‘What it is to hate’

In apartheid South Africa, ‘the enemy’ was ever present, day and night, from the public toilets you couldn’t use to the neighbourhood you couldn’t live in, by way of police raids at first light to check on your bedfellows, or simply to keep you terrified. When Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – who died on 2 April at the age of 81 – spoke of ‘the enemy’, the words had an intimate ring. More »

The Man with the Typewriter

On 9 April 1948, the Colombian politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán stepped out of his office with a group of friends to walk to Bogotá’s Hotel Continental for lunch. An assassin confronted him in the street and shot him three times in the face and chest. He died shortly afterwards. His supporters caught the 20-year-old culprit, Juan Roa Sierra, and beat him to death. His body, naked except for a blue and red striped tie, was dumped in front of the Presidential Palace. It remained there for two days. ‘El Bogotazo’, the night of violence sparked by Gaitán’s assassination, left more than 3000 people dead and Bogotá half in ruins. More »

Cecil Taylor 1929-2018

In May 2002, the free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor performed at the Barbican with the post-minimalist classical ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars. I managed to slip backstage during the rehearsal. It was tense. Taylor, wearing a dressing gown and pink fluffy slippers, was in the process of firing half the ensemble. Bang on a Can’s keyboard player had already gone, and a procession of other players would soon follow. Their sin seemed to have been to read Taylor’s graphic sketch for how the evening’s music might evolve too literally. With the concert itself underway, Taylor ritualistically shredded his sketch and encouraged the remaining Bang on a Can musicians to do the same: they were going to have to improvise. A hapless guitarist threw a rock riff at Taylor, which he immediately bounced back as an open-ended question: is that the best you can do? Then he turned his back on the ensemble and carved out a cavernous wall of sound with his own drummer, Tony Oxley. More »

Waiting for ‘Swan Lake’

The date of the Russian presidential election last month was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the day Russia claimed Crimea, 18 March 2014. In the main streets of Sevastopol, loudspeakers blasted old Soviet songs. ‘Russia, better with you,’ the posters said. A young woman who sold me a sim card told me that the city had come up with the idea of giving a medal to people who had voted both in the referendum on joining Russia – which wasn’t recognised by Ukraine or most other countries – and in this election. ‘They say it’s to mobilise our moral spirit, so it will mobilise the moral spirit of pensioners. And because everything in this country is bullshit, they haven’t made enough medals,’ she said. ‘Will you get one?’ I asked. ‘Well, maybe,’ she said. ‘If I vote.’ More »

A Jar, a Blouse, a Letter

In Laurent Binet’s novel The Seventh Function of Language (2015), Julia Kristeva is cast as a spy for Bulgarian intelligence, responsible for the death of Roland Barthes. Last Tuesday, the Bulgarian Dossier Committee, in charge of examining and declassifying communist-era State Security records, announced that Kristeva had been an agent of the First Chief Directorate.

On Thursday, Kristeva denied the allegations, describing them as ‘grotesque’ and ‘completely false’. On Friday, the Dossier Commission published her entire dossier – nearly 400 pages – on their website. Yesterday, Kristeva issued another statement, insisting she had ‘never belonged to any secret service’ and had not supported ‘a regime that I fled’. She criticised the ‘credence given to these files, without there being any questioning about who wrote them or why’:

This episode would be comical, and might even seem a bit romantic, were it not for the fact that it is all so false and that its uncritical repetition in the media is so frightening.

More »

At the Museum of Water


The Chafariz d’El Rei (King’s Fountain) in Lisbon by an anonymous Flemish artist, c.1570-80

Antonio Tabucchi’s ghostly Lisbon novel Requiem: A Hallucination (1991, translated by Margaret Jull Costa) describes a recipe as ‘a first-class lesson in material culture … someone should have told Herr Jung that food always comes before the imagination.’ There’s a display in the city’s Museu da Agua that shows how much clean water we each use every day. To make three cups of coffee, one glass of milk, one glass of orange juice and one glass of wine requires enough water to fill a hundred bathtubs. More »

In Hull

On a cold Sunday afternoon earlier this month, 800 people gathered at Hull Minster for a memorial service to mark the 50th anniversary of the ‘triple trawler tragedy’. In three weeks in January and February 1968, the trawlers St Romanus, Kingston Peridot and Ross Cleveland all sank in freezing North Atlantic waters. Fifty-eight men from the city’s Hessle Road fishing community died. More »

In Vilnius

The past does not enlighten us – but still, it attempts
to say something. Perhaps the crow knows more about us
and about history’s dirt than we do ourselves.

These lines from Tomas Venclova’s poem ‘In the Lake Region’ often came to my mind as I read Magnetic North, a series of conversations between Ellen Hinsey and Venclova, in which the Lithuanian poet, essayist and scholar remembers his life. More »

At Sterne’s Funeral

We gathered last Thursday at 23-25 Brook Street – where Handel lived from 1723 to 1759, and composed the Messiah, and where Hendrix lived in 1968-69, when Electric Ladyland came out – for funeral biscuits with caraway seeds, and schooners of sherry, before the four-minute walk through a cold Mayfair evening to St George’s Church, Hanover Square. More »

Is sumer icumen in?

According to meteorologists, the first day of spring is 1 March. Astronomers would say it’s 20 March. No one in the UK would have believed either date this year, as they battled through wind, snow and ice. Better perhaps to ignore the calendar and look to plants and animals for the first signs of spring: the flowering of daffodils, snowdrops and bluebells, the buzzing of bees, frogspawn in brackish water, the smell of wild garlic, the two-tone call of the Eurasian cuckoo. More »

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