The Voyage of the ‘Pobeda’

Desperate crossings – Lenin’s sealed train, Luding Bridge, Granma – were at the heart of several 20th-century revolutions, but the one that killed my great-grandmother seemed to be a perfectly average late-summer voyage. According to the official account, on 1 September 1948, the steamer Pobeda (‘Victory’), bound from New York to Odessa, was in the Black Sea, nearing its destination. A sailor rewinding some movie reels in a storage cabin inadvertently caused a spark, igniting the thousands of highly flammable filmstrips and phonograph records inside. Two crew members and forty of the 310 passengers were killed. Among them were Evgeniia Afinogenova, née Jeannette Schwarz of the Lower East Side, and Feng Yuxiang, former war minister of the Republic of China, on his way to bend the knee to Mao Zedong. Among the survivors were Afinogenova’s two daughters, aged six and eleven, my grandmother and her older sister, who were taken to Moscow to be raised by their grandmother. More »

The Oldest Printed Book in the World

Frontispiece of the Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra

When the wind blows through the dunes around the Western Chinese city of Dunhuang – long a garrison town between the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts – it is said to produce sounds similar to song. In 366, the itinerant monk Yuezun was wandering through the arid landscape when a fantastical sight appeared before him: a thousand buddhas, bathed in golden light. (Whether heat, exhaustion or the strange voice of the sands worked themselves on his imagination is anyone’s guess.) Awed by his vision, Yuezun took up hammer and chisel and carved a devotional space into a nearby cliff-face. It soon became a centre for religion and art: Dunhuang was situated at the confluence of two major Silk Road routes, and both departing and returning merchants made offerings. By the time the site fell into disuse in the 14th century, almost 500 temples had been carved from the cliff. More »

A Sale of Two Cities: The End

We announced the start of this year’s #readeverywhere photo contest with the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities, somewhat butchered; so to crown the winners, we’d better subject its closing paragraph to the same miserable treatment: More »

The Rising Sea

A quarter of a century has passed since the impact of human activity on the global climate was formally recognised by the United Nations. The latest IPCC report, published on 8 October, calls for the average global temperature to rise no more than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels, but climate change has already and irreversibly altered the physical world in ways that are fundamentally altering the human world: extreme droughts, a rising frequency of intense storms and wildfires, the geographic expansion of vector-borne diseases. The collective implication of these changes is uniform: a rising level of risk to your health and stability, regardless of who you are or where you live. More »

Sulawesi, East of Java

Friday, 28 September was the first and, it turned out, only day of the Nomoni cultural festival in Palu, a city in the heart of Indonesia’s Sulawesi island. Nomoni means ‘resounding’ or ‘ringing’ in the indigenous Kaili language; Palu’s mayor revived the vaguely animist celebration three years ago to attract more tourists. Festivities include throwing live goats and food as offerings into the sea, boat races and live music.

Last year, Nomoni was met with heavy rain and floods – a bad omen, but nothing compared to what happened this year, when the city was pulverised by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake and the tsunami that followed it. They struck at around 6 p.m., when Muslims were performing the last of their day’s prayers and Nomoni festivalgoers were taking sunset selfies. The ground beneath their feet liquefied. The death toll is 2000 and rising. More »

The Khashoggi Affair

Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul on the afternoon of 2 October and did not come out. The local police think that Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist writing regularly for the Washington Post, was killed inside the consulate building and his body smuggled out by car. More »

Not Jazz-with-Strings

Five years ago, the alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón was performing with his quartet at a club in Chicago when he was contacted by Julien Labro, a French accordionist based in Canada. Labro was in town making a record with Spektral, a Chicago-based string quartet that specialises in contemporary music. He had arranged a piece by Zenón, a racing tune called ‘El Club de la Serpiente’, for the session, and wanted to know if he would have any interest in recording it with them. Zenón went to the studio, and instantly clicked with the quartet. ‘The guys from Spektral were really on top of the music, which made the session very fun and easy,’ he told me. (‘El Club de la Serpiente’ appeared on Labro’s 2014 album From This Point Forward.) When the Hyde Park Jazz Festival commissioned Zenón to write a work for local musicians, ‘naturally I thought of Spektral.’ More »

In Dreams

A circle of sycamore trees had appeared overnight in Camden Square on Saturday morning. Across the road, outside the Irish Centre, a queue had formed by 10 a.m. Some of the men wore FBI badges. Some of the women wore magenta wigs, and many wore skirts or tops in a black-and-white zigzag pattern, accessorised with something red. My next-door neighbour, who’s retired but still helps out at the Irish Centre, shook her head when I met her on the street. ‘They’re saying they’ll be having real owls going around the place,’ she said. ‘It’s about some show I haven’t even heard of.’ I showed her my ticket for the Ninth Official Twin Peaks UK Festival.

Like Lindsey Bowden, the former actor and events manager who organises the festival, I was 14 when Twin Peaks came to BBC2 in October 1990. More »

Has Corbyn changed?

By the end of the Labour Party Conference last week, it was clear that something had changed. For once, the media coverage was broadly positive. The same outlets that had played host to endless attempts to derail the party’s leftward movement, and to undermine its elected leader, now granted a belated (and qualified) endorsement – if not of Jeremy Corbyn’s project, exactly, then at least of its legitimacy and viability as a political force. More »

In Liverpool

More than once during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool I witnessed cheers and thumbs up from delegates at the sight of black cabs plastered with banners saying ‘The Sun: Not Welcome In Our City’, and it struck me that what is normal here is not elsewhere. More »

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