The oilfield at Baba Gurgur, near Kirkuk, has been burning for at least four thousand years. Its name is Kurdish for ‘Father of Eternal Fire’, and it’s a possible site for the furnace into which Nebuchadnezzar casts Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Kurdish women used to travel to Baba Gurgur from miles around to pray that their child would be a son. Elsewhere, incandescent foetal sex rituals are on the rise. In Western cultures, ‘gender reveal’ events often involve setting off fireworks with pink or blue colorants. Last month, a spark from a gender reveal party in El Dorado, California set a neighbouring forest ablaze.
A recent Facebook post shows the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, up a ladder installing a fleet of neon reindeer across his roof’s guttering. ‘No matter what’s going on each year,’ he says, ‘getting in the Christmas spirit has always been such an important part of our family life. I do the lights.’ Unfortunately, Morrison hasn’t been able to enjoy his light show in the lead up to Christmas Day. This week, while Australia faces an unprecedented environmental catastrophe, the prime minister flew to Hawaii with his wife and children for a ‘well-deserved’ holiday.
Wildfires break out every summer across Greece. The mountains surrounding Athens have burned on more than one occasion this year. It was just columns of smoke in the distance. It wasn’t news, until it was. When I woke up on Tuesday morning there were 50 dead. Then 60. It would be 74 by the end of the day. Now it’s closer to 80 and likely to go higher.
The images of the Glasgow School of Art going up in flames again were like a bad dream. The glowing orange inferno, caught on mobile phones, brought back memories of the fire four years ago which destroyed the most beautiful space in the building, the library, surely one of the most remarkable rooms in the history of architecture. But this time the damage has been more far reaching. It looks as if the entire interior has been gutted. The building was being restored but now seems to have been utterly destroyed. All that remains is the masonry shell which will have been dangerously damaged by the very high temperatures.
In 1942 Alfred Hitchcock recruited the author of Our Town, Thornton Wilder, to write the screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt, an innocence-versus-evil thriller set in an ‘idyllic American town’. After considering various candidates, Hitchcock and Wilder selected Santa Rosa, a picturesque agricultural community of 13,000 people, 55 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County. The following year, Santa Rosa was introduced to millions of filmgoers in a series of establishing shots that began with aerial views of its pretty countryside and ‘all-American’ downtown. Wartime restrictions had precluded set-building and the exterior locations were all real, but it was difficult to believe that sunny Santa Rosa hadn’t been confected by Norman Rockwell on a Hollywood back lot. Seventy-five years later, we contemplate another aerial view, this time of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighbourhood. The scene, a thousand homes incinerated to their foundations, resembles the apocalypse Kim Jong-un keeps promising to bring to America.
In 1893, the London Daily News published an article about Notting Dale, an area in north Kensington also known as the Potteries for its brick-making kilns and clay pits. ‘A West End Avernus’ was the headline: poor, overcrowded, with shocking housing – if there was an entrance to the Underworld, then this, the article said, was it. A grotesque report inspired by the piece a couple of years later blamed the bad condition of the area on the ‘vicious proclivities of the people themselves’. They were, the report said, ‘loafers, cab-runners, beggars, tramps, thieves and prostitutes’. One of the clay pits made by the 19th-century brick makers was so large that it was called the ‘Ocean’: it was filled with slime. The houses nearby were said to be of ‘a wretched class, many being mere hovels in a ruinous condition, filthy in the extreme, and containing vast accumulations of garbage and offal’. The wells were contaminated. The risk of cholera was high.