January 2013


31 January 2013

Silly Covers for Lady Novelists

Fatema Ahmed

The first edition of The Bell Jar to appear under Sylvia Plath’s name was published by Faber in 1967, with a cover designed by Shirley Tucker. This month Faber have brought out a 50th anniversary edition of the novel (it was first published by Heinemann in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas), with a cover about as far from Tucker’s Bridget Rileyish concentric circles as you can get: a stock photo from the 1950s of a woman with a powder compact. As Dustin Kurtz, a marketing manager at Melville House, tweeted, ‘How is this cover anything but a “fuck you” to women everywhere?’


30 January 2013

Lincoln in His Lover's Nightgown

Tariq Ali

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is consciously restrictive, concentrating as it does on how the vote was manipulated and the 13th Amendment passed, but Mrs Lincoln is not exactly missing from the movie. So why didn’t the scriptwriter Tony Kushner, a staunch gay rights activist who ‘personally believe[s] that there is some reason to speculate that Lincoln might have been bisexual or gay’, include any of that speculation in the film? There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Lincoln slept with a number of men. In an interview with Gold Derby, Kushner said:


29 January 2013

Liberate the Language!

Peter Pomerantsev

‘We’re tormented with Americanisms,’ the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, complained last week. ‘We need to liberate our language from foreign words.’ He is drawing up a list of 100 words which he would like it to be illegal for broadcasters, writers and academics to use in public. Fines and unemployment could face anyone caught saying café, bar, restaurant, sale, mouton, performance or trader. Some of the words have come into use since the fall of the Soviet Union; others have been around for decades, if not centuries. ‘There are perfectly good Russian words you can use,’ Zhirinovsky says. ‘Why say boutique when we have lavka?’ (Lavka is usually translated into English as something like ‘stall’.)


28 January 2013

Where does DFID's money go?

Ben Rawlence

This year, for the first time, the UK government will devote 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income to foreign aid, finally meeting the target set in a 1970 UN General Assembly resolution. The budget of the Department for International Development has leapt from £8.8 billion in 2012 to £11.5 billion for 2013, about £183 per UK citizen. A report by Jonathan Foreman for the right-wing think tank Civitas has criticised the arbitrariness of the 0.7 per cent figure, and there has been a raft of scandals involving overpaid consultants, private equity firms and a lack of transparency at DFID last year, but the place of foreign aid in British politics appears assured. The big question, though, is who to give the money to.


25 January 2013

The Unelected

Edward Pearce

Steve Hilton’s denunciation of the Civil Service earlier this month should be taken lightly. David Cameron’s former adviser, who in the early days of opposition leadership set his employer on a democratic bike while his shoes travelled behind by Lexus, has made a habit of attacking public servants for standing in the way of government ministers pleasing sectional profit. It is, the argument goes, undemocratic: power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats – the habitual drone of interested parties. This is the language used of the BBC by politicians compliant to the point of servitude with Rupert Murdoch.


24 January 2013

Cameron's Euro Fudge

Glen Newey

Is Britain going to ‘leave Europe’? The phrase has a slightly absurd ring, as if UK politicians could speed up continental drift and deposit the country somewhere off Massachusetts. In fact, the Atlanticist Europhobes in the Tory party and UKIP had been swatted even before the prime minister made his ‘defining’ speech on Europe, as Obama’s people made clear that the president had told Cameron he wants Britain to stay in. No matter. UKIP is on a roll and Cameron’s running scared. A Sun poll had the purple party on 11 per cent in November, which could do all manner of damage to Cameron’s re-election chances, even though the Liberal Democrat vote sits like a chocolate rabbit on a radiator, waiting for the heating to come on, and the Conservatives stand to benefit most from their partners’ meltdown.


23 January 2013

Five Ways of Looking at the Knesset

Neve Gordon

This is the way the results of the elections are being presented in the Israeli press: Centre Left Bloc Right Bloc Other, perhaps more accurate ways to present the election results:


22 January 2013

On the Euphemism Treadmill

Steven Poole

The consulting firm Ernst & Young, in collaboration with the FBI, has developed software that scans office emails – as well as text messages and IM conversations on company devices – for phrases that may indicate underlings are up to no good. It has released a list of the most popular terms used by conspirators in corporate fraud, including ‘do not volunteer information’ and ‘nobody will find out’.


