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Archive by tag: Tim AdamsReturn
May 14, 2022

By telling the life stories of his bipolar father and a convicted murderer he tried to save from the electric chair, Stafford Smith raises urgent moral questions about behaviour and justice

If you have ever wondered from where the death-row lawyer Clive Stafford Smith gets his intransigent, crusading spirit, this vivid, inquiring memoir provides much of the evidence. It is set up as a book not about its author but about the lives of two very different men who helped to define him. The first is Stafford Smith’s father, Dick, a wildly volatile man with bipolar disorder, who squandered the family fortune and blamed everyone but himself. The second is Larry Lonchar, an inmate in Georgia State Prison facing a capital sentence, one of the many men for whom Stafford Smith has acted as advocate and sometime saviour in the past 40 years. The lawyer’s examination of these two doomed lives, and his own role in them, expands into a compulsive personal investigation into the limits of empathy, and the proper balance of responsibility and retribution toward the destructive actions of men not in their best minds.

Dick Stafford Smith, whose death in 2007 first prompted this book, was in some ways the blueprint for all of the prisoners lost in the American justice system, for whom his son petitioned mercy: a man burdened with a temperamental makeup entirely unsuited to the circumstances of his adult life. Haunted by his failure to fathom his father, still less to help him, Stafford Smith explores how he went in search of the most extreme kinds of “save-able” surrogates elsewhere. Not for nothing did he call his charity Reprieve.

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Apr 30, 2022

A penetrating analysis of the connections that enabled an incestuous university network to dominate Westminster and give birth to Brexit is perceptive and full of surprises

At a “slave auction” at the Oxford Union in 1987 – an “opportunity to buy your favourite union person for the evening” – there was, according to the university newspaper, frenzied bidding for the services of the kilt-wearing 19-year-old Michael Gove. He went for £35. Gove was known at the time as one of the three pre-eminent orators in the small world of the university debating chamber – the others were Nick Robinson, future BBC political editor, and Simon Stevens, until recently chief executive of NHS England.

The previous year’s union president, Boris Johnson, failed to show up for the slave auction and was sold in absentia. Johnson’s own rhetorical style differed from the self-conscious rigour of his peers. He had learned, Simon Kuper writes, in debates at Eton, “to defeat opponents whose arguments were better simply by ignoring their arguments”. He offered instead “carefully timed jokes, calculated lowerings of the voice, and ad hominem jibes”. In this manner, he had won the election to union presidency with the help of various self-described “votaries in the Boris cult”, including Gove and future Covid sceptic Toby Young.

Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK by Simon Kuper is published by Profile (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Apr 24, 2022

David George Haskell’s often wonderful book explores some of the lost frequencies of nature – heard clearly again during Covid’s initial human hush

Lockdown was, among other things, a sudden collective experiment in volume control. Sound waves from the regular rush-hour thrum of cities usually penetrate more than a kilometre below the Earth’s surface. When Covid-19 forced humans inside, seismologists noticed the muzak of their subterranean instruments was quieted. The ancient rock of our planet came closer to the silence that it had known for nearly all of the first 4bn years of its existence. And the relative stillness was felt on the surface, too. People noticed voices from beyond the human world a little more readily, and those voices felt less need to shout to be heard. Scientists in San Francisco discovered that the city’s sparrows reverted to softer and lower pitched songs of a kind not heard since the invention of the freeway.

Biology professor David George Haskell’s often wonderful book is all about listening to those kinds of lost frequencies. It is a sort of rigorous scientific update on that 1960s imperative to “tune in and turn on”: a reminder that the narrow aural spectrum on which most of us operate, and the ways in which human life is led, blocks out the planet’s great, orchestral richness. Haskell’s previous acclaimed book, The Forest Unseen, was a thrillingly curious investigation of the life of one square metre of ancient Tennessee woodland. This new volume gives you the experience of closing your eyes in such a space and having your senses flooded with the background cacophony.

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Apr 16, 2022

The novelist worked from the diaries of a bereaved father to create this creative nonfiction account of the killing of 20-year-old Morgan Hehir

Most weeks, I’m in the habit of looking at a trial list that details the cases at the central criminal court. It’s called “What’s on at the Old Bailey”, as if it’s a section in a listings magazine. For a while, some years ago, nearly all the trials were terror-related, foiled Islamist bomb plots or hate crimes. Recently, however, as in all criminal courts across the land, the listings have returned to their single depressing theme: young men stabbing and killing other young men on Britain’s streets.

One of the most shocking details in David Whitehouse’s harrowing and sensitive account of one of those murders, of 20-year-old Morgan Hehir in Nuneaton in 2015, is the lack of surprise. When Colin Hehir, Morgan’s father, emerged from Warwick crown court the following year, having seen his son’s three killers convicted, he’d prepared a statement for the press, imagining a scrum of flashbulbs and TV cameras. On the court steps, however, there were no media to greet him, no one at all to deliver his statement to. It seemed yet another stabbing was no longer news.

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Mar 21, 2022

This unmissable history traces Britain’s cynical transition over 70 years from imperial power to kleptocrats’ best friend

To say this unmissable, deeply depressing book – about exactly how Britain pimps itself to the world’s dirtiest money – is timely is to miss author Oliver Bullough’s point. The fact is the stories that he tells, sordid tales of a nation flogging its real estate and its services and its football clubs and its good name to the shadiest and highest bidder, no questions asked, have been hiding in plain sight for decades. It has just seemed in no government’s interest to notice them.

