaks to the poverty that Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert was born into in May Pen, in south-central Jamaica, some time in 1942. He was the youngest of 14 children, or seven. Both his parents were preachers in what Hibbert sometimes called ‘a sort of clapping’ church. But when he was eight or thereabouts (these numbers vary too), Hibbert lost his mother, and a few years later his father. By 13, or 15 or 16, he was in Trench Town, working as a barber, boxing as an amateur, and singing. He must have cut hair for several years. Most interviews and articles you’ll find skip forward to 1961 or 1962, when, together with Nathaniel ‘Jerry’ Matthius and Henry ‘Raleigh’ Gordon, Hibbert formed the Maytals.

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14 September 2020

Machine-Readable Refugees

Keren Weitzberg

Hassan (not his real name) was born in the Kenyan town of Mandera, on the country’s borders with Somalia and Ethiopia, and grew up with relatives who had escaped the Somali civil war in the early 1990s. When his aunt, who fled Mogadishu, applied for refugee resettlement through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she listed Hassan as one of her sons – a description which, if understood outside the confines of biological kinship, accurately reflected their relationship.

They were among the lucky few to pass through the competitive and labyrinthine resettlement process for Somalis and, in 2005, Hassan – by then a young adult – was relocated to Minnesota. It would be several years before US Citizenship and Immigration Services introduced DNA tests to assess the veracity of East African refugee petitions. The adoption of genetic testing by Denmark, France and the US, among others, has narrowed the ways in which family relationships can be defined, while giving the resettlement process the air of an impartial audit culture.

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11 September 2020

#BoycottMulan

Nick Holdstock

Liu Yifei, the star of Disney’s new live-action remake of its 1998 cartoon Mulan, posted a message on Weibo last year expressing support for the Hong Kong police as they were brutally suppressing protests in the city. Her comments prompted an online campaign to boycott the movie. The campaign received new impetus this month when it was discovered that parts of the film had been shot in Xinjiang in 2018, when it was already widely known that more than a million people, mostly Uyghurs, were being detained in ‘re-education’ facilities, subject to brainwashing, violence and intimidation. The movie credits thank the Communist Party’s publicity department and the Public Security Bureau for the Turpan prefecture, where at least ten internment camps are operating. ‘It has generated a lot of publicity,’ Disney’s chief financial officer, Christine McCarthy, said yesterday. ‘Let’s leave it at that.’

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