21 January 2013

In Defence of Lance Armstrong

Benjamin Markovits

I’m trying to remember what I thought about Lance Armstrong before the USADA report came out. I mean, if I thought he was clean. I’ve got personal reasons for liking him: he comes from my hometown, and in 2006 may have helped to save my brother-in-law’s life. Asher Price, who works for the local Austin paper, the American Statesman, got the same kind of cancer that Armstrong had. On the day his testicle was removed, he got an email from the cyclist, which offered not only the usual sympathy but a recommendation: he should see Lawrence Einhorn in Indiana, the doctor who pioneered the treatment that saved Armstrong.


20 January 2013

Six Questions about Tigantourine

Hugh Roberts

There are numerous aspects of the violent drama at the gas plant at Tigantourine near In Amenas in south-eastern Algeria that remain unclear if not frankly baffling. Since the dust is yet to settle this is not the moment to pass judgment on the behaviour of the Algerians or the significance of the event. Instead I propose to list some of the questions to which answers are needed if we are to get a clear view of what happened.


18 January 2013

The Landfill Harmonic

John Perry

In the huge rubbish dump in the barrio of Cateura, on the south side of Asunción, Paraguayan youngsters who sort through the capital’s rubbish have found the means to make music. The orchestra known locally as Melodias de la Basura or Los Reciclados, and in English as the Landfill Harmonic, was started in 2006 by an environmentalist and music teacher, Flavio Chavez.


17 January 2013

Ireland's Ghost Estates

Peter Geoghegan

Last March there was an explosion at a semi-detached house on the Gleann Riada estate in Longford, seventy miles north-west of Dublin. The blast – which blew out the sitting-room window and left a hole in a ground floor wall – was caused by methane that had accumulated underneath the property. The two men who rented it were in the kitchen. In October, Ireland’s Health Service Executive said that Gleann Riada was ‘unsafe’ and called for ‘necessary and immediate remedial work’. Residents were told not to light fires and to keep their windows open.


16 January 2013

Opening the Gate of the Sun

Adam Shatz

At 2.30 on Sunday morning, the Israeli army removed 250 Palestinians from Bab al-Shams, a village in the so-called E1 corridor: 13 square kilometres of undeveloped Palestinian land between East Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank with a population of 40,000. Israel has had designs on E1 for more than a decade: colonising it would realise the vision of a 'Greater Jerusalem', and eliminate the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. After the UN vote to recognise Palestine as a non-member observer state, Binyamin Netanyahu declared that Israel would build 4000 new settler homes in E1. The high court issued a six-day injunction against his order to 'evacuate' Bab al-Shams, but Netanyahu was in no mood to wait. Once the Palestinians had been driven out, the land was declared a closed 'military zone'.


15 January 2013

What Went Wrong in Mali

The Editors

Bruce Whitehouse in the LRB, 30 August 2012: What does Mali’s spectacular slide from celebrated democratic model to failed state augur for the rest of Africa? The number of electoral democracies on the continent has fallen from 24 to 19 in the last seven years. It may be that Mali is a portent of state collapse to come, as the façade of democracy erodes, exposing the informal government mechanisms that really run the show. What if, as the historian Stephen Ellis has argued, the increasing fragility of African states is ‘an early sign of a wider problem with the system of international governance’ built after World War Two? Western powers are discovering that in Africa, as in Afghanistan, there are limits to their ability to impose or even reform state systems.


15 January 2013

Lance Armstrong's Regime

The Editors

David Runciman on Lance Armstrong in the LRB, 22 November 2012: Blood-doping was what gave Armstrong a shot at becoming one of the legends of the sport. But it is clear that in his own mind what made the difference was how he doped: he simply did it better than anyone else, more creatively, more ruthlessly, more fearlessly. He exploited the same opportunities that were available to everyone. For Armstrong, drugs added an extra element of competition to the sport: the competition to be the person who made best use of the drugs.


