After graduation I’d planned to be a documentary film researcher but instead found myself working, miserably and often late into the evening, as a ticket seller and chair stacker at the Art Film Cinema, a proto pop-up in a basement hall just off Leicester Square. It fell to me to fend off the dirty mac brigade, who had a different idea of what ‘art films’ were: certainly not a succession of worthy shorts, mostly Arts Council funded, on art and artists; and not the main attraction, either – a big screen presentation of Kenneth Clark’s epic TV series Civilisation.
Ramallah. Walking down the main street in al-Tireh or al-Masyoon neighbourhoods makes you feel you've been teleported to another universe! Fancy restaurants where you need to speak English to read the menu, a young woman jogging by with a fluffy puppy, big houses, new cars, wide streets, trimmed grass, everything that lends the city an illusion of stability and gives the impression of not being under occupation. But the moment you try to get out of Ramallah and bump into the first checkpoint, reality hits you in the face: You're in a prison! A nice prison, but a prison all the same.
The Chancellor’s Latin The Chancellor’s many accomplishments did not include much, if any, knowledge of Latin. This was a problem, because the ceremony to confer honorary degrees, over which he had to preside, was conducted in that language. Of course, like a church service, a good deal was formulaic patter, relatively easy to master. The eulogies for the honorands (specifically those personally selected by the Chancellor himself) were a different matter. Although only a short paragraph in length, each had to encapsulate the subject’s distinctive merits in a combination of precision and ornateness, well suited to the Chancellor’s style of speech and writing in English. But putting the paragraph into Latin suitable for a grand public occasion required an aid operation.
What can people locked up inside four walls do to refuse the reality imposed on them? Not a lot, but they can refuse to eat.
I had coffee with Sudbin, a human rights activist, in northern Bosnia last month. We met at a roadside bar called Sidro ('anchor') in the village of Carakovo, and talked about the difficulties facing Bosniaks who returned to Republika Srpska after the war. Heavy rain was falling. The River Sana was seeping over its banks. Dark brown water swirled around the wooden stilts that supported a two-storey house beside the river. 'I've never seen it like this,' Sudbin said. 'Nobody, not the government, has done anything to stop it, to make defences.'
The European elections in France have produced an ‘earthquake’ outcome, according to the new prime minister Manuel Valls, who stepped in after the recent municipal vote gave the Parti Socialiste the drubbing it deserved. Nine weeks later here’s another humiliation, despite President Hollande’s efforts to assure the French they’re heading for terra firma. Turns out there’s no such thing: the whole continent, according to Valls, is trembling in the aftermath; he clearly thinks the epicentre was somewhere in France, perhaps the Front National headquarters in Nanterre, where Marine Le Pen and her party broke out the champagne on Sunday night. The results: 25 per cent of the vote to the Front National, and 25 MEPs; 21 per cent to the right-wing UMP and 20 MEPs; 14 per cent for the Parti Socialiste and its campaign partner the Parti Radical de Gauche, which equals 13 MEPs. Where I live – a moderate, steady-eddie electorate – the FN came in on top with 30 per cent of the vote, followed by the UMP. Well behind both came the Union de la Gauche.
All Arabs living in Jerusalem are told that they are proud Palestinians. In geography classes, they study the map of historic Palestine. In art classes, they embrace the colours of the Palestinian flag. Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock are symbols of their cultural heritage and values. The ancient Arabic names for the gates in the Jerusalem wall are engraved in their minds. Two primary colors dominate the dynamics of a Jerusalemite Arab’s identity: blue and green. In general, a blue ID card means that you can get to see the beach and a green one means you are hostile and a threat to the ‘state’.
