Nicaraguan Sign Language

Raise four fingers (the sign for ‘B’), touch your nose with your thumb and dip your hand down to mimic an elephant’s trunk. You’ve just said ‘Babar the Elephant’ in Nicaraguan Sign Language – the sign is distinct from the one for ‘elephant’. ISN (its initials in Spanish) was developed by children. Until the 1970s, there were no facilities or learning programmes for deaf children in Nicaragua, but with the Sandinista revolution came a new impetus to provide education for kids with special needs. Four hundred deaf children were identified in Managua, and two schools created for them. Teachers were brought from Europe who tried to teach Spanish using fingerspelling, which the children couldn’t grasp because they’d never learned Spanish. But they all had their own signs that they used at home. And in the classroom, the playground and the school bus they began to share them, eventually turning impromptu communication into a common language.

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Killing a Camel

I recently spent some time living with a refugee family in the Smara refugee camp, Tindouf Province, Algeria. The family were Sahrawis, exiles from the Western Sahara Conflict, and though they had lived a mostly stationary life in Smara for perhaps forty years, they were still culturally nomads. One day, when I had been living there for a few weeks, a relative of the family turned up in a white pick-up truck with a live camel tied to the flatbed. The camel was enormous, and gave no sign of discomfort as curious children swarmed around it. More »

The First Brexiter

In the fatness of these pursy times, there’s much talk of Henry VIII, the first Brexiter. The tubby tyrant’s serial monogamy led to Brexit from Rome and from Pope Clement VII, then incumbent in the line of apostolic succession that has latterly issued in Jean-Claude Juncker. In an early exercise in having one’s cake and eating it Henry hung on to the title of Fidei defensor, which Rome had granted him for taking a pop at Luther. As part of the Reformation power grab, Henry got Thomas Cromwell to draft the Statute of Proclamations of 1539, which has given rise to today’s talk of ‘Henry VIII clauses’ in the Brexit legislation launched last week in the Commons.  More »

Gate Fever

In prison they talk about gate fever to describe the state some people are in just before release: excitement, but also anxiety – itching for freedom, but life on-the-out a frightening prospect. Staff can catch it too. As release dates approach, emails fly between probation, housing, health, police officers (anyone with statutory responsibility) to try and make sure the worst doesn’t happen, not again. Anxiety about things going wrong – and who will be blamed if and when they do – is rife in our criminal justice system. Moving around a prison, you spend a lot of time opening and shutting gates. On most, a sign tells you to ‘prove the lock’ – so you push at every gate you’ve just locked to make sure you didn’t imagine what you’ve just done. But there’s no sign telling you to prove the lock on preventing people in prison from killing themselves. More »

Essex, 1951

The Festival of Britain showed postwar Britain what it might yet be. The crowds flocked to London to see the Skylon and visit the Dome of Discovery. Peter Laszlo Peri’s concrete Sunbathers writhed on a wall at Waterloo Station (recently found lying in a hotel garden in Blackheath, they are being restored after a crowdfunding campaign and will soon return to the South Bank) as the visitors came off the trains in their thousands. Rowland Emmett’s toy railway was the main attraction at Battersea Pleasure Gardens. More seriously, the Living Architecture exhibition in Poplar, the Lansbury, though still largely under construction, offered a prototype for modern New Town living. The estate caught the local imagination, showing how enlightened planning, social policy and architecture could be harnessed. More »

Trump and ‘The Purloined Letter’

Donald Trump Jr was approached last summer by a publicist, Rob Goldstone, acting on behalf of a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who offered the Trump campaign ‘very high level and sensitive information’ about Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia. The response by Donald Jr was not high-minded: ‘If it’s what you say, I love it.’ Apparently the offer of information turned out to be an empty pretext. The instigator of the meeting was a pop musician, Emin Agalarov, the son of a businessman, Aras Agalarov – a name that also came up in the ‘dodgy dossier’ on Trump collected by the ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Trump Senior had taken money from Agalarov, and in return provided Miss Universe contestants for use in a music video by Emin. American billionaires and Russian oligarchs may be supposed to share an elective affinity. They are members of an international tribe, and snap their fingers at sovereignties. More »

A propos de Nice

In the early evening of 14 July 2016, I grabbed a beer with my parents and brother on the Place de la Préfecture in Nice. Armed soldiers were patrolling the streets, following the procedure of the State of Emergency declared after the November 2015 attacks in Paris. After dinner we went home to watch Jean Vigo’s A propos de Nice on DVD. The city as it appears in the film is by turns familiar and remote, sometimes both at once. The images of the carnival, for example, are uncannily close to the event as we know it; the papier-mâché structures parading the streets have been the same for decades, it seems. More »

Burma’s True News Information Unit

Burma’s decades-old regime of pre-publication newspaper censorship was dismantled in 2012. Three years later, ahead of the election that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to power, ten journalists were in prison. According to an Amnesty International report, Burmese journalists were labouring under a new ‘climate of fear’. ‘We don’t have any safety,’ the reporter Lawi Weng told the Amnesty researchers. The authorities ‘can arrest us, they can take us to court anytime.’

Lawi, a former colleague of mine and one of Burma’s most talented reporters, was arrested late last month. More »

Nuclear Footballs

US presidents since John F. Kennedy have been followed everywhere by an army officer carrying a leather-bound metal Zero Halliburton briefcase. (Zero Halliburton was sold to a Japanese company in 2006, but Donald Trump hasn’t switched to an all-American manufacturer.) Inside the president’s ‘emergency satchel’, also known as the ‘nuclear football’, is a ‘black book’ containing such things as retaliatory options and the codes for launching them. The president has the power to choose any of these options and no one has the power to stop him. More »

‘The Bureau’

Eric Rochant’s TV series Le Bureau des légendes, known in English as The Bureau, is everything Homeland isn’t: an understated, subtle and nuanced espionage drama. In the first season there are no explosions, the body count is negligible, and there’s hardly any talk of patriotism. The hero, undercover agent Guillaume Debailly (played by Mathieu Kassovitz), has risen to the top of the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure, by adhering to a rigorous, almost ascetic set of principles, but these principles are more artisanal than patriotic, and he eventually finds himself forced to abandon them. The focus is on the work, and most of that work takes place in the cramped offices, and in front of the computer screens, of the DGSE. More »

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