January 2011


31 January 2011

Rabbits v. Tigers

Nick Holdstock

The Chinese New Year begins on Thursday, the Year of the Tiger giving way to the Year of the Rabbit. The government in Beijing recently removed from the internet an extremely violent cartoon called Greeting Card for the Year of the Rabbit, in which a group of oppressed rabbits overthrow an abusive government of tigers.

The cartoon claims to be ‘meant as an adult fairy tale’, with ‘no connection to real life’, but most of the events it depicts will be familiar to a Chinese audience.


28 January 2011

Hello Goodbye

Peter Pomerantsev · At Moscow Domodedovo

I was in Russia when the suicide bomber blew him/herself up in the arrivals hall of Moscow Domodedovo Airport. A rush of worried calls and e-mails jammed my phone (‘I am fine, I was in the Urals when it happened’). One message stands out: ‘The fuckers wrecked our set. Our set!’ In 2008 I produced a television show at the airport for Russian TV. For a year I slept at the airport, I woke at the airport. I know where the smoke alarms are dummies and you can have a crafty fag; when the best light floods through the glass walls to get the best shots; how to cut a deal with the customs guys so they go and buy you duty free whisky. I know which flights bring in which types of passenger. The show was called Hello Goodbye, a remake of a Dutch format. The presenter would walk around the airport and talk to people leaving or meeting each other: emotional families reunited after a generation, lovers parting for ever, lads off for a dirty weekend. It was a microcosm of the new Russia, all the country’s stories under one high-domed roof.


28 January 2011

Mould!

The Editors

In the latest issue of the LRB, Peter Pomerantsev describes 'the most expensive documentary ever shown on Russian television': Plesen (‘Mould’) argued that mould was taking over the earth, an invisible but omnipresent enemy whose evil spores were invading our lives, causing death and disease. When the film ended large numbers of fearful people went out and bought the ‘mould-cleaning machines’ that had been advertised in the film – its manufacturers had been among the producers. Now you too can watch it (no need to buy a mould-cleaning machine, however):


28 January 2011

Fibre-Optic Attention

Jeremy Harding · R.F. Langley

The LRB came late to the poet R.F. Langley, who died this week: ‘Still Life with Wineglass’ was the first of his poems to be published in the paper, in 2001. By then he was in his sixties with half a dozen short books, including a Collected Poems (72 pp.), to his name. To cast one’s eye back over the list of early publishers – infernal methods, Poetical Histories, Equipage – is to understand Langley’s vivacious interest in the hedgerow and his singular indifference to the arterial road. His wonderful, slender body of work developed quietly, intermittently, in the world of the very small presses. No mistaking this kind of poet for a celebrity wordsmith or a national treasure: Ted Hughes and Johnny Morris are out, though nature is insistently present; Larkin and Eric Morecambe are likewise absent, but comic elegy is there in the mix.


28 January 2011

Why ponder life's complexity?

Thomas Jones

The Today programme, more politically tone deaf with every passing week, wonders why pop musicians are posher than they used to be. 'Conclusions': Are they really? Does it matter? Who knows why? Actually it does matter, and the reason for it is straightforward. One of the commenters on the BBC website gets closest to it when he says: 'It's not about being "posh", it's about there being cash in the family to support a potentially non-earning career.' But nobody there points out that changes to the benefits system mean that it's no longer possible to live on the dole while you're making your first demos and playing your first gigs.


26 January 2011

'Mubarak, your plane is waiting'

Adam Shatz · The Protests in Egypt

Mahmoud, my driver in Cairo when I reported from Egypt last year, didn't talk much about politics, and – an understandable precaution – kept his views to himself unless he was asked a direct question. But when he dropped me off at the airport, he launched into a sharp attack on the Mubarak regime. 'The Egyptians are a very patient people by nature, but their patience is running out,' he said. 'They could explode.'


26 January 2011

Upping the Circus Quotient

Robert Hanks · Pandas

With bread prices rising, governments are having to think about upping the circus quotient: hence, the conspiracy theories run, the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton; and hence the signing of an agreement this month for Edinburgh Zoo to receive two pandas, Tian Tian and Yangguang. Royalty and pandas have more in common than you might think: both have found their ecological niche shrinking, but have managed to cling on by rebranding themselves as a tourist draw; both have suffered over the years from a failure to renew the gene pool; and this helps to explain why both come under intense public pressure to perform sexually and produce offspring.


25 January 2011

Sovereign Exceptionalism

Glen Newey · Blair's Inner Pontiff

On Friday Tony Blair returned, orange and varnished, to the Chilcot Inquiry to clarify his doctrine of sovereign exceptionalism. As his deposition to the inquiry explains, after 9/11 ‘the calculus of risk on global security had radically and fundamentally changed.’ Blair did not mean that it had changed because after 9/11 the global police got more trigger-happy. It changed because al-Qaida had shown that random sets of hoodlums could hook up and wreak mayhem. Hence the 2003 coalition of the willing. The US was going anyway, and Blair was with them.


