For several days now, the Seine has been drawing a crowd. The international press, tourists and Parisians have come to look at the river because it is uncharacteristically high. Before I had seen it myself, I assumed the reason for all the curiosity was novelty. We’ve been told that the chances of the river breaking its banks are extremely low, but Paris can so easily be mistaken for a city frozen in time that changes in its landscape, even temporary ones, ask to be witnessed. Setting eyes on the engorged river, though, mud brown and churning viciously around the bare branches of its towpath trees, stirred in me an unease I had not expected: that one day, though probably not today, the Seine may begin rising like this, and not stop. And it reminded me that Parisians have long harboured a fear of their city ending up underwater.
Y Combinator, a San Francisco-based ‘seed accelerator’ for start-up companies, is working on a pilot for unconditional basic income. The project’s research director told Quartz magazine it will explore ‘alternatives to the existing social safety net’ in a world in which robots take our jobs. They say subsistence grants dished out by corporate solutionists offer the answer. The Finnish government is halfway through a two-year trial, giving 2000 unemployed people €560 a month, with no obligation for them to look for work (or turn it down). Supporters of unconditional basic income include Mark Zuckerberg, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bernie Sanders.
The IRA bomb that went off in the Grand Hotel, Brighton in the early hours of 12 October 1984 blew half the building to bits, killed five Tory high-ups, including an MP, and seriously injured 34 others. The security forces really should have sniffed it out before Margaret Thatcher and most of her Cabinet moved in. It had been set up, with a timer, several days in advance. As an assassination attempt directed against Thatcher, however, it failed, having been placed in the wrong room. ‘The cry went up: “Maggie’s safe!”’ Jonathan Aitken remembered afterwards. ‘Such was the relief that strangers shook hands, and clasped each other’s shoulders.’ (How ‘British’! No hugging or kissing!) It also failed as an act of terrorism. Terrorism is supposed to terrify. The Brighton bomb didn’t. If anything, it had the opposite effect.
On 9 January, Le Monde published an open letter from a hundred women calling for a reconsideration of the ‘excessive’ #MeToo campaign. Among the signatories were writers, editors, translators, academics, gynaecologists, psychotherapists, artists, filmmakers, actors, critics, journalists, photographers and radio hosts. The broadside, drafted by five writers and journalists including Catherine Millet and Catherine Robbe-Grillet, argued that the campaign, though ‘legitimate’ in its calling out of sexual violence in the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, had escalated into policing the relationships between men and women in a way that was detrimental to sexual freedom.
Donald Trump’s tone may be unprecedented in American politics, but his policies aren’t. Barack Obama restricted the movement of citizens from the seven Muslim countries that ended up on Trump’s travel ban list. The wall that Trump wants to build along the Mexican border is an extension of Bill Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper. Trump’s rampaging deportation machine was bequeathed to him by previous administrations, including Obama’s. And Trump is hardly America’s first racist president. Even his ‘shithole countries’ comment is not new.
On his doctor's advice, Robert Louis Stevenson spent two winters in Davos. He finished Treasure Island there, but didn't like the place:
'Shut in a kind of damned Hotel,/Discountenanced by God and man; /The food? – Sir, you would do as well/ To fill your belly full of bran./The company? Alas the day/That I should toil with such a crew,/With devil anything to say,/Nor anyone to say it to.' 'So,' according to E.S. Turner, 'RLS took to tobogganing, alone and at night, which he found strangely exalting.'
Until very recently, most of us hadn’t heard of Carillion. Not having heard of a particular company wouldn’t usually be surprising or unsettling. But this is more like not having heard of the people who have been making alterations to your house, building your neighbour’s and – in an odd display of versatility – delivering lunches to your children. Because it turns out that Carillion is – or was, until its sudden but entirely predictable liquidation on Monday – pretty much everywhere. As a result, several projects, including the building of two hospitals, a high-speed railway and a bypass in Aberdeen, now hang in the balance, along with the jobs of around 20,000 UK workers.
