October 2020


24 October 2020

Tawdry Season in America

Christian Lorentzen

This autumn was always going to be a tawdry season in America. The past couple of weeks have been a jubilee of below-the-belt viral content: a photograph of the former vice-president’s son leaning down apparently to snort powder off a woman’s bare buttock; a still from the new Borat movie of the former New York mayor in a hotel room with a young woman, leaning back on the bed with his hands in his pants; a story of a journalist pleasuring himself during a Zoom conference in the sight of his colleagues (he said he thought he’d turned the camera off). Sleaze and perversion are now the permanent backdrop of US politics. The world turns its eyes away from a hegemon whose henchmen can’t stop pulling their dicks out. By contrast, the final debate between Trump and Biden was almost decorous.

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23 October 2020

Blank Pages

Gill Partington

On Wednesday, Donald Trump tweeted a series of photographs with the caption: ‘Kayleigh McEnany presenting Lesley Stahl with some of the many things we’ve done for Healthcare.’ The pictures showed his press secretary handing some papers and a hefty volume to the 60 Minutes reporter, just before an interview which the president cut short acrimoniously. As many Twitter users were quick to point out, one of the images showed Stahl opening the book and peering inside at an apparently blank page. Had the book been mocked up for the purposes of the interview, embodying not only the lack of an actual health policy, but also the fakery and pretence at the heart of the administration? Others responded that the absence of text proved nothing, since it could have been a flyleaf or title page: ‘Haven’t you ever read a book?’

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22 October 2020

Who’s watching?

Dawn Foster

It’s hard to work out who the intended audience for Sky History’s reality show The Chop was supposed to be. The channel itself seems pitched at middle-aged men who own too many books on Nazi Germany and Roman Egypt. The Chop aimed to find ‘Britain’s top woodworker’ by pitting contestants against each other in a series of challenges, perhaps using different historical carpentry methods. Regardless, those of us who missed the first episode last week will now never know, since Sky has been forced to pull the entire programme from its schedules, and delete all video clips of it, after receiving thousands of complaints from people (I was one of them) who’d seen a trailer featuring a contestant with white supremacist tattoos on his face.

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20 October 2020

‘No Coloureds’

Angelique Richardson

My mother recalls seeing the ‘no coloureds’ notices as a child in newsagents and sweet shops. Often they were written on the backs of envelopes; sometimes they were placed on removable boards outside. She used to read them when she was queueing with her sister for sherbet lemons in the postwar sugar rush. They didn’t deter her, on the brink of the 1960s, from marrying my Sri Lankan father. He docked at Tilbury in June 1953, when he was 22. He saw the ads not in sweet shops but at railway stations, on the noticeboards next to the telephones and ticket offices at Greenford, Ealing Broadway and West Ruislip, where British Rail gave him his first job as a ticket collector. One landlady, he told me, asked him to describe the precise colour of his skin: how did it compare to a cup of coffee, for example? She was pleased to establish he was ‘not black but brown’, someone who could be accommodated as part of a wider system of exclusion.

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19 October 2020

#EndSARS

Adewale Maja-Pearce

I am far from alone in admiring the protesters’ growing sense of their own inherent power, gaining in confidence with every passing day. Their dignity and self-possession mock the shamelessness of those who have so carelessly squandered their future; and at the same time they are asking how we could have allowed this state of affairs to prevail, six decades after Nigeria’s independence.

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14 October 2020

Chris Killip 1946-2020

The Editors

The documentary photographer Chris Killip has died at the age of 74. Best known for In Flagrante, his series of photographs taken in England’s deindustrialising north-east between 1973 and 1985, and published in a book in 1988, he also provided cover photographs for 19 issues of the LRB.

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14 October 2020

‘Go and do something useful’

Jennifer Johnston

When lockdown began in March, live music stopped and my career as an opera singer ground to a halt. I’ve tried to hold onto a nugget of hope that the arts won’t be allowed to fall over the edge of a cliff into a bottomless abyss. But that hope has been steadily chipped away, as  the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, talks about ‘viable jobs’ and suggests people should look for ‘fresh and new opportunities’; Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, tells those who work in the arts to ‘hang on in there’ (he didn’t explain how, when innumerable members of the community are on the breadline); and Edwina Currie, forced to resign as a junior health minister in 1988 for misguided remarks about bad eggs, instructs the UK’s freelance music community to ‘go and do something useful’ and get ‘an education’ – all perhaps taking their lead from Dominic Cummings, who allegedly said in a meeting in August that ‘the fucking ballerinas can get to the back of the queue.’

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13 October 2020

Great Belarusian Disaster

Sadakat Kadri

The customs post at Bobrowniki was looking busy a couple of weeks ago. Inactive, too. When I drove there from Białystok, the stationary juggernauts snaked back ten miles. A driver halfway along said he’d already spent two nights in his cab. Individuals headed for Belarus could jump the queue, but only if they surrendered all goods acquired in Poland. When I optimistically suggested to Nikita Grekowicz, a Belarusian-Polish journalist, that we one day meet in Minsk, he smiled. ‘Not today though,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t take a cookie. And they’d probably arrest me as a spy.’