Adam Shatz on the New York Art Quartet
Nearly a half century ago, the New York Art Quartet had its debut at the Cellar Café on the Upper West Side. The occasion was the October Revolution, a four-day music festival curated by Bill Dixon, the visionary trumpeter, founder of the Jazz Composers Guild, and director of jazz programmes at the United Nations. The New York Art Quartet – the subject of Alan Roth's absorbing new documentary, The Breath Courses through Us – represented the next wave in avant-garde jazz after Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. One of the first leaderless, simultaneously improvising ensembles, it embodied what John Litweiler has called the 'freedom principle'. Yet it showed that freedom did not have to mean the propulsive 'fire music' that Coltrane's followers were playing, or the screaming, protopunk cacophony for which the label ESP became legendary. The New York Art Quartet's music was lyrical and somewhat elusive, open-ended in an orderly way, full of subtle effects that people didn't tend to associate with free jazz.
Being part of a Yoga community in Palestine is strange. Having a middle-aged Egyptian woman doing different asanas on the mat right next to me is stranger still. But this is Ramallah, with all its absurdities, an occupied/liberated city filled with European, North American and occasionally Asian foreigners. But almost no Arab visitors. It never occurred to me that we are so isolated from the rest of the Arab world until Nooran – I thought her name was a bit Egyptian – started talking about meditation in one of our Yoga sessions.
Sleek, complacent Brussels takes its alfresco chocolate and beer and waffles in the early summer sunshine, untroubled by the European elections or a few anti-semitic murders. The bo-bo Sablon district, which hosts the Jewish Museum, scene of Saturday’s shootings, was thick with drinkers again twenty-four hours later; indeed, the gratification of a man interviewed by Flemish VTM Nieuws soon after the attacks remained undimmed when he learned that the TV crew was there because three people had just been shot dead about a hundred metres away. I went down there on Sunday evening. ‘Ah oui, j’en ai entendu parler,’ a young woman said absently. I’d given her directions to Petit Sablon, and said there were a lot of police were about because of the murders. Nothing much is meant by this indifference – it would no doubt have been the same had the victims been Arab or Chinese. Apathy is a great leveller.
I was 15 at the time, but I wasn’t living the typical teenage life. I was living an adventure of my own, the Palestinian way, trapped in the hallway with my family, with no food, no electricity, just a battery-powered radio to keep track of the news. The only sound we could hear was the sound of the bombing, and we could smell the death and destruction around us.
Writing stories in a second language is not something most of us ever try. Safaa Halahla’s piece about the Second Intifada could have been written with less trouble in Arabic, which is her first. She’s one of thirty or forty Palestinians I’ve been lucky enough to meet over the last few years who wanted to see what happened when they tried writing in English. The five posts that will appear on the LRB blog over the course of this week were composed at the 2013 Palestine Writing Workshop.
Glen Newey · Conflict Minerals
What price a mobile phone? Pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act, passed after the 2008 crash, the US Securities and Exchange Commission set 2 June 2014 as the deadline for mining companies to report the provenance of minerals they put on commodities markets, the aim being to flag ‘conflict minerals’ as such. Minerals dug in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces, including coltan (columbium tantalum) cassiterite and gold, are used in capacitors and other components for tablets, phones and computers. Various armed rebel groups in and around the Kivus vie for control of the mostly hand-worked mines.
In late April, an amateur video of Israeli army aggression in the occupied West Bank began to circulate online. The content was neither new nor surprising: a soldier shoving, kicking and pointing his gun at unarmed Palestinian teenagers in Hebron’s old city. What was new, however, was the form and scale of the public response. When the soldier was suspended, the Israeli public mobilised on social media in unprecedented numbers to support their ‘brother in arms’. Pundits called it the army’s first ‘digital rebellion’. Thousands of soldiers uploaded mobile snapshots of themselves holding handwritten protest banners: ‘We are with David the Nahalite’ (the suspended soldier was in the Nahal Infantry Brigade). In some of the selfies, the message was written on the soldiers’ half-naked bodies; in others it was spelled out in ammunition. The meme then spread to civilians, who uploaded pictures of themselves at home or at work, with pets and household objects rather than guns.
The rescue operation at the Soma coal mine in western Turkey came to an end on Saturday 17 May. Workers sealed the entrance to the mine with a concrete wall. The final death toll was announced on Sunday: 301 people had been killed and another 80 injured, making this the worst mine disaster in Turkey’s history. The Soma mine was operated through the so-called taşeron (‘subcontractor’) system. In 2003, the Erdoğan government passed legislation allowing publicly owned coal mines to be run by private companies. Production increased but costs were cut and safety standards dropped.
