September 2009


30 September 2009

News Judgment

Inigo Thomas on William Safire

'Bill never let his ideology interfere with his news judgment,' Howell Raines says of William Safire, the late New York Times columnist. Never? One example of Safire's news judgment being made misty by party prejudice was the tale of Mohamed Atta's visit to Prague before 11 September 2001. Atta, according to Safire, met an Iraqi secret agent in the Czech Republic, which proved a connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, and this association was therefore a reason to go to war in Iraq.


30 September 2009

Deathbed Conversions

Ross McKibbin on the Labour Party Conference

Is it too late for the Labour Party to do anything? The delegates at this year’s conference appear not to think so. They loved Peter Mandelson and were coaxed into being enthusiastic about Gordon Brown. But the role of delegates at Labour’s stage-managed conferences now is to be enthusiastic: that's what they're there for. The electorate outside the doors and the security men is unlikely to be so thrilled. Mandelson’s speech, though it certainly had spirit, was precisely the kind of mannered, self-conscious performance that most voters find really offputting. Brown’s speech was certainly not mannered.


29 September 2009

Repulsion

Andrew O’Hagan on Roman Polanski's arrest

A strange thing can happen to film directors with a genuine style. It doesn’t always happen, but it often does: their life begins to impersonate their films. It is more typical to think of the process happening the other way round: John Ford is a drunken Irish brawler at heart, so he makes pictures imbued with the experience of hard-nosed pugilists transplanted from the poteen-stills of County Galway. But I’m just as interested in how artists can be shaped by the things they make: Orson Welles becomes a version of Charles Foster Kane; Visconti becomes a victim of betrayal; and Werner Herzog turns year by year into a grizzly Nosferatu who is totally creepy but also cuddly. To whatever extent Roman Polanski has his own filmic style, his life has impersonated it surreally.


28 September 2009

I won!

Deborah Friedell hits the jackpot

Auctions are often plagued by something called the winner’s curse. The person who ‘wins’ the painting or Floridian land parcel usually pays too much for it. Unless the winner knows something that the other bidders don’t, he's probably overvalued the object: otherwise, why wouldn’t someone else in the room be willing to pay as much? But the online charity auctions run by raffle.it are in a format I hadn't encountered before – they seemed, possibly, curse free. Each of their auctions is like a regular raffle, except you get to choose your own number (only positive integers are allowed). The winner is whoever has the lowest unique number: if Anne has 2, Betty has 3, Cindy has 2 and Diana has 7, then Betty wins. Once you've chosen your number, you're told whether or not someone else has already gone for it.


25 September 2009

The Bombmakers of Aksu

Nick Holdstock · More Arrests in Xinjiang

On 16 September the Chinese government claimed to have arrested six people in Aksu (a city in western Xinjiang) for making bombs. Two of the six – Seyitamut Obul and Tasin Mehmut – have Uighur names. Li Wei, the director of the Centre for Counterterrorism Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, warned that 'terrorists have gone underground to organise different forms of terror attacks in Xinjiang . . . such as the recent syringe attacks in the region and plotting bomb attacks.’ He went on to claim that the recovered explosives were to be used in car and suicide bombings. The timing of the arrests is suspiciously convenient: in the run up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on 1 October, the government would like to show that it has the region under control.


24 September 2009

The Case Continues

Hugh Miles · The al-Megrahi Dossier

On 18 September Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi's legal team published online a 300-page dossier of evidence protesting the convicted Lockerbie bomber's innocence. The dossier would have formed part of the basis of al-Megrahi's appeal had he not given it up so he could return to Libya to die in the bosom of his family. As Gareth Peirce argues in the latest LRB, there never was any convincing evidence against al-Megrahi in the first place. (In a response to Peirce, former FBI agent Richard Marquise doesn't substantively address either her main points or those in the dossier.) One reason for this is that, when Libya was first fingered for the bombing in 1990, those responsible never expected their case would ever have to stand up to scrutiny in a court of law.


23 September 2009

White Elephant

Rosemary Hill on an Architectural Graveyard

The Elephant and Castle is an architectural graveyard over which a huge new tombstone is going up in the shape of the 43-storey Strata tower. Things began rather well in 1769, when Robert Mylne laid out the route south from his new bridge at Blackfriars and joined it to the old turnpike road with St George’s Circus. This was the first ‘circus’ in London, predating Piccadilly, the capital’s first roundabout. Since then almost every new idea in town planning – high-rise, low-rise, shopping precinct, pedestrian underpass and ever bigger roundabouts – has been imposed on the Elephant, with singular lack of success.


22 September 2009

Morgenbesserisms

Jim Holt on Sidney Morgenbesser

The American philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004) was an odd case. For decades he held the prestigious John Dewey chair in philosophy at Columbia University. Before that, he was mentor to Hilary Putnam. Yet he rarely wrote anything. Instead, like Socrates, he was known for his viva voce philosophising. He was also known for his 'zingers', the most famous of which was allegedly uttered during an address on the philosophy of language being given by J.L. Austin. 'In some languages,' Austin observed, 'a double negative yields an affirmative. In others, a double negative yields a more emphatic negative.


