More than once during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool I witnessed cheers and thumbs up from delegates at the sight of black cabs plastered with banners saying ‘The Sun: Not Welcome In Our City’, and it struck me that what is normal here is not elsewhere.
In Moria camp on Lesvos, 9000 people are trying to live in a space built for less than 2000. Children as young as ten are reported as suicidal. Sitting outside a cafe in Mytilene, UK Border Agency sailors seconded to Europe’s Frontex force drink frappés and talk about football, about a message to a girl back home that she has received but not replied to. In Athens, I had been told by someone recently returned from holiday on Lesvos that the arrival of the Royal Navy had suppressed the trafficker routes from Turkey, allowing the tourist island to return to a kind of normalcy. But the border officers – working two weeks on, two off – tell a different story: ‘Some nights it’s quiet, then there’ll be two, three rescues.’ I asked how long they’ve been stationed here: ‘Too long.’
Valeria Costa-Kostritsky · In Abkhazia
Most countries in the world consider the breakaway republic of Abkhazia still to be part of Georgia. It has been recognised only by Russia (in 2008), Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and – since May 2018 – Syria. According to the Abkhazian authorities, on 8 September, at around 11 p.m., Gennady Gagulia, the 70-year-old de facto prime minister, died in a car accident on the road between Psou, on the Russia border, and the capital, Sukhumi. He was returning from a meeting with Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, where they had signed a treaty of friendship and co-operation. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) announced that a 22-year-old man had crashed into Gagulia’s car. He was arrested; drugs were at first said to have been detected in his blood, but the prosecutor has since contradicted those reports.
‘Scoutcraft,’ Robert Baden-Powell said, ‘is a means through which the veriest hooligan can be brought to ... God.’ It was in a similar spirit that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport last week gave £5 million to uniformed youth groups to create 5500 extra places in deprived areas across England. It won’t offset the projected £2 billion shortfall in children’s services by 2020. But the minister for sport and civil society, Tracey Crouch, says the money will equip ‘vulnerable young people’ with the ‘friendships’ and ‘important life skills’ they need to ‘reach their full potential’.
The Republic of Nauru, which hosted the Pacific Islands Forum earlier this month, is the third smallest state in the world by area (about 21 km2) and second smallest by population (about 11,000). It celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence this year. Under Australian administration from 1920 to 1968, the British Phosphate Commission mined Nauruan phosphate in brutal disregard for the island’s environmental and economic sustainability, delivering cut price phosphate to Australian farmers and paying grossly undervalued royalties to Nauruan landowners. The Australian government’s position was that on the exhaustion of the island’s phosphate reserves, the Nauruan people should up and leave and resettle on Curtis Island in Queensland.
Since the Republican primaries of 2015-16, some people have turned to psychiatry in an effort to locate the irrational wellsprings of Trump’s victory, but so far little progress has been made. This is because most of the effort has gone into analysing Trump, who is often described as suffering from ‘narcissistic personality disorder’. Not only are such diagnoses, made from a distance, implausible; they also fail to address a more important question: the nature of Trump’s appeal. Constituting something close to a third of the electorate, his followers form an intensely loyal and, psychologically, tight-knit band. They are impervious to liberal or progressive criticisms of Trump or his policies. On the contrary, their loyalty thrives on anti-Trump arguments, and digs in deeper. There is an older body of psychological thought, however, that illuminates the kind of tight bond Trump has forged with a significant minority of Americans.
Last week Emmanuel Macron issued a declaration acknowledging the role of the French military in the murder of a pro-independence activist in Algeria sixty years ago. The lead story in France should have been Macron's plan to break the chain of hereditary poverty with an additional €8.5 billion for children destined for a life of hardship bordering on misery. Arguments about the sums (insufficient) and the targeting (contentious) were quickly relegated to the sidebar as editors took the measure of Macron's conscientious, damning remarks on torture and disappearance during the Algerian war, a period that still clouds French sensitivities on inward migration, secular dress codes and acts of violence committed by radical Islamists.
