The Eighth Hill of Rome

Monte Testaccio is a hundred-foot high, kilometre-round pile of broken potsherds. The great mound of ceramic refuse, started in the first century BCE, was added to daily over the following four centuries. Co-existent with the Roman Empire, it grew into a mass whose sheer bulk and consistency could not be reduced. Unlike the empire, it did not fall. Pottery is an especially obdurate artefact, but every single piece of pottery in Monte Testaccio is of a particular sort: each fragment is a sherd of broken oil amphora. More »

John Ashbery 1927-2017

‘Part of John Ashbery’s charm,’ Mark Ford wrote in the LRB in 1989, ‘is his self-deprecating uncertainty about the whole business: “Some certified nut/Will try to tell you it’s poetry.”’ The LRB published more than fifty poems by him,[*] the first of them in 1995 (a late start for us, nearly forty years after his first collection and twenty after Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror). ‘Die Meistersinger’, from last year, begins: More »

What Happened in Gwangju

Ten million people in South Korea, one-fifth of the population, have watched Jang Hoon’s movie A Taxi Driver (Taeksi Woonjunsa) since it was released on 2 August. When I went to see it in Times Square, there were seven of us in the audience. The film is set in May 1980, during the mass democratic uprising – and ensuing military crackdown – in the southwestern city of Gwangju. A German reporter, Jürgen Hinzpeter, was one of the few foreign journalists to witness the events. In the movie, Song Kang-ho plays a cabbie who drives Hinzpeter (played by Thomas Kretschmann) the two hundred miles from Seoul to Gwangju. The story is real, though greased with sentimentality as well as the bbong jjak pop music and fashions of the era. More »

Diolatry

Like everyone, I know exactly where I was twenty years ago when I learned that Princess Diana had croaked. I was in my parents’ bathroom and the announcement came on the radio. My future ex-wife, who was in the bath, said: ‘It must be a play. Or a joke.’ It wasn’t a play; few greeted it as a joke. On a scale unseen since Queen Victoria hoofed the pail, grief totalitarianism raged across the land. News sources reacted much as North Korean state television handles the demise of a Kim, or as Spanish telly did when Franco died. More »

How To Be Topp

A couple of years ago, a state school teacher got in touch with me with concerns about the Cambridge Pre-U exam, an alternative to A-levels introduced in 2008. She was worried both that it gave yet another unfair advantage to privately educated children, and that it involved potential conflicts of interest, since many of the questions were set by teachers whose pupils would be taking the exams. In a piece for Independent School Parent (what you do mean, you don’t subscribe?) in 2012, the headmaster of Winchester College explained why the school had dropped A-levels in favour of the Cambridge Pre-U: More »

On the Sleeper

The best thing I saw at Edinburgh this year was The Sleeper, written and directed by Henry Krempels. (The play will be on for one night only in London, at the Rosemary Branch Theatre on Thursday.) Karina, played by Michelle Fahrenheim, is a Londoner travelling on an overnight train somewhere in Europe. She’s a writer, probably a Guardian reader, definitely a Remainer. Returning to her compartment after brushing her teeth, she finds someone else in her bunk. She rushes to the guard in a panic. The young woman hiding in her berth, Amena, is a Syrian refugee. She will be kicked off the train at the next stop. More »

Demobilisation in Llano Grande

On 15 August, the last of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s munitions and weapons were removed by a UN mission from 26 temporary demobilisation camps, where 7000 guerrilleros have been living for seven months. This ends the first phase of the implementation of the Havana Accords, signed on 24 November 2016. The next stage is the reintegration of the Farc’s members into the social, economic and political life of the country. On 1 September the organisation will launch a new political party. Other medium and long-term measures include land reform, mine clearance and the replacement of coca with legal crops. More »

Best Laid Schemes

A few miles south of Soledad, California, not far from the Salinas river, George Milton and Lennie Small arrive at a ranch. Itinerant workers who have been forced to flee their last town, they are assessed by the boss – an unnamed figure in a Stetson hat, high-heeled boots and spurs; unlike them, he is no labouring man. ‘What stake you got in this guy?’ he asks George. ‘I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy.’ I was reminded of the scene earlier this year, in the week of Trump’s inauguration. I was on a bus in North London, when the driver pulled to a stop and went across the road to help a woman who had collapsed. Some passengers got angry. ‘What’s he doing helping someone else?’ one of them barked.

In 2014, OCR (the major exam-awarding body in the UK) announced that it would be scrapping John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from the GCSE English syllabus. Other American texts, such as The Crucible and To Kill a Mockingbird, were also to be dropped. Michael Gove, then the education secretary, complained about the ‘narrowness’ of a syllabus that he went on to make even narrower. He was disappointed that 90 per cent of candidates were studying Of Mice and Men.

I’ve taught the book to pupils of all abilities and I’m always struck by its power to engage and move them. More »

China, CUP and ‘Academic Freedom’

Last week, Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest publisher, admitted it had blocked online access in China to 315 articles from China Quarterly, at the request of Chinese censors. The decision was taken without consulting the journal’s editor, Tim Pringle, who wrote an open letter expressing ‘deep concern and disappointment’ at the decision. The blocked articles are concerned with such politically sensitive subjects as the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang and the Tiananmen Square protests. The demand to remove them came from China’s General Administration of Press and Publications, which threatened to block the entire China Quarterly website if they weren’t. More »

‘Essentially Bohemian’

In October 1963, Sir Herbert Stanley Marchant, the outgoing British ambassador to Cuba, sent the Foreign Office a six-page confidential profile of Fidel Castro, now held in the National Archives at Kew. Marchant joked that if it didn’t fit the Foreign Office’s purposes he would sell it to Life magazine when he retired, to keep himself ‘in beer money for a month or so’. He had been ambassador since 1960. For most of that time, he writes, Castro had had ‘nothing whatever to do with Western diplomats’, but the policy changed suddenly after he returned from a trip to the Soviet Union in 1963. Marchant had since spent eleven hours with Castro at close quarters, including ‘two lunches and a farewell interview’.

The ambassador couldn’t help but be impressed by Castro’s presence: ‘However much you hear about the Grand Canyon it still turns out to be much bigger than you expected. So it is with Castro – and I do not mean merely his physique. He is in fact a good six feet four inches and he must weigh sixteen stone.’ More »

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