From Zoë Heller's 1998 review of Bridget Jones' Diary (and two other novels in the same mould): Over the last ten years, in Britain and America, there has been a significant proliferation of a certain kind of feminine first-person narrative. The author is almost always a young(ish), single, middle-class woman, and the narrative a jaunty record of a frisky personal life... The feminine first-person narrative is unabashedly self-involved. It is knowing and urbane, but it is also showily neurotic and self-derogatory... Judging by the grim sameness of these three novels, the FFPN has already hardened into a new literary orthodoxy, a new correctness.
Uri Avnery’s latest column: Rouhani is the very opposite of his predecessor. If the Mossad had been asked to sketch the worst possible Iranian leader Israel could imagine, they would have come up with someone like him.
Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate in the New York City mayoral race, is way ahead in the polls, despite his allegedly radical credentials. Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a story on his support for the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s and a trip he made to Nicaragua in 1988.
De Blasio was a relatively late arrival on the scene. I went on the first solidarity tour from the UK in 1984, by which time the trail south from the US was well established.
Ed Miliband's promise to freeze household energy prices, even if it doesn't happen, is a meaningful step towards a better understanding of what has truly happened to democracy in Britain in the last thirty years. The Labour initiative exposes a weakness in the hitherto unchallenged power of the mainly overseas investment agents who have taken over – or, in the case of the Royal Mail, are about to take over – formerly not-for-profit British providers of essential services.
Jenny Turner · ‘InRealLife’
Not many adults will know about the Tobuscus riot of September 2012, by the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, but it makes for one of the best sequences in Beeban Kidron’s documentary film about teens and the internet, InRealLife. Tobuscus, the hideously hyper, pretty-as-a-pony YouTube performer, tweeted his followers to suggest a ‘meetup’ when he was visiting from LA. About a thousand turned up and lots of them got hysterical. Tobuscus had to escape over iron railings, impaling his hand as he did so. ‘Did you die for our sins, man?’ a follower wrote on Instagram. Police came and broke it up. ‘YouTube is a beast,’ Tobuscus says in Kidron’s movie, mugging and sniggering in a way that makes it difficult to tell if he’s upset or only acting, which is what he’s always like. He films himself so much and so often, he probably doesn’t know for sure himself.
It’s the season of the sere and yellow leaf, the fig hangs heavy on the bough, and here in Belgium it’s the rentrée académique. Down at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the bright yellow waffle van on the corner fills the air with the smell of ‘chocolate’ waffle additive, and makeshift blue canvas booths line the main campus boulevard. Student societies are offering newcomers various inducements to sign up. A free Bic seems a dubious swap for being spammed for ever by the Zombie Society, though it’s better than the carrot I remember one club offering when I was a student, a raffle ticket with a 1/nth (for n≈∞) chance of splitting a yet‐to‐be‐built cabaña in the Canaries for 37 minutes every February. It didn’t take long for some joker to add a large M at the end of the society’s ‘Win a Timeshare Condo’ slugline.
Tacita Dean’s film JG, showing at Frith Street Gallery until 26 October, was inspired by a correspondence with J.G. Ballard shortly before his death from cancer in 2009. Dean was interested in the connections between Ballard’s short story ‘The Voices of Time’ (1960) and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1500-foot earthwork built into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Ballard urged Dean to ‘treat it as a mystery that your film will solve’. He sent her a piece he’d written on Smithson for a gallery, ‘Robert Smithson as Cargo Cultist’ (1997), and briefed her on his reading of Spiral Jetty:
The Greek-language newspaper
Nate Silver told the Scotsman last month that there was ‘virtually no chance’ of a Yes vote in next September’s independence referendum: ‘If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definite really where the No side is at 60-65 per cent and the Yes side is about 40 per cent or so.’ The comments were hardly revelatory, but they were seized on by media on both sides of the border as evidence that the independence campaign should pack up and go home. A few days later, Silver told an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival that he was less than happy about the way his throwaway remarks had been interpreted. ‘Taking a comment based on a thirty-minute interview that becomes front page news is not the precedent I want to set,’ he said. With a year to go till the vote, both sides seem more interested in quoting wildly divergent opinion polls than discussing policy.
The line that got the most applause at the opening rally of the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow came from Nick Clegg, but it wasn’t about housing or tax or civil liberties or nuclear power. It was about the party itself: ‘People who don’t understand us like to call debate division. I think it is debate that gives us our unity.’ He said that after the Syria vote he’d told David Cameron: ‘It’s not a defeat, it’s just a reference back.’
When I was fifteen, my form teacher, to punish me for my ‘unladylike shrieking’ in the school corridor, made me write out a quotation from King Lear a hundred times in my neatest handwriting: Her voice was ever soft, Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman. Never mind that Lear speaks the lines over Cordelia’s corpse. The episode came back to me recently when I saw Lake Bell’s film In a World..., about a female voiceover artist struggling to break into the male-dominated movie-trailer scene.
Alice Austen’s photograph of herself and two other women dressed as men was taken in New York in 1891, anticipating the female masculinity of Radclyffe Hall and others. It’s one of the more than 200 images in Phaidon’s Art and Queer Culture, edited by Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer, which charts the shift from the ‘homosexual’ identities formulated by 19th-century sexologists and lawmakers to the fluid conceptions of gender and sexuality that characterise contemporary queer culture.
Currently on display at London’s Excel Conference and Exhibition Centre are more ways to kill people than you can imagine: tactical sniper rifles from the United Arab Emirates’ Tawazun Advanced Defense Systems, medium-calibre mortars from India’s Ordnance Factories Board, optical sights for grenade launchers from Bulgaria’s Opticoelectron Group. And there’s the less lethal, too, like the CS gas made by NonLethal Technologies of Pennsylvania. 'Sure it’ll make you tear up,' a company representative said. 'But it won’t kill you.' He might have added: 'usually'.