21 September 2009

The Queen Mother and the Poet

Andrew O’Hagan · Ted Hughes's Biggest Fan

People in England found it very easy to love the Queen Mother. She was, it seemed, a perfect repository of the national theme, Past Caring. She stayed in London during the Blitz, she didn't like foreigners – especially foreign women, especially Wallis Simpson – and she drank like a fish. She liked a party, loved a wheeze, adored a jape, and not far into William Shawcross's very admiring official biography, published this week, we find Elizabeth Bowes Lyon kicking up her heels in Paris in 1924. Elizabeth was assuredly a bit of a one. Apart from shopping, there was tea at the Ritz and dinner at the British Embassy. They also visited the Casino de Paris, 'where for the first time in my life I saw ladies with very little on, & somehow it was not in the least indecent'.


18 September 2009

Playing the Jefferson Card

Inigo Thomas · Jeffersonians against Obama

David Brooks professes to know the deep undercurrents of American life, and in his latest column for the New York Times he tries to explain why Jimmy Carter is wrong to say that the rhetorical attacks on Barack Obama are motivated by race: My impression is that race is largely beside the point. There are other, equally important strains in American history that are far more germane to the current conflicts. For example, for generations schoolchildren studied the long debate between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. Hamiltonians stood for urbanism, industrialism and federal power.


15 September 2009

Intimidation

Thomas Jones · Policemen on a Train

On the train to Rome the other afternoon, three bored young policemen were roaming the corridors. Maybe they'd been on since Trieste and were going all the way to Naples: who knows. In the compartment next to mine a young black woman, travelling by herself, was talking on her phone. One of the policemen stopped outside the door to her compartment and asked her to be quiet. She ended the call. The other two officers swaggered along to join their friend. The three of them stood in the corridor, in silence, staring at her. I thought I should go out and ask them what was going on, maybe tell them I was an English journalist, possibly one who was writing an article about racism, or about sexual harassment... Or maybe I should I just go and sit in her compartment.


14 September 2009

The Great Firewall

Joshua Kurlantzick · China and the Internet

At the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, history seemed firmly on the side of the demonstrators. The Soviet Union was on the verge of cracking apart, and soon after its fall most other one-party states would collapse as well. Many in the Square, and most outside observers, assumed the Communist Party of China would soon take its place in the dustbin. Beijing’s leaders certainly feared so: as revealed in books like The Tiananmen Papers and Zhao Ziyang’s memoir Prisoner of the State, Deng Xiaoping knew that the Party could well collapse. Even after the regime crushed the Tiananmen protests, the idea persisted that the Communist Party could not possibly survive. ‘China remains on the wrong side of history,’ Bill Clinton said in 1998. Two years later, he warned that the Party’s attempts to control the internet in China would be like ‘trying to nail Jell-O to the wall’. And yet, sixty years after its founding, the Communist Party has done just that – defied history and nailed the Jell-O down.


11 September 2009

What Margaret said to Mikhail

Inigo Thomas

Among the many very interesting Russian documents published in today's Times is a conversation between Thatcher and Gorbachev on 23 September 1989, when Thatcher declared she and George Bush were against the reunification of Germany.


11 September 2009

Coach's Paradox

Thomas Jones

Craig T. Nelson, an actor (the Coach in Blades of Glory), explains to Glenn 'Obama is racist’ Beck of Fox News why he'd like to stop paying his taxes: 'I've been on foodstamps and welfare.


10 September 2009

Why did de Gaulle give up smoking?

Inigo Thomas · 80 a Day

The detail about de Gaulle's wish to stand out on the Champs-Elysées comes from Jean Lacouture's biography of the general. Futher minor details about de Gaulle's habits in Lacouture's book: that he prepared every speech in front of a mirror (note to Gordon Brown), that he drank a bottle of Graves almost every night, and that he smoked 80 cigarettes every day until he returned to France in June 1944, when he suddenly gave up. It's a completely irrelevant question in relation to the big things such as D-Day, the liberation of France, and everything else that was going on at the time – and perhaps only a smoker would ask it – but why did de Gaulle give up smoking in France in June 1944?


10 September 2009

Moby, without the Dicks

Jenny Diski · 'Or, The Whale'

'What makes Melville Melville is digression, texture, and weirdness,' says Damion Searls. No, said Orion Books in 2007, all that extraneous business just gets in the way of the story arc. Without all that whale stuff, you could make a readable book. Hey, maybe someone could make an action movie. The result was Moby Dick in Half the Time (which you can buy in a bargain bundle at Amazon with Vanity Fair in Half the Time and Anna Karenina in Half the Time). 'All Dick and no Moby,' said Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. Moby Dick is the novel you read to see what novels can be, and for delight.


