The Masque of Weaponry

‘Private armament firms, no matter how reputable and incorrupt, depend for their prosperity on the perpetual exasperation of international fears and suspicions … they thrive upon war scares, and they must have occasional wars.’ So concluded The Secret International, an influential pamphlet published in the early 1930s by the Union of Democratic Control. The international arms trade is no less a force for ‘exasperation’ now than it was then, and in Britain, as in most countries with a remunerative arms sector, it has become an adjunct of government. Britain’s defence industry used to put out its wares for international consumption every year, either in Portsmouth or Aldershot, as a government-to-government trade exhibition, under the auspices of the Royal Navy or the British Army. In the 1990s the arms show was outsourced: Defence and Security Equipment International is now run by Clarion Events, ‘a successful, dynamic and creative business’ in Surrey. And business is booming. More »

Anti-Semitism in America

With what just happened in Pittsburgh it is easy to forget what things were like in the 1930s in America. I remember because I was growing up then. We used to listen to Father Coughlin on the radio. He said things like this: More »

Sócrates and Brazilian Democracy

In November 1982, Brazil held its first direct multiparty elections since the 1964 coup. A month before the vote, the captain of the national football team wrote a four-page spread in Placar, the country’s bestselling football magazine, in which he articulated his proposals for jobs, housing, health, education and food security. These are issues that ordinary people worry about, Sócrates said, and if addressed properly will ensure a better life for all. ‘But we will only achieve this when everyone has full and total freedom to speak, to learn, to participate, to choose and above all to protest,’ he wrote. ‘That’s what living with dignity is all about.’ More »

Under the Black Sea

The world’s oldest known intact shipwreck has been found resting on its side at the bottom of the Black Sea by an international team of maritime archaeologists. The 23-metre Greek ship, which sank 2400 years ago, is one of dozens of wrecks found by the group over the past three years. More »

Accidental Death of a Spoonmaker

With audiences stretching from Poland to Kazakhstan and throughout the Middle East, Turkey has in recent times become a large exporter of soap opera. There is more than a touch of TV melodrama to the way the Erdoğan government has unfolded the story of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, engineering a rare deceleration in the pace of the world media, hooking global audiences on a drip feed of slow news.

Nothing in the timing has been left to chance. Word that Khashoggi’s remains had been found, and evidence of the act itself – three weeks ago now – was released to coincide with the opening day of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Future Investment Initiative, a.k.a. ‘Davos in the Desert’. More »

Subliterary Modes of Earning the Odd Pound

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. More »

‘Random Dances and (A)Tonalities’

The last set is over, and the club is almost empty. The bassist has already gone home, the drummer is walking out the door. That leaves the saxophonist and the pianist, but they decide they’re not done yet. They have more ideas to exchange, more confidences to share. They begin to play again, only this time just for themselves.

Do most saxophone and piano duets start out this way? Surely not, and yet the best of them could fool you, with their intimate, nocturnal ambience, their exploration of ‘songs of love and regret’, as the saxophonist Marion Brown and the pianist Mal Waldron called their 1986 album. On Random Dances and (A)Tonalities, the new album by the pianist Aruán Ortiz and the reedman Don Byron, the music is unapologetically cerebral, like the title. More »

The Voyage of the ‘Pobeda’

Desperate crossings – Lenin’s sealed train, Luding Bridge, Granma – were at the heart of several 20th-century revolutions, but the one that killed my great-grandmother seemed to be a perfectly average late-summer voyage. According to the official account, on 1 September 1948, the steamer Pobeda (‘Victory’), bound from New York to Odessa, was in the Black Sea, nearing its destination. A sailor rewinding some movie reels in a storage cabin inadvertently caused a spark, igniting the thousands of highly flammable filmstrips and phonograph records inside. Two crew members and forty of the 310 passengers were killed. Among them were Evgeniia Afinogenova, née Jeannette Schwarz of the Lower East Side, and Feng Yuxiang, former war minister of the Republic of China, on his way to bend the knee to Mao Zedong. Among the survivors were Afinogenova’s two daughters, aged six and eleven, my grandmother and her older sister, who were taken to Moscow to be raised by their grandmother. More »

The Oldest Printed Book in the World

Frontispiece of the Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra

When the wind blows through the dunes around the Western Chinese city of Dunhuang – long a garrison town between the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts – it is said to produce sounds similar to song. In 366, the itinerant monk Yuezun was wandering through the arid landscape when a fantastical sight appeared before him: a thousand buddhas, bathed in golden light. (Whether heat, exhaustion or the strange voice of the sands worked themselves on his imagination is anyone’s guess.) Awed by his vision, Yuezun took up hammer and chisel and carved a devotional space into a nearby cliff-face. It soon became a centre for religion and art: Dunhuang was situated at the confluence of two major Silk Road routes, and both departing and returning merchants made offerings. By the time the site fell into disuse in the 14th century, almost 500 temples had been carved from the cliff. More »

A Sale of Two Cities: The End

We announced the start of this year’s #readeverywhere photo contest with the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities, somewhat butchered; so to crown the winners, we’d better subject its closing paragraph to the same miserable treatment: More »

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