Close
Close

May 2020


22 May 2020

Cram it sideways

Thomas Jones

Eric Foner’s piece on the history of the electoral college has been getting an unusual amount of attention online this week, with a huge spike in pageviews on Wednesday and Thursday. It was shared on Pocket (the app formerly known as ‘Read it Later’), but also in more surprising places, such as a politics forum on a fansite for the Texas A&M college football team. It may have been doing the rounds in less public quarters, too, on Facebook and WhatsApp, since we’ve received dozens of angry – and eerily similar – letters to the editor from people who don’t appear to be regular readers of the paper.

Read More


21 May 2020

Ringing a Bell to a New World

Adam Shatz

Two years ago, I asked the free jazz pianist Matthew Shipp if he would take part in a concert I was organising in remembrance of Cecil Taylor, who had just died. He said he’d be willing to give a talk, but not to perform. Taylor hadn’t influenced his work, and he didn’t want to encourage the notion that he had. I wasn’t surprised (I’ve known Shipp for more than twenty years). His feelings about Taylor were complicated, and the two men often jousted, especially on the subject of Bill Evans, whom Taylor disparaged as the great white hope of jazz piano, and Shipp reveres. Shipp had also been saddled with the ‘heir of Cecil Taylor’ label for three decades, even though the resemblances in their playing are superficial. The only comparison with Taylor that Shipp ever welcomed was made by a mutual friend, the saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, who told him: ‘You’re just like Cecil Taylor – you’re both bad motherfuckers.’ 

Read More


20 May 2020

Beyond Thanks

Rachel Malik

It would be nice to think that such statements, like the weekly ‘clap for our carers’, acknowledged the value of affective labour. But when work is characterised as a set of exceptional actions or feelings – sacrifice, heroism, selflessness, going ‘above and beyond’ – the question of pay, or economic and social security, can be avoided. On Radio 4’s Westminster Hour on Sunday, Kit Malthouse, the justice minister, said that he hoped the crisis would foster the development of care work as a credentialised, ‘desirable, professional career’. Would there be more pay, he was asked. ‘Possibly,’ he replied. Like the ‘care badge’ proposed by Hancock (one of the most toe-curling government micro-responses to the pandemic), the great thing about praise and thanks is that they don’t need to come with guarantees of anything else.

Read More


19 May 2020

The Wrong Shark

Arianne Shahvisi

One of the central motifs of Orientalist painting is the Eastern market, with sunbeams cutting through dusty air onto opulent fabrics, bright piles of fruit, pyramids of spices, and enigmatic stall-holders (the genre has its own subsection on Wikipedia). The modern analogue is the holiday photograph of the exotic bazaar or mercado. There’s one of me in a souk in Palestine, feigning shock in front of a shark impaled on a giant fishhook, reminiscent of a scene from Jaws. As with other Orientalist representations, these images have a dual effect: they express desire and fascination, on the one hand, and repulsion and condescension on the other. Foreign markets are both alluring and horrifying.

Read More


18 May 2020

Invisible in the Fields

Daniel Trilling

On 13 May, Italy’s government unveiled an economic support package that, among other measures, includes an amnesty for undocumented migrants who work on farms and in social care. ‘It’s true. I cried,’ the agriculture minister, Teresa Bellanova, who had proposed the amnesty, wrote on Facebook. ‘Because I fought for something I believed in from the beginning, because I closed the circle of a life that is not only mine, but that of many women and men like me who worked in the fields.’ Bellanova, who was born in the southern region of Puglia in 1958, began work as a day labourer on farms around Brindisi at the age of 15. She says she saw girls her age die from the harsh working conditions. She spent years as a trade unionist before being elected to parliament in 2006.

Read More


15 May 2020

Essence of Milton

Gill Partington

The strangest parcel I’ve received in the post recently is a plain black box about the size of a paperback. It doesn’t contain a book, though, or at least not at first sight. Instead there is another, smaller box labelled ‘Milton’, which opens to reveal a row of delicate, inch-tall glass vessels, each with around ten white pills in it.

Read More


14 May 2020

Culling the Herd: A Modest Proposal

Eli Zaretsky

Under slavery, the masters had an interest in maintaining the health and even longevity of the slaves, who were their main form of property. After abolition, however, maintaining the health of free workers turned into a burden, especially as the cost of medicine rose. Understanding these simple facts of modern political economy may help explain how the United States, the self-proclaimed ‘greatest country in the world’, ended up with one-third of all Covid-19 cases.

Read More


13 May 2020

Social Distancing in Iran

Arianne Shahvisi

Laurel and Hardy reruns often played on Iranian television when I visited as a child. Wholesome, black-and-white slapstick didn’t need to be censored. In the Kurdish version, Oliver Hardy’s voice was dubbed by my uncle, Hashim Shahvisi, who was for decades a popular radio presenter. A year ago, he was in hospital in Tehran with an unspecified illness. My father spoke to relatives every day without getting any closer to finding out what was wrong.

Read More


12 May 2020

‘Tutti frutti, good booty’

Alex Abramovich

I never met Little Richard, but I did spend some time with Dewey Terry, who played in his band. We sat in front of Dewey’s bungalow on Johnny Otis’s estate in Pasadena, drinking Mickey’s Malt Liquor while Dewey played guitar and talked about studio sessions and orgies. At some point, he picked up the phone and said: ‘Let’s go see Richard!’ I was young – 26, 27 years old – but I knew who Little Richard was and what he meant to the world, and was relieved when no one answered the phone. Why would you want to meet Little Richard? What would you say?