James Meek loses his passport
A couple of weeks ago, on the eve of the vote in the House of Commons on military action against Syria, I happened to be passing through Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, on my way from Odessa to Bucharest. I was on holiday. I went for a walk and, out of carelessness, lost my passport. Although the roads and pavements of Chișinău, decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, have potholes big enough to lose a child in, the internet’s a glideway; even the roadside sausage shacks have wifi. My phone told me that if I took €114, two photos and a police report to the British embassy, they’d give me a temporary passport.
Twenty years ago, I spent a week working in one of Santiago’s poorest barrios. It was only three years since Pinochet had left office; people guardedly expressed a mixture of relief, anger and continuing apprehension. At the end of the week I was invited to a middle-class wedding in Valparaíso. Talking to the bride’s aunt, I incautiously referred to the country's having emerged from dictatorship. She took a step backwards. ‘Dictatorship?' she said loudly. Everyone turned to look at us. 'Dictatorship? There has never been a dictatorship in this country, only firm government.'
In the last year our delivery office has moved from working on bikes to working in vans. There are two of us to a van, doing two rounds between us. We’ve also been given new trolleys so we can carry more weight, new bags to fit onto the new trolleys, and new tracking devices to show customers exactly where their post is. They also, coincidentally, show the Royal Mail exactly where its employees are.
As everyone expected, Tony Abbott and his crew have won an easy victory in the Australian election. But it was not the landslide the opinion polls and even the exit polls predicted. They all suggested the Labor Party would lose most of its seats in its Western Sydney heartlands and in Brisbane. They also suggested that Kevin Rudd would lose his Brisbane seat. In the event Rudd held on quite comfortably and Labor kept most of its Western Sydney seats – as it did in Melbourne and Adelaide.
We have had occasion before on this blog and in the pages of the LRB to note the enthusiasm shown by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in helping government to liberate academic research from antiquated notions of free intellectual inquiry. Its latest inspiration is this announcement of opportunities for what it is pleased to call ‘follow-on funding’.
I was rung by the radio about thirty minutes after hearing the news of Seamus’s death, and the interviewer reminded me about ‘Room to Rhyme’, the poetry and music sessions across small towns in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s or early 1970s, paid for by the Arts Council of NI and featuring Seamus Heaney, Davy Hammond and Michael Longley. If I had not been prompted, I might not even have mentioned it, I was so thrown by the prospect of having to think about what I would like to say about Seamus at fifteen minutes’ notice, and had some difficulty in mastering my emotions as I spoke. Since then, the memories have been flooding back. I think I went only to a handful of the Room to Rhyme sessions – the first one, perhaps, to report on it for the Irish Times, the others just to follow the magic. For me it was also an introduction to Northern Ireland, which few Irish journalists, or indeed few denizens of the Republic of any stripe, were able to enjoy during the 1960s.
The ‘bedroom tax’ is a policy about the allocation of two kinds of limited public resources: council accommodation and housing benefits. Council tenants no longer receive full housing benefit if they occupy rooms that the regulations say they do not need. They must make up the rent shortfall if they can, or move out so their homes become available to larger families who need the space. Policies that shift the allocation of such resources are political, if not the very essence of politics in a modern democratic state. But so are the legal cases that they generate. The claimants in the recent judicial review of the tax were disabled and vulnerable children. They challenged the policy on the basis that it discriminated unlawfully against them by failing to recognise their special need for space that the regulations held to be surplus to their requirements.
Nick Holdstock · Bo Xilai’s Trial
Bo Xilai’s fall from power was both dramatic and swift. The charismatic former Party secretary of Chongqing, once thought a candidate for a top government position, was dismissed in March 2012, accused of widespread corruption and abuse of power. At the same time his estranged wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested for the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood. In the following months the curtain of secrecy that usually conceals China’s political elite was yanked aside, as tales of Bo’s wealth and his family’s extravagant lifestyle spread.
Once, in a time beyond political memory, charity was touted as part of the government’s big thing. Conservatism in its ethical moments takes warmth from the idea of the well-off writing cheques drawn against their sense of richesse oblige, and the not well-off selling jumble and raffling gin to aid the needy in lieu of the state; indeed, this is how the Conservative Party itself has long been run. Its Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, introduced just before the recess and hurried back to Parliament for its second reading yesterday, sets up a statutory register for lobbyists.
Adam Shatz · Israel and Saudi Arabia
One evening in January at a hotel bar in Manhattan, I tried to ingratiate myself with an officer from Bahrain’s mission to the United Nations. Munira (not her real name) was a former student of a friend of mine. She was also a regime insider, close to Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, one of the royal family’s more reform-minded figures. I thought she might help me land a visa to Bahrain, which had all but shut out Western journalists since the crackdown at the Pearl Roundabout in February 2011. I can't have been very persuasive. She promised to 'assist your quest in any way', but soon stopped replying to my emails. My visa application was never answered.
Perhaps the best thing about Birmingham’s newest civic building on Centenary Square is what they’ve called it. No beating about the bush, no equivocation: it’s a library. After all the weasel words – ‘idea stores’, ‘learning centres’, ‘discovery centres’ – it’s cheering to see the book is back. Though the loudly trumpeted opening, set against what the Library Campaign reckons is a 25 per cent loss of public libraries since 2009, just the beginning of a terrible cull, bears out the questionable orthodoxy that, as with hospitals, bigger is better.