15 January 2013

Handkerchief Maps

Georgina Kenyon

I have three half-metre-square maps of southern Europe framed on my living-room wall. Printed by the American air force on acetate rayon – lightweight, waterproof and hard to tear – the ‘handkerchief maps’ were given to my father-in-law, Howard Walker, who flew with the Australian Air Force during the Second World War.


14 January 2013

Knowledge for Money’s Sake

Jon Day

The Modern Language Association of America has finished its 128th annual convention. This year, ten thousand delegates descended on three sprawling, super-heated and mall-lined hotels in Boston. Well-established fears – the steady corporatisation of the academy, the encroachment of market forces on academic publishing, the shameful ways in which early career academics are treated  – had had their influence on most of the papers I heard. Many of the panels were about how to sell yourself as a graduate student, or find a way into the increasingly closed shop of a tenure-track academic career, or avoid it altogether. There were panels on ‘Myth-busting the Job Search’ and ‘Marketing Your PhD in Literature and Languages’. At a panel on ‘Humanisms Old and New’ the medievalist James Simpson said we were saddled with ‘a legacy of 15th-century philological humanism’ that was outdated. If we tried to justify the humanities as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, he said, ‘we’re going to lose.’ 


12 January 2013

The Narcoleptic Tradition

Glen Newey

The National Portrait Gallery has just unveiled its portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, formerly Kate Middleton. The picture follows loyally in the narcoleptic tradition of royal portraiture, where the sitter gives every impression of having taken a cocktail of Valium and Reader’s Digest.


11 January 2013

Lumumba, Himmler, Me

Jason Farago

The Summer Is Over, a new exhibition in New York by the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans (until 9 February), consists of seven paintings: three pairs of canvases depicting mundane details of life in Antwerp and, alone on a wall, a self-portrait that doesn’t look much like Tuymans. The artist gazes out from the painting unthreateningly, showing none of the severity he can display in person or in photographs. His cheeks are uncharacteristically fleshy, and his full head of white hair is painted so subtly that he looks almost bald. The ubiquitous cigarette isn’t in evidence either. Nearly a third of the painting – depicting the wall over his shoulder – is simply white. Me (2011) is his first self-portrait in nearly twenty years.


10 January 2013

The Beginner, the Doofus, the Aspirant

Christopher Tayler · George Saunders

It’s been George Saunders week in the US, with an adulatory profile by Joel Lovell in the New York Times Magazine, Saunders’s new preface to his first book in the Paris Review and excitement even on websites that often greet lit biz news with a ‘meh’. Interesting titbits thrown out by the flurry – occasioned by Tenth of December, his new story collection – include the information that Saunders and his wife ‘devote a significant part of their lives to the practice of Nyingma Buddhism’, and that, among the pictures on his shelves, there’s ‘a great one from his jazz-fusion days of him playing a Fender Telecaster, with white-blond Johnny Winter hair to his shoulders'.


9 January 2013

Back to Berlin

Thomas Jones · Bowie's Late Style

David Bowie fans are beside themselves (oh all right, ourselves) with delight at yesterday’s surprise release of ‘Where Are We Now?’ It's his first new song in ten years, all the papers are saying, though that’s to overlook the mean and jaunty ditty about Ricky Gervais from the second season of Extras (2006): ‘He’s got no style, he’s got no grace, he’s banal and facile, he’s a fat waste of space. Yeah yeah. Everybody sing that last line.’ Fans’ judgments aren’t exactly trustworthy – the internet’s still swarming with people who bafflingly regret Bowie’s non-appearance at the Olympics opening ceremony – but by this late stage in his career (which until yesterday, his 66th birthday, was widely believed to be probably over), who else is the song for? The fact of its being by Bowie is what mostly counts.


