Arianne Shahvisi

20 March 2024

Devil Terms

Even the most effective tools get blunt through overwork, and parliamentary transcripts document the rise in recent years of terrorism’s slyer and more versatile cousin, ‘extremism’. (The act of defining undercuts the term: extremism is all that is not moderate, while the government gets to define moderation.)

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12 September 2023

Liable to Collapse

My grandfather worked as a school building inspector from the 1950s to the 1980s. Farajollah Shahvisi travelled the perilous, slow-going roads that ribbon around the jagged, scrub-tufted peaks of Iranian Kurdistan, visiting schools with keeling walls and dripping roofs. There was a lot of theft. Builders would make off with government-issue cement, stuff gaps with debris and let bricks sit loose. A fault-finder by nature, my grandfather would close down schools and report cowboy developers, who’d be ordered to rebuild for free.

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1 September 2023


The conceptual if not the literal ancestors of most of Britain’s chickens were smuggled into the country disguised as Easter eggs. Their bootlegger was Antony Fisher, a former RAF pilot who had been advised by Friedrich Hayek to make his mark not by getting into politics but by nudging public opinion from the helm of a research institute. Fisher went in search of funds. On a trip to the US, he saw fifteen thousand supersized chickens packed into a single poultry house. He wrapped two dozen fertilised eggs in foil and stashed them in his hand luggage for the return trip.

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22 June 2022

Orwell’s Teeth

‘The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth,’ George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air begins. Two paragraphs later, we learn that the narrator is forty-five years old. In 1984, Winston is surprised at Julia’s advances: ‘I’m thirty-nine years old. I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of. I’ve got varicose veins. I’ve got false teeth.’ And in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, an even younger Gordon Comstock glumly evaluates his life: ‘thirty years old, with twenty-six teeth left; with no money and no job; in borrowed pyjamas in a borrowed bed; with nothing before him except cadging and destitution, and nothing behind him except squalid fooleries.’ It’s not so much an oral fixation as a sign of the times. Teeth were hard to keep, especially if you were poor. In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell reads the teeth of working-class people in the industrial north.

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14 April 2022

The Vice of Vices

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have apologised, but the transgression is so layered that it’s unclear what exactly they claim to be sorry for. Some critics have focused on the importance of the ‘rule of law’, but the law is a poor proxy for morality. (Saving a drowning asylum seeker is, on any reasonable account, the right thing to do, but Johnson’s government recently made it illegal.) Breaking lockdown rules was immoral because there were real risks that doing so could spread the virus, causing illness, death and strain on the health service. High profile violations could undermine future public health measures whose efficacy hinges on widespread compliance. And Johnson has for months firmly and repeatedly denied any knowledge of the parties.  

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21 March 2022

Don’t call the police

Those of us who sometimes imagine the freedom of being fifteen again have forgotten that being fifteen means going around in a body you hate: a body that seems misshapen, that people might laugh at; a body that smells, sometimes; that sprouts unwanted hair. Even worse if it’s a body that menstruates, cramping and gushing and threatening to leave mortifying stains on upholstery. Worse still if it’s a racialised body, distant from white ideals of beauty, more vulnerable to slurs and violence, less liable to be protected from harm.

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18 February 2022

Heat Illusions

According to her daughter, Ève Curie, when the young Maria Skłodowska was a student in Paris in the 1890s she was often so cold in her garret room that she’d put her wooden chair on top of her blanket as she tried to sleep to give herself ‘some sort of illusion of weight and heat’. Reading of Marie Curie’s austere beginnings made me feel better about growing up in a house that was always cold.

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17 January 2022

Beautiful Handwriting

Those who wish to defend statues of dead white men on free speech grounds invariably undermine their case by failing to support that right for living people, especially those with marginal identities who say things they don’t like. Free speech isn’t just about who can speak, or whose statue stands or falls; it’s about who chooses not to speak because the consequences aren’t worth it, and who disappears from history without being heard at all.

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11 January 2022

Double Fault

Ever the opportunist, Nigel Farage has become Novak Djokovic’s most vocal advocate. On the face of it, this is a little peculiar. Farage is not only a professed devotee of Australia’s immigration policy, in particular ‘its points-based system’, but has built his political identity out of racialising and vilifying Eastern Europeans. Ahead of Farage’s meeting with the Djokovic family in Serbia (who either did no research on Novak’s ‘friend’ or liked what they found), Andy Murray tweeted: ‘Please record the awkward moment when you tell them you’ve spent most of your career campaigning to have people from Eastern Europe deported.’ But Farage’s worldview is one of hierarchies and exemptions. He cites the ‘rule of law’ when it comes to borders, but flouted the Covid lockdown in May 2020 – as it happens, on the same day as the Downing Street garden party – to strike out into the English Channel on a fishing boat and film dinghies of asylum seekers.

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9 December 2021

Deck the Halls

Boris Johnson has denied that the party took place, but hasn’t bothered to provide an alibi for the evening in question, so it looks likely that when firmer evidence emerges (as it surely will), he’ll frame it as a different kind of gathering. Probably not a ‘business meeting’, because Allegra Stratton has already chortled over that fib in the leaked clip, but some other euphemism. Like most antisocial behaviours, lying tends to be self-limiting: people who lie can’t cause harm for long because they lose credibility, and lying only works if people are inclined to believe you. But as with most things, Johnson is an exception to the rule. He lies effortlessly, without any apparent cognitive dissonance or regard for plausibility, and with little effect on his credibility or popularity.

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