One of the routine questions asked of detainees at police stations is: ‘Are you fit and well?’ It has acquired new force in recent weeks. A homeless man I interpreted for a few days ago said he was, though he looked exhausted. He had recently been placed in a hotel in central London as part of an initiative reminiscent of O. Henry’s ‘Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen’, a story about the perils of ‘the yearly hunger which, as the philanthropists seem to think, afflicts the poor at such extended intervals’.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the maker of Big Ben and the Liberty Bell, was established in 1570. In 2017 it closed its premises on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Plumbers Row, where it had been since the mid-1740s. The site was bought by Raycliff, an American private investment group, whose other assets include a stake in the hotel chain Soho House. Raycliff wants to convert the Whitechapel site – the original Grade II*-listed building and a number of later extensions – into a ‘boutique hotel’ with a roof pool, some shared workspace and a café with a small workshop tucked into a corner.
The entrance to the White Hotel, decorated with barbed wire, Union Jack bunting and toilet paper, resembled a border checkpoint. To get in you had to fill in a landing card. The guards were dressed in coveralls, anti-pollution masks and flak jackets with Sooty and Sweep puppets peeking out. We were separated into two quarantine pens. (‘It’s just as well,’ one man said as his companion was led away.) After about an hour the pens were opened and we were ushered into another waiting area. At last a whistle blew. A Morrissey lookalike appeared and sang ‘Everyday is like Sunday’.
Sergei Loznitsa’s film The Trial is composed from the original footage of one the first Stalinist show trials. The only additions are intertitles, which reveal at the end, for anyone who didn’t already know, that the ‘Industrial Party’ never existed. Some of the footage was used in a 1931 propaganda film directed by Yakov Poselsky (and, as Loznitsa joked in his introduction at the ICA, by Joseph Stalin). A team of investigators worked on producing the show trial for more than a year, drafting the script and coaching the actors. It isn’t clear if the public filling the hall are aware of their role: some listen to the proceedings intently, others fall asleep, some take notes, others shield their eyes when the lights are on them.
‘Why had we come to the moon?’ the narrator of H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901) asks. ‘The thing presented itself to me as a perplexing problem.’ The novel features in The Moon exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, alongside other books that anticipated the space age: Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Lucian of Samosata’s True Story, written in the second century AD. It begins with a ship blown to the moon by a whirlwind; a war between Phaethon and Endymion ensues, enabled by giant spiders. Aubrey Beardsley was one of the illustrators of an 1894 English edition.
The Tyburn Angling Society purports to have been established by a royal charter issued by King Edgar the Peaceable in 959 AD, though there are no records of its existing before the 21st century. The River Tyburn, culverted in 1750, still flows underground from Hampstead to Westminster. The society claims to want to ‘daylight’ the river, bringing it back up to the surface. It commissioned a map in the early 2000s showing the proposed course, which would cut a swathe through ‘£1 billion worth of property’. The buildings marked for demolition included Buckingham Palace and the offices of Westminster City Council, which promptly rejected the proposal.
‘Where the fuck is the government?’ posters on Waterloo Bridge said. A road sign at the northern end flashed: ‘Global warming at work.’
La Disparition, a lipogrammatic classic, turns 50 today. You probably know who it’s by; if not, you can look it up to find out why I’m unwilling to say who did it. From its first publication on 29 March 1969, this book built a cult following. It’s primarily famous for what’s missing from it, a basic but important thing that forms a part of words you can’t usually do without. Staying strictly within this tight constraint, it says what it wants to say about its protagonist, Anton Voyl, and his vanishing act – a conundrum for his companions – in a grippingly ludic, rigidly formulaic way.
The fantasy of a universal language is at least as old as the story of the Tower of Babel.
Anthony Burgess went to Leningrad in 1961. Reading his stories about the trip, it's hard to tell how good his Russian was. Sometimes he portrays himself as fluent: ‘In my best Russian I said to various Dostoevsky characters: “Where, comrade, is the nearest aptyeka?” They were all evidently healthy people, well-fed on Soviet food, for they did not know.’ At other times he admits that his ‘tiny bit of Russian had burst at the seams’. He gets names wrong, referring to a friend as ‘Sasha Ivanovich Kornilov’ (an unlikely combination) and later calling him ‘Alexei’. His wife's name, Llewela, is a challenge to transliterate into Cyrillic, unlike their surname, which he spells 'Uilson' (his full name was John Anthony Burgess Wilson). The title page of one of his Russian textbooks, kept in the archive of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation (IABF), is inscribed in an outdated orthography, not quite consistently: Иван Вiльсон.