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12 October 2020

Tolerance or Bigotry

Laura Beers

Two years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog about my decision to have an abortion. It was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made, and the most difficult piece I’ve ever written. Abortion is a common procedure. An estimated one in three British women and one in four American women will have an abortion by the time they’re 45, yet most women who have terminated a pregnancy keep their decision secret, driven often by a sense of guilt and shame. I would not have shared the story of my own abortion but for the threat posed to abortion rights by the Trump administration’s nomination and ultimate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. As I type, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are making their opening statements in the confirmation hearings of Trump’s third appointee to the US Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett.

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8 October 2020

Pence v. Harris

Christian Lorentzen

It’s easy to forget about Mike Pence. Trump seems to have hired him in part because he wouldn’t have to think about him, and has kept him busy ‘reaching out’ to potentially disaffected evangelicals with repeated assurances that they are the ones who constitute ‘the American people’. His persona – that of a reanimated fossil from a 1950s that never actually happened – is innocuous enough that a fly could sit unperturbed on his skull for two minutes while he insisted the government has done well by African Americans. Much of last night’s vice presidential debate amounted to counterfactual historical fiction or speculative fiction. How would a Biden administration have handled the pandemic? Had the debaters discussed with their elderly running mates the possibility that they might turn into corpses while on the job?

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7 October 2020

Father of Eternal Fire

Arianne Shahvisi

The oilfield at Baba Gurgur, near Kirkuk, has been burning for at least four thousand years. Its name is Kurdish for ‘Father of Eternal Fire’, and it’s a possible site for the furnace into which Nebuchadnezzar casts Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Kurdish women used to travel to Baba Gurgur from miles around to pray that their child would be a son. Elsewhere, incandescent foetal sex rituals are on the rise. In Western cultures, ‘gender reveal’ events often involve setting off fireworks with pink or blue colorants. Last month, a spark from a gender reveal party in El Dorado, California set a neighbouring forest ablaze.

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6 October 2020

Trump’s Illness and Ours

Eli Zaretsky

Democratic Party moralism and Trumpian macho risk-taking are internally related to one another. Gambling, with all its macho undertones, has a special if covert appeal to the evangelical or Puritan mind. It allows individuals to throw off the slow, painful and laborious burden of subordinating their wishes to the superego with one manic play of the dice. Running around without a mask in the face of a pandemic could serve as a huge relief from the endless self-examination of the hypertrophied Protestant conscience. Finally, it’s out of our hands; everything will be decided by ‘fate’.

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5 October 2020

How many more will be dead by Christmas?

Danny Dorling

In the week after the schools went back in England and Wales, an extra 538 people died (77 a day). Over the previous five years, an average of 8720 people had died that week in September, but this year the number surged to 9258. How many more would be dead by Christmas? The next week there was a lull: only 289 excess deaths. But then the universities returned, and the excess mortality count doubled. In the week ending 25 September, 574 more people had died each day. There was a drop to 319 excess deaths the following week, and then a rise to 678 (97 a day). On and on it went, week after week after week. Almost five thousand excess deaths were recorded between the schools going back and the start of December. The year was 2015 and most people weren’t paying attention. No one read the numbers out.

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2 October 2020

Blue Giraffes and Horse Serum

Hugh Pennington

Student halls of residence have now joined cruise liners, care homes, meat plants, giant evangelical church gatherings and migrant worker dormitories as Covid-19 transmission hot spots. The US is top of the league table so far. A New York Times survey found that by 25 September, 1300 colleges had been affected and 130,000 students had tested positive. Universities in Scotland start teaching earlier than in the rest of the UK, so here they have led the way, with cases and outbreaks at St Andrews, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Many other universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have followed since.

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1 October 2020

The outfits, my dear!

Sam Kinchin-Smith

Mantel Pieces, a collection of Hilary Mantel’s contributions to the London Review of Books, is published today by Fourth Estate. Each of its 20 pieces is accompanied by a fragment of related correspondence, cover artwork or other ephemera from the LRB collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. In the introduction Mantel describes the book’s contents as ‘messages from people I used to be’, but they are consistent in at least one respect: she’s always been as wonderful a writer of letters as she is of everything else. The selection begins with the note she sent to Karl Miller after he’d published her first piece for the paper in 1987: ‘If you would like me to do another piece, I should be delighted to try … I have no critical training whatsoever so I am forced to be more brisk and breezy than scholarly.’

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1 October 2020

What is the risk they pose?

Skye Arundhati Thomas

Two young women, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, have been held in judicial custody at a maximum security prison in Delhi for more than a hundred days. They are founding members of the feminist student activist collective Pinjra Tod (‘break the cage’). At the start of the year, Narwal and Kalita led peaceful protests against India’s new citizenship laws, which discriminate against Muslims and Dalits. The Delhi police are looking to place blame for the deadly riots that tore through the city in February. The charges that Narwal and Kalita are being held on include property damage, assaulting state officials, armed rioting, murder, and the manufacture and sale of arms. They have also been booked under two sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, on counts of fundraising for terrorism and inciting criminal conspiracy. Anyone accused of such crimes is automatically denied bail.

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