9 January 2013

Get Your Authentic Hot Water Here

Steven Poole

Pity the poor customers of Harris + Hoole, a new coffee chain, who discovered that Tesco has a 49 per cent stake in what they thought was an ‘independent’ business. One such customer told the Guardian that she felt ‘upset’ and ‘duped’, since she would never dream of patronising Tesco itself. In one way this just demonstrates the omnivorous ingenuity of capital in appropriating and selling back to us what looked like a challenge to it. The ‘independence’ of an ‘independent coffee shop’ is now quite likely to be a corporate simulacrum. The manager of Harris + Hoole’s Crouch End branch is reported to have said that head office ‘had instructed her to make the store feel as independent as possible’, which is perhaps only superficially a paradox. ‘We try to be independent,’ she said. ‘We want to be independent. We want to have that feel.’


8 January 2013

Indian Army, Rape Us

Tariq Ali

The rape in Delhi has shocked India. Has it really? Or was it the sight of thousands of young students, male and female, demonstrating on the streets and being assaulted by the police for daring to demonstrate that made some Indian citizens think seriously about the problem? As for the Congress government that has, like most of the opposition parties, tolerated this for decades, it was the bad publicity abroad that finally did the trick, but only as far as this case is concerned. Rape takes place in police stations, in military barracks, in the streets and occasionally in some provincial parliaments. The feminist Communist parliamentarian Brinda Karat, who has long campaigned on the issue, pointed to the assault of a member of the Trinamool assembly by a male oppositionist on 11 December last year. 'Women were not safe even inside the assembly,' she said.


7 January 2013

Syria on Video

Layla Al-Zubaidi

'I saw and I heard. And I wish I hadn’t.'

On 1 January, Yassin al-Haj Saleh posted these words on his Facebook page. Al-Haj Saleh spent 16 years in Assad's prisons after being arrested as a student in the 1980s for being a member of a communist group. He is now a prominent dissident known for his sharp analysis of the Syrian conflict. I check his page every day.

The words were accompanied by a video. Clearly, one of the great many videos circulating showing the cruelty of the regime's militias, the widely feared shabiha. I hesitated before opening it. These videos are evidence. But it's always the same question: how badly will I regret seeing it?

Shabiha wearing military uniforms hold several young men hostage, somewhere on a staircase. The hostages face the wall, blindfolded, their hands cuffed behind them, their bent shoulders facing the camera. The uniformed men rip their shirts off and thrust long, thin knives into their backs and necks: as if they were slaughtering sheep. Slowly and artfully they stab, chopping flesh out until the men lie on the ground, bleeding, their screams muffled by the cloth around their faces. The shabiha pick up concrete blocks and smash them on the bodies on the ground, breaking their bones and skulls. White dust fills the frame. The shabiha shake it off their hands. It looks almost as though they are clapping, congratulating themselves. Not the slightest sign of discomfort: they are chatting and laughing. Their intent wasn't only to kill: carrying guns, they could have shot their adversaries. They wanted to inflict pain, to demonstrate power, to show that the enemy is subhuman. Five minutes so unbearable that one commenter on the post writes: 'That's the first time in my life watching something has made me dizzy. I'm still trying to catch my breath, to remember I'm human.'


5 January 2013

Borgen and Hygge

Jenny Turner · Borgen

At a certain age, apparently, it’s well known that women give up on trying to beautify their bodies and get to work on improving their houses instead. No longer is it Vogue and Grazia cluttering the coffee table, but Living Etc and Elle Decor, laid out in a tidy fan. No longer does one venture out in body-con dresses, but nests instead at home, in an animal-look onesie, snuggled on the sofa with this or that box set. All that effort that used to go on fretting about one’s outfit has to go somewhere. So is it the quality of the writing that’s the best thing about Danish television at the moment, or is it the interior design? I wrote here about the utopian symbolism – as I saw it – of all those beautiful, glowing and planetary Danish light-fittings in The Killing, my previous box-set project. And I’ve been delighted to see all the classics – the Artichoke, the Enigma, the Henningsen PH4 – out in force in my new favourite, Borgen, the second run of which begins this evening on BBC4. This is the one in which Birgitte Nyborg, the middle-aged and middle-class leader of the exceedingly middle-of-the-road 'Moderate Party', unexpectedly finds herself the first female prime minister of Denmark. The stirring credit sequence shows her bounding off her bike from her domestic life and into the public sphere, leaving her kids behind in her elegant house with her handsome husband to stride the corridors of the Folketinget, smiling her captivatingly crinkle-nostrilled smile. 'It’s a chess game, if you like,' the veteran correspondent Hanne Holm says about Danish electoral politics at the beginning of the first episode. Certainly one of the programme’s many pleasures is second-guessing Nyborg on her increasingly raptor-like calculations as she fires people and forms various weird-looking and fragile coalitions.