9 September 2009

Politically Dangerous

Nick Holdstock on the Continuing Unrest in Xinjiang

The riots in Ürümqi in July caused more than 200 deaths and led to the imposition of martial law. Though there were differing accounts of who was to blame – the police, for firing on ‘peaceful protestors’, or terrorists whose ‘goal was to undermine the social order’ – the violence was generally perceived as being due to resentment between Han Chinese and the Uighur minority. On 17 August there were reports that people in Ürümqi had been attacked with hypodermic syringes. There were no casualties, and it was unclear who was responsible. But in the following weeks, as the stabbings continued, Han residents began to claim they were being targeted. The government confirmed that most of the victims were Han, but stressed that Uighurs and other ethnic groups had also been attacked. By 3 September the hospitals had reported a total of 531 cases. However, only 20 per cent of these showed any signs of physical injury, which suggests that the greater problem was the fear created by the attacks.


8 September 2009

Booker Biz

Thomas Jones · The Man Booker Prize Shortlist

Reviews in the LRB of novels on the Man Booker Prize shortlist: Colin Burrow on Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel Thomas Jones on The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters Coming soon: Frank Kermode on Summertime by J.M. Coetzee James Wood on The Children's Book by A.S.


8 September 2009

Back a Little

Inigo Thomas · De Gaulle's amour propre

'There is,' the BBC reports, 'a deepening row in France over the alleged lengths gone to by President Nicolas Sarkozy's aides in order to conceal his short stature.' But it's not just about height. General de Gaulle was well over six feet tall. At the liberation parade in Paris in 1944, de Gaulle was heard whispering to an aide that the other officers and cilivians leading the march down the Champs-Elysées should allow the general to go forward on his own. 'Back a little,' the general said. It wasn't as if he didn't already stand out.


7 September 2009

Rigorous Questioning

Deborah Friedell arrives at LAX

Only question asked by immigration official at LAX: 'Did you enjoy having Dennis Quaid on your flight?'


7 September 2009

I have a list!

Thomas Jones · Top Communists on Twitter

If you ever find yourself wondering what Karl Rove has been up to since resigning from the Bush administration in 2007, but don't feel like subscribing to Fox News or the Wall Street Journal, you can keep track of him on Twitter. This weekend, for example, he's been out hunting doves: you couldn't make it up. Lots of Rove's tweets end up on the #TCOT channel (that's 'Top Conservatives On Twitter'), which at the moment, unsurprisingly, is full of crowing over Van Jones's resignation and attacks on 'Obamacare'. It's mesmerising. auto insurance is mandatory for u to pay, so why not health insurance? think about that one all u "healthers". I half thought about pointing out the benefits of a subsidised public transport system,


4 September 2009

How the Other Half Die

Andrew O’Hagan on Michael Jackson's Funeral

The trouble with living a bizarre life is that you've got a lot to live up to when you're no longer living. In that sense, Michael Jackson has got off to quite a good start. First, he dies at home surrounded by strange medical equipment and children's toys. Second, there's a doctor standing nearby. Most people, if they're in danger of dying, wouldn't mind having a doctor to hand, but in the case of bizarre celebrities the presence of a doctor doesn't always guarantee their safety. The opposite, in fact. The doctor is very often there, allegedly, to aid the process of premature oblivion. Let's face it: Michael was never going to fall asleep one day in the TV room of the Sunshine Inn, after a few years of forgetfulness and a dinner of prunes. I always thought it more likely he would die in outer space, or underwater, in a restless bid to discover Atlantis.


3 September 2009

How many troops?

Thomas Jones · 'Our Afghan Policy'

In 1880, David Barbour, a member of the Indian Civil Service, published a pamphlet called Our Afghan Policy and the Occupation of Candahar. Barbour argued that the British war in Afghanistan was both morally unjustifiable and politically inexpedient. One of his more striking assessments was that 'the thorough occupation of Afghanistan, including the Provinces of Cabul, Candahar, Herat, and Afghan Turkestan by troops who could under all circumstances be depended on, would require the services of 60,000 English troops'. At the end of July this year there were approximately 64,500 Nato troops in Afghanistan.


3 September 2009

Fires of London

Inigo Thomas · Orwell and Pepys


2 September 2009

Quitting

Inigo Thomas carries on

'How To Quit Facebook' is a page in the online self-help manual WikiHow, edited and updated by its users. If you have a Facebook problem – i.e. you don’t know when to stop Facebooking – WikiHow recommends you think of other things you could be doing with the time you spend on Facebook, such as 'pick up a part time job and invest that money in stocks', 'teach a child how to throw a football', 'calculate the center of gravity' (it doesn't say of what) or even 'read a book'. It also suggests you 'call your friends on the phone or do something fun with them in person'. Be warned, however: WikiHow can, apparently, be as addictive as Facebook. There’s a whole page on ‘How to control a WikiHow Addiction’.


1 September 2009

Quiet Zones

Thomas Jones blocks his ears

On a South West Trains ‘service' out of London Waterloo the other evening, a barrage of announcements. The guard, the steward and an automated recording repeatedly informed passengers – sorry, 'customers' – where the train was going, where the buffet car was ‘situated', and that there were special 'quiet zones', with blue stickers on the windows, where mobile phones should be switched off. As if mobile phones were the only things that could disturb the quiet. There was a blue sticker on my window. There didn't seem to be any way to switch off the endless announcements. It reminded me of the Sistine Chapel, where angry young men in uniforms yell Silenzio! over the murmur of the disobedient crowd.