Read More


11 May 2020

Parade’s End

Sadakat Kadri

Before the lockdown began, I had been hoping to celebrate VE Day in Belarus this weekend. Within a year of winning power in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko organised a march in Minsk to commemorate victory in the Great Patriotic War, and it’s become a quinquennial tradition. Events intervened. Curiosity ceased to be a reasonable excuse for leaving home in the UK, and Belarus requires foreign visitors to isolate themselves for 14 days. If that suggests the president is taking a precautionary approach to Covid-19, however, it’s misleading. With neo-Soviet folksiness, Lukashenko claimed in March that the disease is ‘nothing more than a psychosis’ which people could overcome by driving tractors and disinfecting themselves with vodka. He has ignored the social distancing recommendations made by the WHO, which said on 1 May that infections were spreading faster in Belarus than almost anywhere else in Europe. The official death toll is still below two hundred, but the true figure may be far higher. Two TV journalists were last week stripped of their accreditation for discovering ‘an abundance of fresh graves’ in a cemetery just outside the capital.

Read More


8 May 2020

Dancing to Numbers

Owen Hatherley

Kraftwerk seemed to be aiming at a kind of electronic Esperanto, an imaginary universal language that anyone could learn, anyone could speak, anyone could dance to.

Read More


7 May 2020

‘Down with Issayas! Down with Abiy!’

Nizar Manek and Natalia Paszkiewicz

The refugee camp at Hitsats, an hour’s drive through the mountains from the town of Shire, in the Ethiopian province of Tigray, consists of simple block structures with corrugated iron roofs. Skinny cows congregate in the shade of the buildings, oblivious to the humanitarian agency traffic lumbering past. Tigray lies along Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea, and Hitsats now accommodates at least 12,000 Eritreans, fleeing the regime in Asmara. Last August, during the rainy season, the number stood at 34,000. New refugees were arriving daily, following a 2018 peace deal between the two countries, which threatened to choke off prospective Eritrean asylum seekers.

Read More


6 May 2020

A Child Rights Crisis

Aoife Nolan

‘Children are not the face of this pandemic,’ the UN said on 15 April, but ‘they risk being among its biggest victims.’ The policy brief predicted a sharp increase in child poverty globally; huge losses in child learning worldwide because of school closures and digital exclusion; risks to child safety from lockdown and ‘shelter in place’ measures; and threats to child health and survival from reduced household income, disrupted health services and the mental health toll of the pandemic. ‘Without urgent action,’ Unicef had warned earlier in April, ‘this health crisis risks becoming a child rights crisis.’

Read More


5 May 2020

Other People’s Shelves

Rosa Lyster

For those of us who get a kick out of spying on other people’s bookshelves, the last few weeks have offered an embarrassment of riches. Whole Twitter accounts have been set up for the sole purpose of scrutinising the titles that famous people choose to display in the background during their televised Skype calls. The point of the game is not to find out the books people are reading, but the books they want to be seen to be reading. Some people are more sporting than others, acknowledging the rules of the game and knowingly playing along.

Read More


5 May 2020

The hostile environment continued

Daniel Trilling

Two years ago Sajid Javid, newly appointed home secretary after the Windrush scandal, declared an end to the phrase ‘hostile environment’. It was an ‘unhelpful’ form of words, he told Parliament, which ‘doesn’t represent our values as a country’. The phrase, which describes the bureaucratic obstacles conceived in 2012 to make life in the UK impossible for unwanted immigrants, may have disappeared from the official lexicon, but the policies remain, even during a pandemic.

Read More


4 May 2020

Carlsen wins again

Andrew McGettigan

The Magnus Carlsen Invitational, the first high-stakes online rapid chess tournament, was won on Sunday evening by Magnus Carlsen. The host edged home against Hikaru Nakamura with two wins to one, after clinging on for a draw in a difficult endgame in the fourth and final game. The chess was high level and technical despite the shortened time limits. Carlsen, the clear favourite, was taken to the limit by Nakamura in a tense contest. Both players relied on a hazardous defensive strategy with the black pieces, enabling white to press without much risk. Including their opening encounter in the qualifying rounds, the two traded white wins for seven consecutive games before Carlsen held on at the last.

Read More


1 May 2020

Leviathan in Lockdown

Thomas Poole

In the city below, things seem in good order. But what kind of order? The place is hardly bustling. No teeming crowds, no variety, no interaction: in fact, no apparent vitality.

Read More


1 May 2020

When fast fashion comes to a halt

Olivia Windham Stewart

Within days of Covid-19 taking hold in the US and Europe, demand for fast fashion crashed. The production line was frozen. There were products in the design stage, fabric on order, fabric waiting to be cut, already cut, sewn, finished, ready for shipping, en route to stores, sitting in warehouses waiting for distribution, hanging in shops waiting to be bought. On any given day, these goods have a total value of billions of pounds. The question, when the crisis hit, was what to do with all the orders: some in progress, some finished and ready for shipping, some already shipped and awaiting sale.

Read More