4 January 2013

The £1 Million Visa

Peter Pomerantsev

‘This is like the Cold War,' a Russian foreign ministry spokesman said in December after President Obama signed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. 'We will retaliate.' The act allows for the public naming of Russian officials involved in 'extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognised human rights'. It also allows for their US assets to be suspended and for them to be barred entry into the States. Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian corporate lawyer who was tortured and died in Butyrka Prison in Moscow in 2009 after accusing various Russian bureaucrats of perpetrating a $230 million tax fraud. The law named after him is targeted at the many corrupt Russian officials who act with impunity at home and then spend their ill-gotten gains in the West. But of course the US isn’t the favoured destination of rich Russians. Most prefer to keep their property, wives, mistresses, football teams, newspapers and children in the UK. What would really hurt corrupt Russian officials is a Magnitsky Act here. But will it happen?


3 January 2013

The Disappearance of Ibrahim Magag

Sadakat Kadri · Control Orders

The whereabouts of Ibrahim Magag are causing concern. The 28-year-old hasn’t been seen at home since Boxing Day, and though that might ordinarily be the business of no one but his wife and kids, his absence has set off a police manhunt and exposed him to the risk of five years in jail. Magag isn’t a defendant awaiting trial or a convict due to be sentenced. His brush with the law has arisen because he is one of ten people on whom the home secretary, Theresa May, has served a notice under the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011. Although it is impossible to be sure what the TPIM notice said – its contents are not a matter of public record – it seems to have asserted May's belief that Magag, who was born in Somalia, was linked to the extremist organisation al-Shabaab. That belief entitled her to impose restrictions on his liberty, including a curfew, and he is a fugitive only because of his apparent breach of those restrictions. In other words, Magag stands to be criminalised because the home secretary suspects him of criminality.


3 January 2013

Can you please stop digging the grave?

Deborah Friedell

Of course, a week after I filed my piece pooh-poohing the fear of premature burial, this appears in the Siberian Times:


2 January 2013

Izzy Skint?

Nick Richardson · The Dandy

When I was a kid the Beano and the Dandy were like cats and dogs: you liked one or the other and your preference reflected your personality. I was a Beano fan. The difference between Dandy and Beano fans, I imagined, was the same as the difference between the comics’ two lead characters, Desperate Dan and Dennis the Menace. The Beano’s Menace was a mischievous – in retrospect, borderline psychotic – schoolboy with knobbly knees, a soot-coloured mongrel called Gnasher and a catapult, which he’d use against his wispy arch-enemy, Walter the Softie. He was cunning, cool and funny. Dan was an oaf: a portly cowboy with a square jaw and an indefatigable appetite for ‘cow pie’ – whole cows, baked in pies, with the tails dangling over the edge of the crust. He didn’t want to menace, he wanted to help, but kept causing disaster by misjudging his strength. Here’s a typical Dan storyline: a group of boys are trying to sail model boats on a lake, but there’s not enough wind. Dan comes along and blows into the sails, but blows too hard and wrecks the boats. By way of apology, he turns his body into a boat by wrenching the paddle wheel off a steamer, tearing up a streetlamp to use as a mast, and attaching them to his corpulent figure.


1 January 2013

No Middle Way

Nick Holdstock · Tibet

On 9 December, Wanchen Kyi, a 16-year-old Tibetan schoolgirl, set fire to herself in Dokar Mo township in Qinghai. More than ninety Tibetans have done so since March 2011. Their last words have included calls for the return of the Dalai Lama, the release of the Panchen Lama and other political prisoners, protests against the Chinese government’s policies in the region (phasing the Tibetan language out of education; encouraging non-Tibetan settlers from inner China), and calls for Tibetan independence.