Credible Fear

According to US asylum law, women who have crossed the southern border and want to stay in the United States must prove ‘credible fear’ in an interview with an asylum officer. At the South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest detention facility in the US, I talked to thirty women about why they’d risked the perilous journey north. The word ‘credible’, it soon became clear, was mostly redundant. More »

In Tewkesbury

Ten years ago, Tewkesbury Abbey was surrounded by muddy brown flood waters. Following the wettest June on record, in which tens of thousands of buildings were flooded, from Scotland to the Midlands, an extreme weather event hit the Cotswolds on 20 July 2007. The region was already saturated, drains were overflowing and run-offs ineffective. At the confluence of the rivers Severn and Avon, Tewkesbury was swamped. Within hours it was completely cut off. The flood waters breached the Mythe waterworks, depriving 350,000 people of running water. More »

‘Herr Müller wants to talk to you’

Margot Hielscher, the German TV actress and Eurovision star, died on 20 August, aged 97. A singer and general forces’ sweetheart during the Second World War, she was also probably the last surviving woman to have had an affair with Goebbels. She had been working in the film studio at Babelsberg as a costume designer when she caught the propaganda minister’s eye. Her first role was as a handmaid to Mary Queen of Scots in the anti-English Das Herz der Königin (‘The Queen’s Heart’, 1940); she went on to star in Frauen sind Keine Engel (‘Women are no Angels’, 1943), singing the title song which became her signature tune.

She was still a large-eyed, striking and very well-preserved brunette when I interviewed her in the early 1990s. More »

In Praise of Process

The Commons vote on Tuesday night to give the Tories majorities on all the committees that are supposed to scrutinise legislation, including Brexit legislation, despite their not having a majority of seats in the Commons, has been described by the shadow leader of the house as a ‘power grab’. It’s also deeply unconstitutional. Britain is a parliamentary democracy, which expresses and enacts the ‘will of the people’, but only once that will has been scrutinised, debated and tested over a (fairly short) period of time.

The idea that the ‘will of the people’ as expressed on a single day in June 2016 should be set in stone, never to be amended, runs against the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy; More »

In Hurricane Season

Old Florida hands (and there are some, even in this new, garish, flattest and most rootless of states) measure out their lives in hurricane names. They remember particular angles of attack, depths of flooding, wind velocities and force measurements, destructiveness in dollar amounts. I can see objects being pushed illustratively around a bar-room table. It’s a form of higher geekishness, each man (and of course they’re usually men) his own survivalist. It’s one of those occasional bits of Floridiana that remind me that people were never actually meant to live here, and that being here converts you into a leathery, eccentric kind of specialist, something like the ‘old sailor,/Drunk and asleep in his boots’ of Stevens’s poem, who ‘Catches tigers/In red weather’. More »

Uncertainty in Saudi Arabia

At least three prominent Saudi clerics, Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Umari, have been arrested in the last few days. They are not part of the state-backed clerical establishment. Saudi Arabia has always had problems with clerics whose loyalties are not to the royal family, going back to the revolt of the Ikhwan which was ruthlessly suppressed by Ibn Saud in 1929. Nowadays the problem has a new dimension: large online followings. Nearly 60 per cent of the Saudi population are said to be active on social media; al-Awda has more than 14 million followers on Twitter. Le Monde describes him as a defender of individual liberty and one of the most popular challengers of authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia. More »

A Meteor in the Saturnian Sky

One of Cassini’s last looks at Saturn from a distance
© NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Late one night in January 2005, I stood, freezing, in a car park on an industrial estate in Darmstadt, outside the European Space Operations Centre. The sky was beautifully clear, allowing the smattering of amateur astronomers present to point their telescopes at Saturn. A quick glance through a relatively modest instrument shows the orange disk of the planet, its system of rings and, visible as a point of light to one side, its largest moon, Titan. More »

Daca-mented

Last Thursday, three dozen immigrant students gathered for an emergency meeting at Hunter College, a public university on the east side of Manhattan. The mood was grim: two days earlier, in furtherance of his ‘America first’ agenda, President Trump had announced the termination of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme. Daca had given some 800,000 undocumented Americans – including hundreds of Hunter College students – the right to work and temporary protection from deportation. But it was created, in 2012, by presidential fiat, not through legislation, and so fell short of granting permanent residency or citizenship. ‘It made no sense,’ as Obama explained in response to Trump’s repeal, ‘to expel talented, driven, patriotic young people from the only country they know.’ More »

Pakistan, Polio and the CIA

In the mid-20th century, poliovirus paralysed half a million children a year, in rich countries as well as poor. In 1952 there were 57,628 cases in the United States. Following the development of vaccines by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, polio declined markedly in North America and Europe. The US had its last case in 1979, the UK in 1982.

There were still, however, about 350,000 cases a year in the mid-1980s, predominantly in countries where the state did not have the money or capacity to implement mass vaccination programmes. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was formed in 1988 by the WHO and national governments to finance and organise immunisation campaigns. It precipitated a sharp reduction in polio: there were 37 cases in the world in 2016, a fall of 99.9 per cent.

But the disease stubbornly persists in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. More »

At the Norwegian Embassy

I went to the Norwegian Embassy in Belgravia yesterday to cast my absentee ballot in next week’s parliamentary election. Along with my fellow countrymen and women, pasty and sweating in the direct sunlight, I queued silently for the makeshift voting room, next to the bins. More »

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