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Human Revenue

James Meek, 5 April 2012

... James Meek's article in this issue first appeared on the LRB blog. You can read it here ...

Short Cuts

James Meek: In the Ghost Library, 3 November 2011

... For voters, feelings prevail over beliefs,’ Peter Mandelson writes in The Third Man. ‘People may be torn between their head and their heart, but ultimately it is their gut feeling that is decisive: they vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not necessarily the one who presents the right arguments.’ This clear and succinct expression of the idea that emotion is the true currency of democratic politics stood out on the page, and I moved to underline it, only to realise someone had done so already ...

The Debt Quilt

James Meek, 10 May 2012

... Rebecca Simmonds spread her debt duvet out over the sofa in the rented one-room flat in East London she shares with her partner, Aaron. The first panel in the quilt is a letter from the Alliance & Leicester bank, dated February 2005. Simmonds was 25. She had no assets and no steady job (she was trying to become an actor) and the bank was, the letter says, ‘very pleased’ to be lending her £5000 ...

Short Cuts

James Meek: Yulia Tymoshenko, 7 June 2012

... If you forget the name, you’ll remember the braids; the blonde corona framing her head that declares: ‘Ukraine, c’est moi.’ After Angela Merkel, Yulia Tymoshenko is perhaps (Mrs Thatcher excepted) the European woman politician best known outside her own country. Merkel is low-key and plain-speaking, an austere, common-sense pragmatist; Tymoshenko, the imprisoned former prime minister of Ukraine, is emotional, self-dramatising, glamorous, Eva Perón in peasant braids ...

Short Cuts

James Meek: Fan-Owned Politics, 1 June 2017

... Is​ living through a process enough to know it, if you don’t know how others experience it? Those in the middle of historical events most people only know from TV can feel they missed the thing, even though they were there, because their memories don’t conform to whatever iconic thirty-second clip comes to stand for the event in most people’s minds ...

Short Cuts

James Meek: Anglospheroids, 21 March 2013

... John Norton-Griffiths, ‘Empire Jack’, engineer and strapping essence of imperial British manliness, was sent to Romania in 1916 to destroy that country’s oil industry before the Germans overran it. He had the Romanian government’s permission but local staff would occasionally try to interfere as he went at the oil wells with fire, dynamite and his personal sledgehammer ...

Run to the hills

James Meek: Rainspotting, 22 May 2003

Rain 
by Brian Cathcart.
Granta, 100 pp., £5.99, September 2002, 1 86207 534 4
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... rainfall across the country varied from year to year, because nobody was keeping count. George James Symons, one of those energetic Victorians who combined the erudition of a scholar with the organisational abilities of a manager and the enthusiasm of an amateur collector, realised what was needed and put it in place: a countrywide network of volunteer ...

Schlepping around the Flowers

James Meek: Bees, 4 November 2004

The Hive: The Story of the Honey-Bee and Us 
by Bee Wilson.
Murray, 308 pp., £14.99, September 2004, 0 7195 6409 3
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... mutating according to the monarch and the orthodox political philosophy of the day. At the time of James I, Charles Butler put aside the beginnings of scientific rigour to delude himself that he saw bees in his hives with tufts, tassels and plumes according to their rank in the bee court. During the Protectorate, a government-subsidised book by Samuel Hartlib ...

Chemical Soup

James Meek: Embalming Lenin’s body, 18 March 1999

Lenin's Embalmers 
by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson.
Harvill, 215 pp., £12.99, October 1998, 1 86046 515 3
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... In October 1971 a Soviet scientist flew over the burning land around Hanoi, his passenger jet given a safe corridor by Phantom fighters from the air force that was busy laying waste to the countryside. Three days after arriving in the North Vietnamese capital he and his colleagues were taken to a site in the deep jungle. There, in the searing tropical heat, at the end of a track called the Path of the Cockerel, they saw a perfect miniature replica of their own workplace, Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow ...

Take a nap

James Meek: Keeping cool, 6 February 2003

Cool Comfort: America’s Romance with Air-Conditioning 
by M. Ackerman.
Smithsonian, 248 pp., £21.50, July 2002, 1 58834 040 6
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... In June 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Washington. Although the White House had had air-conditioning installed in its offices ten years earlier, family and guest rooms weren’t artificially cooled. Despite this, the King and Queen requested hot-water bottles, heavy-duty bedding and glasses of hot milk before bedtime. Perhaps this was the ostentatious stoicism of the aristocracy ...

In 1348

James Meek, 2 April 2020

... In​ the middle of February 1348, King Edward III held a royal tournament in Reading. He probably held another one that month in Bury St Edmunds. He held another on 20 April in Lincoln, and three more in May, in Lichfield, Windsor and Eltham. He liked a tournament. His victory over France at Crécy two years earlier and England’s seizure of Calais were still fresh memories for him and the aristocratic chums who’d fought beside him ...

Short Cuts

James Meek: Deepfakery, 5 December 2019

... Election​ season in the Trapped-Together Kingdom, and people are talking about politicians and parties, sort of. The talk isn’t always talk, as such. To put it another way, when was the last time someone told you a joke? When was the last time you saw a fresh quip inked on the door of a toilet? No, I can’t remember either. But when was the last time you clicked on a link to a funny or shocking video, or – charming old world intimacy! – were handed somebody’s phone with a clip playing and asked: ‘Seen this?’ Or more likely you weren’t asked anything at all, but expected just to watch and get it ...

Hooyah!!

James Meek: The Rise of the Private Army, 2 August 2007

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army 
by Jeremy Scahill.
Serpent’s Tail, 452 pp., £12.99, August 2007, 978 1 84668 630 6
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... In a James Bond film, viewer credulity gets its toughest workout with the hero’s tour of, and subsequent escape from, the villain’s lair. This power-crazed evil genius, this smug gentleman in a tightly tailored suit posing as a bold entrepreneur: how was he able to construct a paramilitary base over a dozen square miles in the middle of, say, the United States, without its raising an eyebrow among the local constabulary? How did he get the zeppelin hangar past the county planning board? Such vast amounts of concrete ...

We Do Ron Ron Ron, We Do Ron Ron

James Meek: Welcome to McDonald’s, 24 May 2001

Fast-Food Nation 
by Eric Schlosser.
Allen Lane, 356 pp., £9.99, April 2001, 0 7139 9602 1
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... fifth columnists within their families, nagging their parents to the checkout. The marketing guru James U. McNeal, in his 1992 book Kids as Customers, identifies the Seven Major Nags used by children to get what they want. There’s the repetitive Pleading Nag (‘Oh please, please, please’); the Persistent Nag, where the child doggedly lobbies for the ...

How to Shoe a Flea

James Meek: Nikolai Leskov, 25 April 2013

‘The Enchanted Wanderer’ and Other Stories 
by Nikolai Leskov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Vintage, 608 pp., £25, April 2013, 978 0 09 957735 5
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The Enchanted Wanderer 
by Nikolai Leskov, translated by Ian Dreiblatt.
Melville House, 256 pp., £8.99, August 2012, 978 1 61219 103 4
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... there’s a universality about him that finds echoes in non-Russians like Chinua Achebe or James Hogg who span the distance from village hearth to salon without feeling the need to pledge allegiance to one or the other. Leskov is the titular protagonist of Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’, where the critic offers internet-anticipating ...

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