All the frocks at the Golden Globe Awards this year were black, bar three. The unofficial dress code was to publicise Time's Up, a new organisation campaigning against sexual harassment, workplace discrimination and the gender pay gap. Its founders are a mix of A-listers from film and TV, and A-listers from politics and law (including Christina Tchen, Michelle Obama's former chief of staff, and Roberta Kaplan, who brought Edie Windsor's case to the Supreme Court and thereby the Defence of Marriage Act to an end). The red-carpet blackout was a spectacle. Time’s Up’s muscle is a crowd-sourced legal defence fund to support working-class women pursuing harassment cases. The money isn't only for lawyers. Recipients will get help with filing fees, travel, and the other hidden expenses that keep poor women from seeking justice in the courts. After three weeks, the pot is $16.5 million.
I first met Omid (not his real name) 15 years ago, when I was conducting field research on Muslim migration. He was born in eastern Tehran in 1973, during the final years of the monarchy. He was a child when his neighbours joined the revolution against the Shah. Ayatollah Khomeini called it a revolt of the ‘barefoot’ masses for bread, freedom and an Islamic Republic, but the bread and freedom didn’t come to Omid’s neighbourhood.
Just before Christmas, President Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law. The name of the bill begins with a truth and ends in a lie: there are indeed tax cuts – regressive ones, for large corporations and the super-rich – but there are no jobs. The law will put the country $1.5 trillion in the red over the next decade, despite drastic cuts to social services.
The single-lane road cuts through an almost empty grassland plateau. Every so often there are signs warning drivers not to wander, at risk of death from unexploded bombs. A burned-out tank punctuates the horizon, its gun raised in salute. The road continues like this for a good twenty minutes before reaching a small car park outside a village church. On the morning of New Year’s Day the car park was almost full. People were getting out of their cars and making their way up the hill to the church: families with children and elderly relatives, a dog-walker in a camouflage anorak, a young couple in quilted jackets and Union Jack wellies.
The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman found last month that Averil Hart, who had anorexia nervosa and died in December 2012, was failed by ‘every NHS organisation that should have cared for her’. ‘Sadly these failures, and her family’s subsequent fight to get answers,’ the PHSO report says, ‘are not unique.’ In October 2009 I went to see my GP to ask for help with my anorexia.
Before she was a royal-in-waiting, Meghan Markle said on a television talk show that she might move to Canada rather than live in a country governed by a misogynist like Donald Trump. Prince Harry recently interviewed Barack Obama on the Today programme, giving the former president several opportunities to cast shade on his successor. The Sun quoted a senior UK government source saying that the royal couple want the Obamas at their wedding.
The King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships took place in Riyadh at the end of December. They got more publicity than chess competitions often do, but most of it was bad publicity, mostly because the Saudi government had refused to issue visas to competitors from three countries with which it doesn’t have diplomatic relations: Qatar, Iran and Israel. This would appear to be in conflict with the statutes of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), which say that ‘FIDE events may be hosted only by federations where free access is generally assured to representatives of all federations.’
On 13 December, the New York Times published an article on the scrubbing of Kevin Spacey’s performance as J. Paul Getty from final prints of the film All the Money in the World. A fast reshoot had slotted Christopher Plummer into every scene that included Spacey; the dazzled reporter, Brooks Barnes, paid homage to the genius and alacrity of the director, Ridley Scott; and they called it in the print edition ‘Daring Act to Save Face’ – a sort of sick pun, and the matter is not so cute when you think about it. Scott was prompted by his recognition that the accusations against Spacey, from unwanted touch to groping to rape – which may turn out to be true, false or exaggerated, in unknown combinations – would damage the box-office take of All the Money in the World. Accordingly, he reworked the film against his original vision, in order to guard against a boycott. The boycott, however, was only speculative; the expunging and substitution were real.
The unrest in Iran is in several ways unprecedented. Until last week, all the nationwide protests since the revolution either began in Tehran before spreading to other cities, or erupted simultaneously in Tehran and elsewhere. Events in the capital were the driving force in political upheavals. This time, however, people in small towns took to the streets before Tehranis. The front lines are far from the capital, university hubs and other sites of political or economic power. The protests were started by the most marginalised Iranians.
It was announced this week that Toby Young will serve on the board of the newly formed Office for Students (OfS), the body that is to help regulate the higher education 'market' in England. Critics have been quick to point out Young's unsuitability for the post. A prominent champion of free schools, Young has little to no experience of the university sector. He does, however, have a record of sneering at the kind of 'ghastly inclusivity' that leads to wheelchair ramps in schools. Ideal, then. But Young's unsuitability for the post is beside the point.