24 January 2011

Total Capitulation

Tariq Ali · 'The Palestine Papers'

The 'Palestine Papers' being published this week by al-Jazeera confirm in every detail what many Palestinians have suspected for a long time: their leaders have been collaborating in the most shameful fashion with Israel and the United States. Their grovelling is described in grim detail. The process, though few accepted it at the time, began with the much-trumpeted Oslo Accords, described by Edward Said in the LRB at the time as a ‘Palestinian Versailles'. Even he would have been taken aback by the sheer scale of what the PLO leadership agreed to surrender: virtually everything except their own salaries. Their weaknesses, inadequacies and cravenness are now in the public domain.


24 January 2011

Seven Days in Brisbane

Angela Gardner

I flew into Brisbane on Sunday 9 January after three weeks in Britain. The pilot on our descent said the weather was ‘not good’. It wasn’t raining as I got out of the terminal but the humidity hit me like a torpid wall. On Monday, I was just glad to be home. Jetlagged and needing to go to work early the next morning, I went to bed early, unaware of the seven billion tonnes of water that had fallen in 72 hours. So it wasn’t until I woke up on Tuesday and listened to the radio that I had any inkling there was a major problem. I usually take the City Cat ferry service to work but as it was cancelled I went by car over the new Go Between Bridge (named after a Brisbane rock band). The water, usually slow moving and silty, was high and rapid.


21 January 2011

Hardy Perennial

Edward Pearce · Blair's Ignorance

Interviewed on PM this afternoon, fresh from giving evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, Tony Blair spoke scornfully of 'all those people' treating Iran ‘softly', which is to say, not bombing it. Presumably, 'people' means Barack Obama. He was speaking only days after Tunisian public rage rose up against one of those 'Bastions against Muslim Extremism' that replaced the 'Bastions against Communism'. What has happened in Tunisia could happen across the Middle East. As Patrick Cockburn points out in today's Independent, one of Blair's problems is ignorance:


20 January 2011

Bonfire of the Realities

Tim Parks · Italian Book Burnings

‘I invite anyone who has a copy of this book to bring it into Piazza Bra for a public burning.’ The man speaking purported to be a priest. He was phoning a local radio station in Verona. The book in question was my exploration of Italy through football, A Season with Verona (2002), translated as Questa pazza fede (‘This Mad Faith’). But the priest wasn’t concerned about heresy. Italian football fans constantly refer to their ‘faith’. The first chapter, an account of an all-night bus trip from Verona to Bari, offered examples of the fans’ obsessive use of blasphemy to establish their credentials as bad boys, their opposition to a mood of political correctness that was seeking to ‘clean up football’.


19 January 2011

Model of a Modern Royal Mail

Roy Mayall

Last week all the new walk-sequencing machines in our area broke down. This meant that only about a third of the letters arrived at our delivery office on Wednesday. So on Thursday we had two days’ post to deliver, and everyone’s mail was late. Walk-sequencing machines sort the letters into the order that they are going to be delivered in. The old walk-sorting machines only organised the post into rounds: postal workers had to do the final sorting. Under the old system, all the post was in the delivery office by 7.15 and we were usually out on our rounds by 9.00. Under the new system, the last lorry arrives at 9.15 and sometimes we don’t get out until after 11.00. It’s quite normal for a postal worker to finish work at 3.30 these days, and for posties doing rural rounds still to be delivering letters as late as four in the afternoon. The machines also have a tendency to break down, as we’ve just discovered, so on some days no post is delivered at all. But they are central to the Royal Mail’s ‘modernisation’ programme.


18 January 2011

What the By-Election Means

Ross McKibbin

The Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election was pretty good for Labour, better than it might have been for the Lib Dems and not very good for the Tories. Labour’s vote was up 10 per cent, which is more or less exactly the figure represented by the national polls. It probably represents a flow of ex-Lib Dem voters who went to Labour as soon as the coalition was formed. But the result tells us less about the composition of the coalition vote. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Lib Dem vote was bolstered by tactical Tory voting – Tories who took their cue from a prime minister worried that the Lib Dem vote would collapse. It is less likely, though not impossible, that the same thing would happen in a general election. In any case, the Lib Dem vote in any by-election is usually not representative of the Lib Dem vote in a general election. The politics of the by-election, however, point to the coalition’s longer-term problems.


17 January 2011

On the Brisbane River

Inez Baranay

I left Queensland three and a half years ago, just before Brisbane City Council began to give away four-minute egg-timers to help people spend less time in the shower. On beaches all along the coast the outdoor taps had been turned off. People were encouraged to report the malfeasants who watered their gardens or washed their cars. When I returned last August, the drought had not yet broken: reservoirs were at their lowest levels ever; people were showering over buckets to save water. No one was meant to flush the toilet till it was absolutely necessary. You’d certainly never leave the tap running as you brushed your teeth. Then the rain came, and at first there was widespread rejoicing. But it kept coming, till the floods covered an area the size of France and Germany combined. I’m now in Melbourne, watching the news as floodwaters rise in Victoria, thinking about the day I first saw Brisbane from the river.