Fascism in fiction has been in vogue for a while now: the television versions of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man in the High Castle, Penguin’s republication (on the day of Trump’s inauguration) of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, people scurrying to the bookshelves to note all the pre-echoes of Steve Bannon’s politics in Philip Roth’s The Plot against America. I don’t know what emotional need these might-have-beens and could-it-yet-bes serve, unless it’s a version of ferreting around in Nostradamus for strings of words that might be contorted into a prediction of something that’s just happened: things feel more manageable when you can tell yourself that someone saw this coming.
Last November, the prison inspectorate agreed an urgent notification protocol with the government. When a prison is found to be in dire straits, the inspectorate can issue a letter to the secretary of state demanding action. The minister has 28 days to respond outlining an improvement plan. Both the notification and the response are automatically put in the public domain. The protocol has been invoked three times, most recently for HMP Birmingham, run by the private contractor G4S.
Last Thursday night there was a 21st-anniversary re-enactment of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Shortly after 6.30 p.m., a crowd – the Daily Mail estimated 160 – gathered under a bridge in Salford, some carrying flowers, most dressed in black. A Daily Star article the week before, and another that afternoon – ‘Fury as “sickos” prepare to “EXORCISE” Princess Diana in “funeral 2.0” TONIGHT’ – may have helped publicise the event. The editor of Royal Central (‘the latest news on the royals of Europe’) was said by the Star to have ‘raged’ that ‘the production will also be casting people to play living people, including Diana’s brother Earl Spencer … No doubt when William, Harry and Diana’s closest family find out about this production, they will be disgusted.’
In 1983, Richard Tan, a research officer at Singapore’s Ministry of Defence, was captivated by the Last Night of the Proms on television. ‘It was quite a joyful time,’ he remembers, ‘the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and all the audience, the young audience, with their flags and banners.’ Three years later, Tan was made deputy director of the newly formed Psychological Defence Division at the Ministry of Communications and Information. Singapore’s political leadership was concerned that the nation’s economic success was breeding an unhealthy ‘Western’ individualism. Tan thought the Last Night of the Proms might offer a model of how to use music to help bring about a greater sense of national belonging. ‘If I want to reach the heart,’ he told himself, ‘I have to follow the British.’
Matthew Porges · Landmines in the Sahara
Daha Bulahi, sixtyish, is a Sahrawi, born into a nomadic family in the northwestern Sahara. One of his eyes is fake, the eyelid mangled, and he’s missing a couple of fingers. None of this prevents him from brewing tea, which he did throughout our interview in the Sahrawi way, aerating the tea by pouring it from glass to glass and accumulating bubbles on the surface. He worked in landmine clearance for several years, and Yago, a Spanish demining technician who was working with him, told me the story of Daha’s mutilation. Lacking sophisticated equipment, he would dig underneath each mine and pick it up from below with his bare hands, avoiding the pressure-plate triggering mechanism on the top. Then he would throw it over his shoulder, letting it explode, and move onto the next one. This is about as safe as it sounds. He had cleared a vast number of mines successfully, but one day a mine exploded as he threw it, spraying him with shrapnel. Daha’s survival strained the bounds of credulity, but there he was, brewing tea with what was left of his hand.
Linda Holt · Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond has launched a judicial review of the Scottish government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against him. The first few days after the news broke were marked by a curious reticence on the part of both the commentariat and the political establishment in Scotland. We can speculate as to the causes, although I think both shock that a colossus such as Salmond could be struck down by the #MeToo movement, and a complete lack of surprise about what insiders whispered was ‘an open secret’, played their paradoxical parts. Doubtless there was also a sense of ‘there but for the grace of God’ for some people; and for the other political parties, a fear that #MeToo might open the door on their own skeletons. One party even told some of its councillors to refrain from commenting on the allegations on social media because Salmond was so litigious.
In 1979, as he celebrated a Youth Mass at Ballybrit Racecourse, Co. Galway, Pope John Paul II told the young people of Ireland that he loved them. It was a significant moment, and, for a time, it emboldened an authoritarian Irish Catholic Church. It was also the beginning of the end.