One evening on a recent trip to rural Idlib, in north-western Syria, where the opposition controls many of the villages, I sat up with Um Ali, a 32-year-old woman with four children. Her husband, a fighter in the local rebel group, comes home only to change his clothes; in his place on the bed there was a large gun with a string of bullets.
How George Robertson must regret saying in 1995 that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ Robertson, then the shadow secretary of state for Scotland, was trying to appease sceptical unionists. Last weekend, 13 years after a devolved parliament was established at Holyrood, somewhere between 4000 and 10,000 people attended a ‘March and Rally for Scottish Independence’ in Edinburgh. Organisers said that it will be an annual event until the independence referendum in 2014.
For 33 years, all LRB subscriptions outside North America have been ‘fulfilled’ from our London offices. But from this week that will change. Our fulfilment software has come to the end of its useful life (it happens to us all, sooner or later) and there are no suitable subscription fulfilment products to replace it. So, from now on, subscribers will be cared for by data operators and customer service staff at an excellent company in Northampton, the fairly recently established UK subsidiary of the German firm DSB AG. The shutting down of our own system feels quietly momentous.
Hugh Pennington · The New Coronavirus
A coronavirus particle has spikes on its surface with knobs on the ends, making it look a bit like the sun and its corona. Hence the family name. Human ones were first seen in the 1960s by the electron microscopist June Almeida, in collaborative common cold research with the virologist David Tyrrell. Growing the viruses was very difficult. Almeida and Tyrell were enthusiasts for organ culture (I am reminded of it daily; I worked with June and have a scar on my forearm where skin was taken in a vain attempt to grow wart viruses). Bits of tissue kept alive in test tubes were infected with sneezings from common cold sufferers. It turned out that a quarter of colds are caused by coronaviruses.
Libya no longer has – or is – a state. The political field throughout most of the Middle East and North Africa is dominated by the various fiercely competing brands of Islamism. The religious field has been in a state of profound disorder since the abolition of the Caliphate following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. A degree of order was effectively restored to it by intelligent nationalist movements which, once in power, promoted a ‘national Islam’ the better to subject religion to raison d’état and curb its more dangerous and sectarian enthusiasms. But Western policy since the end of the Cold War has been relentlessly opposed to the nationalist tradition and its exponents throughout the region.
As the first signs of autumn began to appear last week I went horseriding with my sister in Trent Park, just north of London. It's mostly woodland, and for a lot of the time you can go without hearing or seeing another person, or car or any sign of modernity, even though it’s only a couple of miles from the M25. When you’re alone you can ride as fast as you like, which is to say as fast as you can, feeling the earth kicked up behind you, the forest a blur, the burn of little branches whipping you in the face. The horses we ride are only stable cobs, but the fantasy horse is always an Arabian.
Moscow isn’t short of places to waste your nights in. The city comes into its own after dark. As in Spain, despite the difference in latitude, you eat late and drink until even later. At the height of the oil boom, Saturday night could be spent spinning through a glittering whirligig of clubs where Chechen gangsters snorted coke with cross-dressing performance artists, Kremlin spin doctors hung with theatre directors, grinning thirtysomething billionaires seemed intent on spending oil wells of money at the bar, and the cloakroom girls looked like supermodels. The mood was part LL Cool J video, part Studio 54, part Petronius’ Rome.
In July, Santander wrote to tell me that there were going to be changes to the online account for small businesses I have had with them for around eight years. They began: Our aim is to build the bank we know our customers want. A bank that takes the time to listen... Then it went on to tell me what it was that I wanted.
The news that archaeologists had found, or thought they’d found, the body of Richard III under a council car park in Leicester ought to have been cause for celebration. He (or presumed he) is exactly where he ought to have been according to historical sources. He had an arrow in his back and his head had been bashed in. There could be no clearer physical proof of the complete ruthlessness of Henry Tudor. Apparently the body has curvature of the spine, so Thomas More and Shakespeare weren’t too far off when they called Richard crook-backed. History seemed to have been vindicated. But somehow I just didn’t feel good about it. Partly it was the solemn University of Leicester press conference, where men in suits tried to hold in sober academical check their triumph at a great historical find. They had discovered, after more than 500 years, a body that had been killed in a very nasty way, then dumped with the minimum of decorum required to avoid a public outcry. I wondered how archaeologists in the future might reveal that they had discovered the bones of bin Laden.