14 January 2011

Too Many Monuments

Glen Newey in Berlin

Why does Berlin have a museum dedicated to the Ramones? (Why does London have a museum with bits of the Parthenon in it?) It seems that the museum’s founder had stockpiled so much Ramonesiana that his girlfriend issued an ultimatum. It’s on Krausnickstrasse, not far from Museum Island, which hosts Berlin’s more established collections like the Pergamon. I went along hoping to be beaten on the way in with a baseball bat, or at least have feedback-spiked insults bawled at me, but it’s disappointingly tame. Perhaps more striking than the presence of the Ramones display is how little of Berlin is not a museum or memorial of one sort or another.


13 January 2011

Qadhafi's Left Arm

Hugh Miles

The US ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, may be the first senior diplomat to fall victim to the release of confidential embassy cables on WikiLeaks. ‘Ambassador (Gene A.) Cretz is in Washington for consultations... The question of when Ambassador Cretz returns to Libya will be one of the many subjects of his consultations,’ a spokesman said last week. Appointed in 2007, Cretz was the first US ambassador to Libya since 1972. Last month Colonel Qadhafi praised WikiLeaks for exposing US hypocrisy. ‘The true face of US diplomacy has been revealed through the confidential documents,’ he said. This ‘proved that America is not what it has led allies and friends to believe it to be’. Most of the stories from Tripoli that were picked up in the western media were old news in Libya, where few are unaware, for example, that Qadhafi suffers from phobias about flying, travelling over water and staying on upper floors. Many elderly desert bedouin feel the same way and no one thinks that Qadhafi travelled 7000 miles around Africa by land because of his love for African unity.


12 January 2011

Sleights of Hand

Fatema Ahmed at Camden Town Hall

When the Artful Dodger first takes Oliver Twist out ‘to make pocket-handkerchiefs’, Oliver gets caught while the Dodger escapes back to Fagin’s den in Saffron Hill, in what is now the southern end of the London Borough of Camden. The campaigning website 38 Degrees recently paid for newspaper ads depicting the chancellor of the exchequer as the Artful Dodger because of his tax avoidance. But some of George Osborne’s other sleights of hand are much sneakier. The 27 per cent cut in central government funding to local councils, combined with what the local government secretary, Eric Pickles, has called ‘the most radical shift in power to local government for a generation’, means that though the cuts are being imposed by Westminster, local authorities have to decide which services are to be affected – and therefore, or so the government hopes, take the blame (this seems to be what Pickles really means by a ‘shift in power’).


12 January 2011

On Second Thoughts

The Editors

What happens when you forget to tell the jacket designer you've changed your subtitle? A proof copy of Jonathan Glancey's Nagaland, which Faber will be publishing in April, arrived in the office this morning, with an erratum sticker on the cover.


11 January 2011

Flu Politics

Hugh Pennington

The prime minister admitted last week that supplies of seasonal three-component influenza vaccine in some English general practices had run out. The health minister, Andrew Lansley, had to appear on Newsnight to defend using old stocks of the single swine flu vaccine to meet demand. Leaving the ordering of vaccine to individual GP practices instead of maintaining a central stock was clearly a flawed policy.


10 January 2011

Facebook in Gaza

Karma Nabulsi

Last weekend the Observer carried a dramatic account of 'The Gaza Youth Manifesto', written in English by a handful of young people in Gaza and posted on Facebook. Given the thousands of people in the West who have said they 'like' it on Facebook or posted positive comments, the manifesto is said to herald a new movement for change in occupied Palestine.


7 January 2011

Excuses for Inequality

Laura Jones

The National Foundation for Educational Research, analysing the data in a Tellus Survey carried out in autumn 2009, last month drew some conclusions about what makes it more or less likely that a child will be happy – or say that she’s happy, which isn’t quite the same thing. The government decided in June to stop running the national survey (it’s an unnecessary drain on local authorities’ resources, they say), but the NFER analysis may have made them think twice about that, as one of the apparent findings is that poverty does not affect happiness.

The NFER, admitting that this is surprising, explains that no significant association was found between poverty and happiness once other influences had been taken into account. It doesn’t say, however, if it considered the association between poverty and those other influences –


5 January 2011

Have you ever been to Sacramento?

August Kleinzahler · Farewell, Schwarzenegger

A few years ago a masseur I visited from time to time, a very able, very gay old German hippie said to me as I made ready to leave: ‘Don’t vait so long unless next time you come Schwarzenegger will be president and there’ll be tanks in zuh streets.’ Wolf, the masseur, has since retired and, as of the other day, so has Schwarzenegger, at least in his role as governor of California. I’m of at least two minds about his going, but I suspect I’ll miss him. He brought a particular glamour to the drab corridors of Sacramento, the sleepy capitol he commuted to by jet from Los Angeles as seldom as possible. I don’t blame him, really. Sacramento is a bit of a dump and the former governor is very LA: swept-back ’do, swept-back face, with that peculiar sheen the flesh gets when tugged in that direction; the big cigars and the shiny suits with the shoulders bloused out to accommodate his outsized pecs and lats and assorted ’ceps; the fleet of Humvees; the A-list social set, the Sunday Harley runs up the coast with James Cameron and the lads... Have you ever been to Sacramento?