The death toll from the earthquake that struck on 19 September has reached 338, with 199 in Mexico City, while more than 100 perished in the quake on 7 September in Chiapas and Oaxaca. Around 150,000 dwellings were damaged, including 57,000 that were totally destroyed. 250,000 people lost their homes. The federal government puts the amount needed to build or repair affected housing at 16 billion pesos, the equivalent of £660 million. It will cost more than 13 billion pesos to repair 12,932 damaged schools; 577 are a total loss. Around 1500 historic monuments have been damaged, mostly churches, convents and museums, and 8 billion pesos will be required for their repair. The government is appealing to the business community for funds. On Wednesday afternoon, I went to the site of the collapsed four-storey building at 168 Bolívar Street, on the corner of Chimalpopoca.
In 1977, at the age of 51, Hugh Hefner endured an existential crisis when he found himself choking on a metal Ben Wa ball, one of a pair that had been in his girlfriend Sondra Theodore’s vagina in order ‘to enhance her physical sensations’. The ruler of the then considerable Playboy empire ‘fell back on the bed, choking and unable to breathe, and was about to lose consciousness when she squeezed his chest and finally dislodged the sphere’. (I’m quoting from Steven Watts’s 2008 biography, Mr Playboy.) ‘Is this what it has all come to?’ Hefner later wondered aloud. Then: ‘What will all the newspaper headlines in the world say tomorrow morning?’ Finally, regaining his composure, he asked: ‘Are we getting this on videotape?’
It is a political cliché that tails sometimes wag dogs. The metaphor isn’t instantly decipherable though. Politics has no shortage of figurative fauna – from snakes in the grass and stalking horses to big beasts and dinosaurs – but a wagged dog is more complex than it sounds.
In Michel Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things (2014), a Christian missionary called Peter travels to a faraway planet called Oasis to spread the word of god to an earnest population of alien beings. While away, he receives emails from his wife, Bea, at home in the UK. As Peter feels increasingly settled in Oasis, Bea’s news from home takes a turn for the uncanny and ultimately terrifying. Britain and the Earth are in trouble: her messages lists a series of natural calamities across the globe, from freak weather to volcanic eruptions, to the complete disappearance of the Maldives into the Indian Ocean. ‘Stay where you are,’ Bea writes in her last message. I was forcefully reminded of Faber’s novel by recent events in Mexico and the Caribbean. The images coming out of Puerto Rico, where I was born and where my mother still lives, show an island that, more often than not beset by drought, is now drowning and on its knees. I want to go back, but I can’t go back, not while flights are cancelled and there is an indefinite curfew in place.
Homero Aridjis · Earthquakes in Mexico
On Tuesday 19 September, the 32nd anniversary of the magnitude 8 earthquake that levelled large parts of Mexico City in 1985, an earthquake of magnitude 7.1 hit the city and neighbouring states. In 1985 the epicentre was off the Pacific coast, and the death toll reached at least 10,000. When that one set our house rocking back and forth at 7.17 a.m., my wife Betty and I were about to send our daughters to school. They boarded the bus and we turned on the television. For the next three days we witnessed the havoc at collapsed hospitals, hotels, and residential and office buildings. This time I was crossing Chapultepec Park, on my way to pick Betty up from the ABC Hospital. At 1.14 p.m., two hours after a planned earthquake drill and 12 days after a quake in Chiapas and Oaxaca killed at least 98 people, my taxi suddenly halted and began moving to and fro on the undulating road, while trees swayed towards and away from me. At the hospital, staff and patients were hugging the walls.
Weeding in the garden of my ex-council bungalow this summer, I came across a young dandelion. It poked up next to the arthritic rose planted by the previous tenant, a Greek Cypriot woman who lived here for 16 years until her death. Her son visited us when we moved in and told us about the barbecues they had in the garden and the dolmades his mother made from the vine she grew here. After she died, he cut it back, but stopped short of digging it out, unsure whether the strangers moving in would want it. We did.
'People are like boats, we head off for a place we've been longing to visit for ages,' says a character in 'Pirate Rum', a short story by Tove Jansson. 'Maybe an island. Finally we get there. And what happens? We go right past, further out.' Having set off in a canoe, the man gets caught in a storm and is sheltered by two women living on a secluded island.
According to US asylum law, women who have crossed the southern border and want to stay in the United States must prove ‘credible fear’ in an interview with an asylum officer. At the South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest detention facility in the US, I talked to thirty women about why they’d risked the perilous journey north. The word ‘credible’, it soon became clear, was mostly redundant.
Ten years ago, Tewkesbury Abbey was surrounded by muddy brown flood waters. Following the wettest June on record, in which tens of thousands of buildings were flooded, from Scotland to the Midlands, an extreme weather event hit the Cotswolds on 20 July 2007. The region was already saturated, drains were overflowing and run-offs ineffective. At the confluence of the rivers Severn and Avon, Tewkesbury was swamped. Within hours it was completely cut off. The flood waters breached the Mythe waterworks, depriving 350,000 people of running water.
Margot Hielscher, the German TV actress and Eurovision star, died on 20 August, aged 97. A singer and general forces’ sweetheart during the Second World War, she was also probably the last surviving woman to have had an affair with Goebbels. She had been working in the film studio at Babelsberg as a costume designer when she caught the propaganda minister’s eye. Her first role was as a handmaid to Mary Queen of Scots in the anti-English Das Herz der Königin (‘The Queen’s Heart’, 1940); she went on to star in Frauen sind Keine Engel ('Women are no Angels', 1943), singing the title song which became her signature tune. She was still a large-eyed, striking and very well-preserved brunette when I interviewed her in the early 1990s.