Oh, to be in Belgium, now the British party conference season is near. As a talking-point here in the brasseries of Euroland, the UK political season’s kick-off is bested only by Bernard Arnault’s application for Belgian nationality and Herman van Rompuy’s Elvis obsession. David Cameron looks increasingly like a man in over his head. The best that can be said of the reshuffle is that it didn’t make things much worse – but then, a reshuffle makes little odds when all the cards are jokers.
When I was a child I used to tap around the flat with a stick trying to find out what it was like to be blind. I folded scarves into triangles and knotted them around my neck and arm to make the sling for the broken arm I never had. I always wanted but never needed spectacles. I tried on other people's braces in the playground and limped around the corridors of my block of flats in imitation of children at school who had had polio and wore calipers on their legs. I thought it so glamorous to have 'a condition', and I was also curious to find out what it was like being without something I took for granted. But I have no memory at all of pretending to be deaf. I played games putting my fingers in my ears, of course, making things louder and quieter, but I never thought of it as seeing what it was like to be deaf. There were children in the playground who wore hearing aids, pinky beige flesh coloured implements you couldn't miss, but I never wanted to try them, or wondered what life would be like without hearing as I wondered what life would be like without sight.
Today, apparently, is Roald Dahl Day (were he alive it would be his 96th birthday). Here's Michael Irwin in the LRB on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (from a review of George's Marvellous Medicine, 1 October 1981): There are several things that Roald Dahl has got emphatically right, the most important being his appreciation of the passion children feel for sweets in general and perhaps for chocolate in particular. For pre-pubertal Westerners, sweets fill the vacuum later to be occupied by sex. It is unnerving to watch an otherwise decent child being temporarily demoralised (in the literal sense of being morally corrupted) by a desire for sweets as an otherwise decent adult may be by sexual need.
In 2007, the summer after I graduated from university, I applied to be a marker for Edexcel, the GCSE exam board. The selection process involved online tests and training days, but wasn’t particularly rigorous. I think everyone in my cohort was accepted. We were all invited to a team-building lunch in Bloomsbury, where we met the people who would oversee our marking. My boss was a retired lecturer from Australia who joined Edexcel, he told me, to keep his mind sprightly, and because he believed in maintaining standards. I told him I’d applied to be a marker because I was broke.
Between 1999 and 2001 I lived in Shaoyang, a small city in Hunan province known throughout China for being dirty. This wasn’t just the prejudice of outsiders; many of its residents complained about the ‘poor conditions’. Rubbish bobbed on the milky green surface of the Shao Shui river, spread along its banks and choked the dam upstream. The street that led to the college where I taught was lined with food stalls, rubbish heaped around them. During the day people would pick through the piles looking for glass, plastic or metal they could resell; at night the rubbish was set on fire. People wiped their chairs in restaurants before sitting down, or carried newspapers to sit on on the bus, but didn’t think twice about throwing cans and tissues out of car windows.
In 2009 John Berger donated his archive to the British Library. Some of the drawings, manuscripts, correspondence and other papers can be seen at Somerset House until 10 November. The title of the exhibition, Art and Property Now, is taken from an essay Berger wrote for New Society in 1967. The show is one of several events taking place in London this autumn to mark the 40th anniversary of both Berger’s TV series Ways of Seeing and his novel G.
The fortress of Charlotte is by now dismantled. Concerns about the weather had moved Thursday night’s speeches from the Bank of America Stadium back to the Time Warner Cable Arena, a discrepancy of about 50,000 seats. It did rain on Thursday, but only a brief thundering downpour in the afternoon. After the skies cleared, I set off for the convention centre. I’d taken to stopping at the protest encampment at Marshall Park on the way in and on the way home. I’d heard a lot about Bradley Manning, about the iniquities of the old nativist AFL, and about the pro-war corporate pawn FDR. There was mention of the Rothschilds and even a bit of 9/11 ‘truth’.