Ukip’s ‘Carnival of Colour’, which took place in a Croydon shopping centre today, never looked particularly promising. When I got there, a few supporters wearing linen suits, loud shirts and strong aftershave were handing out flyers. George Konstantinidis, the east counties regional chairman of Ukip, gave me his card. I asked him if Nigel Farage would be there. He told me, conspiratorially, that he’d be arriving in half an hour. I asked him if he thought Farage was racist. He said he wasn’t.
Last June the G8 agreed a new plan called the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which is supposed to ensure poor countries receive the full benefit of their natural resources. Canada is one of EITI's stakeholder countries; 60 per cent of the world’s mining companies are listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
‘Russia,’ the Russian writer said, ‘is pitted against the West because of its deeper sense of spirituality.’ He was speaking at a conference in Kiev bringing together ‘international intellectuals to carry out a discussion about the meaning of Ukrainian pluralism for Europe, Russia and the world’. It was hot in the room. I felt sick and went down to Maidan, my first visit since the revolution.
A video of the imprisoned al-Jazeera journalist Abdullah El-Shamy was released online two days ago. The 26-year-old, arrested by the Egyptian authorities last summer, has yet to be charged. He has been on hunger strike for more than 100 days. According to his family, he has lost a third of his body weight, dropping from 108 kg to 68 kg. In the video, he says the Egyptian regime is responsible for his condition, and will be responsible if he dies. He says he has received no medical care in prison, and his requests to be seen by an independent doctor have been denied.
On 10 May, Amos Oz criticised the so-called 'price-tag attacks' carried out by Israeli settlers. The label is used by the culprits themselves to describe retaliatory violence against Palestinians: beatings and arson as well as racist graffiti sprayed on the walls of churches and mosques. Oz described the perpetrators as 'Hebrew neo-Nazi groups'. The next day, he said: The comparison that I made was to neo-Nazis and not to Nazis. Nazis build incinerators and gas chambers; neo-Nazis desecrate places of worship, cemeteries, beat innocent people and write racist slogans. That is what they do in Europe, and that is what they do here.
The ‘deconstruction’ of the main part of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle is well underway. Since last autumn, it has been almost completely hidden by scaffolding; to a passerby, it might have looked as if the blocks were being built rather than being taken down. But now that any asbestos and all the fixtures and fittings have been removed, cranes are removing the concrete panels from the block nearest the Walworth Road. It’s an unspectacular demolition, and a quiet one. There won’t be a specific moment of explosive collapse; the 1974 structure will just be gone by the end of the year.
J. Robert Lennon on Russell Edson
Russell Edson, who died this week, wouldn’t have minded if you hadn’t heard of him. A self-described hermit, he was content to hoe his row outside the public eye and prevailing literary taste, ‘just happy to be writing’, as he told Mark Tursi in 2004. Best known as a prose poet, Edson also wrote plays and novels, and often illustrated his own work. But he came to my attention, in the early 1990s, via a cassette tape: a friend’s copy of A Performance at Hog Theatre, a recording of a 1979 public reading in Amherst, MA. In his precise, wry baritone, Edson recites a few dozen poems to a small, attentive audience, playing against the crowd’s uncertainty: is this poem funny? Or is it serious? Should we laugh? (They should, and do.)