The Commons vote on Tuesday night to give the Tories majorities on all the committees that are supposed to scrutinise legislation, including Brexit legislation, despite their not having a majority of seats in the Commons, has been described by the shadow leader of the house as a ‘power grab’. It’s also deeply unconstitutional. Britain is a parliamentary democracy, which expresses and enacts the ‘will of the people’, but only once that will has been scrutinised, debated and tested over a (fairly short) period of time. The idea that the ‘will of the people’ as expressed on a single day in June 2016 should be set in stone, never to be amended, runs against the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy.
Old Florida hands (and there are some, even in this new, garish, flattest and most rootless of states) measure out their lives in hurricane names. They remember particular angles of attack, depths of flooding, wind velocities and force measurements, destructiveness in dollar amounts. I can see objects being pushed illustratively around a bar-room table. It’s a form of higher geekishness, each man (and of course they’re usually men) his own survivalist. It’s one of those occasional bits of Floridiana that remind me that people were never actually meant to live here, and that being here converts you into a leathery, eccentric kind of specialist, something like the ‘old sailor,/Drunk and asleep in his boots’ of Stevens’s poem, who ‘Catches tigers/In red weather’.
At least three prominent Saudi clerics, Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Umari, have been arrested in the last few days. They are not part of the state-backed clerical establishment. Saudi Arabia has always had problems with clerics whose loyalties are not to the royal family, going back to the revolt of the Ikhwan which was ruthlessly suppressed by Ibn Saud in 1929. Nowadays the problem has a new dimension: large online followings. Nearly 60 per cent of the Saudi population are said to be active on social media; al-Awda has more than 14 million followers on Twitter. Le Monde describes him as a defender of individual liberty and one of the most popular challengers of authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia.
Late one night in January 2005, I stood, freezing, in a car park on an industrial estate in Darmstadt, outside the European Space Operations Centre. The sky was beautifully clear, allowing the smattering of amateur astronomers present to point their telescopes at Saturn. A quick glance through a relatively modest instrument shows the orange disk of the planet, its system of rings and, visible as a point of light to one side, its largest moon, Titan.
Last Thursday, three dozen immigrant students gathered for an emergency meeting at Hunter College, a public university on the east side of Manhattan. The mood was grim: two days earlier, in furtherance of his ‘America first’ agenda, President Trump had announced the termination of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme. Daca had given some 800,000 undocumented Americans – including hundreds of Hunter College students – the right to work and temporary protection from deportation. But it was created, in 2012, by presidential fiat, not through legislation, and so fell short of granting permanent residency or citizenship. ‘It made no sense,’ as Obama explained in response to Trump’s repeal, ‘to expel talented, driven, patriotic young people from the only country they know.’
In the mid-20th century, poliovirus paralysed half a million children a year, in rich countries as well as poor. In 1952 there were 57,628 cases in the United States. Following the development of vaccines by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, polio declined markedly in North America and Europe. The US had its last case in 1979, the UK in 1982. There were still, however, about 350,000 cases a year in the mid-1980s, predominantly in countries where the state did not have the money or capacity to implement mass vaccination programmes. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was formed in 1988 by the WHO and national governments to finance and organise immunisation campaigns. It precipitated a sharp reduction in polio: there were 37 cases in the world in 2016, a fall of 99.9 per cent. But the disease stubbornly persists in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I went to the Norwegian Embassy in Belgravia yesterday to cast my absentee ballot in next week’s parliamentary election. Along with my fellow countrymen and women, pasty and sweating in the direct sunlight, I queued silently for the makeshift voting room, next to the bins.
Monte Testaccio is a hundred-foot high, kilometre-round pile of broken potsherds. The great mound of ceramic refuse, started in the first century BCE, was added to daily over the following four centuries. Co-existent with the Roman Empire, it grew into a mass whose sheer bulk and consistency could not be reduced. Unlike the empire, it did not fall. Pottery is an especially obdurate artefact, but every single piece of pottery in Monte Testaccio is of a particular sort: each fragment is a sherd of broken oil amphora.
'Part of John Ashbery’s charm,' Mark Ford wrote in the LRB in 1989, 'is his self-deprecating uncertainty about the whole business: "Some certified nut/Will try to tell you it’s poetry."’ The LRB published more than fifty poems by him, the first of them in 1995 (a late start for us, nearly forty years after his first collection and twenty after Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror).
Ten million people in South Korea, one-fifth of the population, have watched Jang Hoon’s movie A Taxi Driver (Taeksi Woonjunsa) since it was released on 2 August. When I went to see it in Times Square, there were seven of us in the audience. The film is set in May 1980, during the mass democratic uprising – and ensuing military crackdown – in the southwestern city of Gwangju. A German reporter, Jürgen Hinzpeter, was one of the few foreign journalists to witness the events. In the movie, Song Kang-ho plays a cabbie who drives Hinzpeter (played by Thomas Kretschmann) the two hundred miles from Seoul to Gwangju. The story is real, though greased with sentimentality as well as the bbong jjak pop music and fashions of the era.