‘If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author,’ William Godwin wrote in 1798 of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, ‘this appears to me to be the book.’ Mary’s aim was off: she was trying to get back an errant lover but ended up ensorcelling Godwin instead. Falling in love with someone through their writing is slow and delicious and sad, like sighing gently over the years at a screen actor, like, say, the guy whose cheekbones and tousle stare out at me from a postcard on my fridge door, and who now stares out from the back cover of A Bright Ray of Darkness, his new novel – Ethan Hawke.
At the start of the third lockdown, I wonder: what if lockdowns suit me? And I worry: shouldn’t it be easier now to understand what they do to my thoughts? Every day, I go out to walk under the bare trees and listen to one of the two albums Taylor Swift made last year: folklore, which came out in July, and evermore, which came out in December. (I’m not the only one: evermore is currently the number one album in the US, and number two in the UK.) The songs are a product of lockdown – Swift wrote them in the blank space that opened up when a tour had to be cancelled – but they are also of lockdown in the way they use a trace of the life before, a line like ‘meet me behind the mall,’ to conjure a world.
The bank windows had been smashed. On a surviving pane, held with a star of white masking tape, there was an image of a girl in a white T-shirt and jeans shouting ‘Rêve Générale’ into a loudhailer, a new interpretation of the old call for a ‘Grève Générale’. Instead of a general strike, or as well as one, a communal dream. Every evening since 31 March, when there was a protest against proposed labour law reforms, there have been gatherings at place de la République in Paris to discuss new ways of doing politics, or at least of resisting the old ways.
PJ Harvey recorded her eighth album, Let England Shake (2011), in a church on a Dorset clifftop with ‘a graveyard which has trees bent by the wind’. On Saturday, she finished sessions for her ninth album in the basement of Somerset House on the banks of the Thames, whose water had cracked the institutional white paint and seeped mouldily into the carpet. She worked on the songs for a month in a purpose-built white studio with one-way windows, letting the public eavesdrop on her (there were four 45-minute visiting sessions each day; tickets sold out fast). I went on the last day.
The most penetrating exhibit at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig isn't in a glass case. Housed in the 'Runde Ecke' ('round corner'), the nickname for the old Stasi HQ, the museum has sought to preserve the smell of the GDR. It's an antiseptic aroma, with a bleached ageing sweetness to it, as if you found a tube of Germolene from 1912. I don't know how you hang onto a smell, but they've kept the beige patterned lino, the metallic filing cabinets, the creamy grubby walls, so perhaps that's part of it. I wonder what they do if they sense the pong is fading.
The line that got the most applause at the opening rally of the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow came from Nick Clegg, but it wasn’t about housing or tax or civil liberties or nuclear power. It was about the party itself: ‘People who don’t understand us like to call debate division. I think it is debate that gives us our unity.’ He said that after the Syria vote he’d told David Cameron: ‘It’s not a defeat, it’s just a reference back.’
This was a big week for Facebook feminism. A worldwide coalition of feminist groups, led by the UK's Everyday Sexism Project and Women, Action and the Media in the US, have been challenging Facebook's advertisers (mostly via Twitter) to suspend their ads until the platform agrees to remove some straightforwardly offensive images making hitting and raping women sound like fun. (They are depressingly easy to find on the internet. A couple is having dinner, a single rose in a vase on the table: 'Win her over... with chloroform.' This is the tame end.) If asking the advertisers to ask Facebook to ask whoever posted the images to take them down sounds like a roundabout way of going about things, that's because it is: Facebook, who have censored photos of breastfeeding in the past, had already vetted the images and didn't think they violated 'Facebook's Community Standard'. On Wednesday they backed down and issued a statement setting out how they were going to change their moderators' ways.
At one point on Monday night, during a meeting at the LSE about the government’s new proposals for legal aid, the lights went out. It went dark as Steve Hynes of the Legal Action Group was speaking about the justice minister, Chris Grayling, and Hynes’s quip – ‘Oh God, does Grayling control the lights as well?’ – brought one of the only genuine laughs of the night (the others were bitter). Grayling was invited to the meeting but didn’t make it, as far as I could tell. It didn’t matter. He was on everyone’s minds anyway.
At the end of last month, it was decided that the archive of the Women's Library was to move from a university in the East End to a university in central London. 'LSE saves Women's Library from closure,' the Guardian announced. London Met needs to save money; LSE has room in the new library it's building – nothing could be more practical. All that will be lost is a purpose-built, award-winning, lottery-funded building that has been standing for only ten years (and which may turn out to be worth more demolished). Woolf wasn’t joking when she said a room of one’s own needed ‘a lock on the door’.
In the age of Bradley Manning and girls in Vegas with cameraphones, it seems quaint that France should be getting its political gossip from the literary invention of 1641, the roman à clef. Le Monarque, son fils, son fief: Hauts-de-Seine – chronique d'un règlement des comptes by Marie-Célie Guillaume has stayed on the non-fiction (nobody's fooled) bestseller lists since it was published earlier in the summer and has sold thirty thousand copies in France. Not content with having caught Sarkozy leering at the Israeli model Bar Rafaeli, complaining to Obama about Netanyahu, getting pissed with Putin, stealing a pen from Romania's president and calling a group of journalists his 'amis pédophiles', France wants to read about their ex-president accepting blowjobs for subsidies, stabbing political allies in the back and giving his son one of the most powerful positions in his old fiefdom.