Were 276 girls abducted from a government secondary school in the town of Chibok in north-eastern Nigeria on 14 April? That anyone could ask the question, as the president’s wife allegedly did last weekend, says much about the mess we’re in. It took the president more than two weeks to call a press conference to tell the world: ‘I don’t know where they are… there is no confirmation of the location of the schoolgirls, you are a journalist, you know more than me.’ We are still none the wiser, even as Western powers descend on the country to help find them. We are not even sure of the numbers involved, which have fluctuated between 200 and 300; but the story seems to have finally woken everybody up – both in Nigeria and abroad.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognises that climate change is a moral problem or, to use its cautious language, it ‘raises ethical issues’. The authors of the IPCC’s recent Fifth Assessment Report therefore included two moral philosophers. I am one of them. I have been a member of the IPCC’s Working Group 3 since 2011. The writing process was exhaustive and exhausting. Our report went through three full drafts before the final version. Each was sent out for comments to very large numbers of people, including academic experts and representatives of governments. We were required to take note of every comment, and to record what we had done about it. I dealt with about 600 comments in this way; Working Group 3 as a whole dealt with 38,000. The aim was to produce the broadest possible consensus, reporting on the state of knowledge about climate change. I think we did that. It inevitably meant we had to be conservative in our judgments. The outcome is a 2000-page report, which has already been published on the internet. Because no one will read a report of that size, our efforts in the last few months have gone into writing two summaries. A subgroup of authors from Working Group 3 hammered them out over the last eight months. The fuller and more reliable one is the Technical Summary. The name puts people off reading it, but actually it is not particularly technical. It is simply a summary of the main report. The shorter, 30-page précis known as the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) attracts more attention but is subject to political influence.
A while ago I bought an invisible book. Or at least I think I did. It’s hard to tell. I certainly got a confirmation email from its author and creator, the artist Elisabeth Tonnard, advising me that it had been sent and acknowledging my payment of €0. This seems like a shrewd investment: my book is one of a limited edition of 100 (neither signed nor numbered) and, as Tonnard’s website says, it is ‘a product without a single fault, available at the lowest price possible’. To make the transaction a little more concrete I also ordered the set of (visible) postcards accompanying the work. Highlights in the History of ‘The Invisible Book’ includes pictures of the book’s early underwater testing in the Galapagos Islands, its acclaimed 1962 exhibition at the New York Public Library, and the undisclosed facility where the original manuscript has been kept since the 1870s, although ‘some say it is no longer there’.
This year's snooker World Championship final, which ended last night, was in its way a classic, despite there being no black-ball finish in the small hours. It was between the game’s most brilliant but volatile player, Ronnie O’Sullivan, and its most imperturbable strategist, Mark Selby, who put on a remarkable display of defensive ensnarement. Few people beforehand gave Selby much chance: when O’Sullivan’s head is together, as it has been recently, he is virtually unstoppable, particularly in a long match. (He had won all five of his previous world finals.) And at first, it seemed as if he would run away with this one, as Selby, looking jaded after a gruelling semi-final against Neil Robertson, struggled to find his game.
Sometimes the right play, or novel, or poem, comes along at exactly the right moment. Michael Longley’s ‘Ceasefire’, published within days of the IRA’s 1994 ‘complete cessation of military operations’, springs to mind: ‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done/And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’ Quietly by Owen McCafferty, which has been playing for the past week in the Abbey Theatre, ahead of a month at London’s Soho Theatre, is a revival (it was first performed in Edinburgh in 2010), but it had never until last month been staged in McCafferty’s native Belfast, where it was received by audiences almost as a new play.
Why isn't there just zilch? It would have saved everyone a lot of bother, and you wonder why it never occurred to the Almighty. Creative artists, whose calling is to negate nothing by making something, can prove strangely drawn to inexistence – their own, if not the world’s in general. W.H. Auden found T.S. Eliot playing patience once, and asked him why he liked the game. Eliot said: 'Well, I suppose it's the nearest thing to being dead.' Painting seems to have done much the same for Francisco de Zurbarán, the subject of a major exhibition at the Bozar centre in Brussels until 25 May.
It is fascinating to find as spokesman for Ukip a Leopold David Verney, 21st Baron Willoughby de Broke (creation 1491). His grandfather, the 19th baron, Richard Greville Verney, also held vivid views. He talked of 'fighting Irish Home Rule to a finish' if it couldn't be done in a general election. In a letter of 1913 to the Duke of Bedford, who favoured military training for the upper and upper-midddle classes, he wrote: 'I don't think it would be prudent of me to speak in favour of arming the classes against the masses. I am strongly in favour of so doing, I quite admit.'