Mitt Romney said last week that his wife would have been successful at anything she might have done. Michelle Obama on Tuesday elided her actual success as a corporate lawyer to dwell on her role as ‘mom-in-chief’. And she converted her emotional life into a talking point attuned to the day’s news cycle. The headlines were covering the parties’ contest over whether Americans were or weren’t better off than four years ago. The first lady assured the convention that she loved her husband more now than she did four years ago. Despite the disagreements over whether or not to include God and Jerusalemin the party platform, the Time Warner Cable Arena is a house full of true believers this week. I heard a corporate lawyer in her mid-thirties say that she still thought Michelle Obama was a ‘ninja killer’, whatever her omissions. She was wearing a blue dress, like many of the young women at the DNC. I didn’t see an equivalent trend last week in Tampa. But then I didn’t see many young women there. Just as there weren’t many hipsters who weren’t in the media, or delegates who weren’t white, or people who were missing a limb.
The sequels to the Marikana massacre continue to develop in a number of different directions. It looks worse and worse for the police as evidence comes to light suggesting that several of the 34 miners killed by the police were cornered and shot in cold blood quite separately from those the world saw mown down in a rifle fusillade. This has now been further supported by the tales told by the 270 miners just released from the police cells.
On the drive downtown from the Charlotte airport you ride the Billy Graham Parkway and are greeted by a billboard that says: ‘Don’t Believe the Liberal Media.’ I went for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The TV was tuned to CNN. Aaron Black from Occupy Wall Street, who’d taken me to Romneyville in Tampa, was walking his bike down the street in Sunday’s March on Wall Street South. He said that some of the OWS protesters from Tampa hadn’t come north for the DNC: ‘A lot of our people are not interested in protesting Obama.’ Yestersday around noon I was walking to the Planned Parenthood rally at the Nascar Hall of Fame when I came across the tent encampment in Marshall Park. There were a couple of dozen tents and signs spread out across the ground: ‘Obama Is a Fucking Traitor!’; ‘Avoid Corptards’ with anarchy symbols for the As; Obama riding in a flying saucer, looking a bit like Mr Spock, launching drones from above a row of ‘sheeple’, one of whom had woken up to say ‘Holy crap’, only to have his ‘dissent’ float up to be stifled by ‘weapons of mass distraction’.
At John Stezaker’s studio in Kentish Town an entire wall is given over to a photographic archive the artist bought about thirty years ago. Britain’s cinemas had been going out of business for decades, and with them the picture agencies that supplied the industry with film stills and actor portraits. Stezaker snapped up the contents of one such doomed establishment, but has done nothing with them since. (Though he has plans, he says.) Look around the studio, and you get a queasy sense of the fate that might await those black-and-white prints. There are forgotten starlets half decapitated, neatly enucleated character actors, scenes from long-lost B-movies invaded by lurid portions of landscape or Kodachrome bouquets. And here and there a scalpel, threatening the surface of an intact print.
The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels has been called ‘the last colonial museum in the world’. It’s not hard to see why: in the marble lobby a statue celebrates ‘Belgium bringing civilisation to the Congo’; the Memorial Room lists the names of the 1508 Belgians who died in Africa between 1876 and 1908 but doesn’t mention the millions of Africans who perished during King Leopold II’s brutal reign in the Congo Free State; the painted wooden carvings from Tintin in the Congo that decorate the restaurant are in dubious taste, to put it mildly.
Thomas Jones · Blair's Law
'In a healthy democracy people can agree to disagree.' That's been one of Tony Blair's stock responses to critics of the Iraq war since before it started. He wheeled it out most recently to dismiss Desmond Tutu's call for him and George W. Bush to be 'made to answer for their actions in the Hague'. Obviously Blair's right, up to a point: the existence of God, who to vote for, the price of jam, what would win in a fight between a weasel and a rattlesnake – all things that people can agree to disagree about. But with some questions – such as, say, whether or not someone's committed a crime – the disagreement has to be settled in a court of law. If you're spotted kneeling over a bloody corpse with a knife in your hand, the police are unlikely to let you go just because you tell them they're entitled to their opinion, even if you're a former prime minister (we're talking about a hypothetical 'healthy democracy' here, remember).