Bullough himself has long been shouting from the bullet-proof penthouses about these tales. Alongside his 2018 book Moneyland – a quest into that Narnia of libel laws and tax havens and old-school-tie discretion that makes London so attractive to extortionists – he organised “kleptocrat tours” of the capital, his equivalent of Hollywood Hills rubber-necking, bus trips around Knightsbridge and Mayfair pointing out the mansions where the cronies of the world’s worst dictators and biggest tax dodgers hide their billions.

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Mar 12, 2022

In shocking, meticulous detail, an acclaimed American historian uses ‘lost’ records from 37 former colonies to reveal the barbarity of the British empire and the hubris that fuelled it

Caroline Elkins made front-page headlines a decade ago when her research into Britain’s brutal suppression of the Mau Mau movement in Kenya in the 1950s resulted in a high court case and, uniquely, reparations to 5,228 surviving Kenyans who, the British government accepted, had been subject to years of systematic torture and abuse. That case relied on evidence uncovered in Elkins’s 2005 book, Britain’s Gulag, which had argued that up to 320,000 Kenyan Kikuyu people had been held in British detention camps as part of a campaign of terror that “left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead” and untold numbers of lives ruined by forced labour, starvation, torture and rape.

When Elkins’s book came out, her findings – partly based on the testimony of Kikuyu survivors – were widely dismissed as, at best, exaggerations by a generation of historians wedded to stubborn ideas of Britain’s “enlightened” and “benign empire”. Her history was dramatically vindicated, however, when an unknown cache of 240,000 top secret colonial files, removed from Nairobi at the time of Kenyan independence in 1963, were disclosed on the eve of the 2011 trial. The files had been stored in a high security foreign office depository at Hanslope Park, near Northampton. At the time of that high court victory, Elkins noted that she had for years put on hold a wider inquiry into the methods of British colonial governance in the years after the second world war, in order to substantiate the survivors’ case, research that would now be illuminated by the fact that the secret document store also held “lost” records from 37 other former colonies. She was both vindicated and outraged by the discovery: “After all these years of being roasted over the coals, they’ve been sitting on the evidence? Are you frickin’ kidding me? This almost destroyed my career.”

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Feb 27, 2022

From cavemen to incels, two academics offer different routes in analysing how we arrived at our current crisis in masculinity

A few years ago, I sat through an enjoyable lecture by the artist Grayson Perry about the familiar evils of rigid ideas of masculinity: war, imperialism, misogyny, alienation. The lecture was part of a festival called Being a Man (or BAM! for less evolved members of the tribe). Perry ended his comments with a scribbled series of demands on a whiteboard for a new bill of men’s rights, with which it was hard to argue. “We men ask ourselves and each other for the following: the right to be vulnerable, to be uncertain, to be wrong, to be intuitive, the right not to know, to be flexible and not to be ashamed.” He insisted that men sit down and mostly talk quietly to achieve these aims and was given a rousing standing ovation.

The need for men to be vulnerable, to open up about their insecurities – to become, in cliched terms, more like women – is certainly one antidote to what has become widely understood as the current crisis in masculinity. Thinking about that lecture afterwards, though, it felt a bit limited as a solution. There is no question that mansplainers and manspreaders could do with a fatal dose of humility and doubt. But what about that generation of young men who already feel marginalised from a consumer society, who have been denied most of the markers that traditionally help boys become men: decent jobs, responsible dads, stable homes of their own and, often in consequence, meaningful adult relationships. Would opening up about doubt and vulnerability in itself allow them to achieve self-worth and purpose?

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Jan 29, 2022

The geneticist offers a short, sharp, illuminating overview of the science, politics, uses and abuses of human gene editing

Adam Rutherford begins this sharp and timely study of the science that dare not speak its name with an account of the professor who, in 2018, attempted to genetically modify the embryos of twin daughters, removing them from a woman’s womb and then reimplanting them. “China’s Frankenstein”, He Jiankui, had planned to give the children genetic immunity from HIV/Aids, a disease from which their father suffered. Though his efforts seem to have failed – the girls may not have that immunity and he was jailed for three years and fined three million yuan – the case provides one stark answer to Rutherford’s opening question: “If you have children, you will surely want them to live well. You hope that they are free from disease, and that they fulfil their potential … what are you willing to do to ensure this?”

Ever since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in response to the new sciences of physiology and galvanism, that question has haunted human imaginations. After Darwin and before the Third Reich, eugenics was a science that was embraced, as Rutherford notes, by “suffragists, feminists, philosophers and more than a dozen Nobel prizewinners … [and] was a beacon of light for many countries striving to be better, healthier and stronger”.

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Dec 25, 2021

This meticulous account of the Arab doctor who sheltered a Jewish girl in 1930s Berlin is a remarkable story of subterfuge and courage

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem honours 25,000 individuals who helped to save Jewish lives during the second world war. Among this roll call of the “Righteous among the Nations”, there is only one named Arab: Dr Mohamed Helmy. This remarkable book tells the story of Helmy’s life, in particular the years in which he helped a young Jewish girl, Anna Boros (later Gutman), evade the Nazis in the heart of Berlin from 1936 until the end of the war.

Ronen Steinke, a political commentator at German broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung, has painstakingly pieced together these events from the state archive in Berlin, and from Gestapo correspondence, and interviews with the surviving relatives of Helmy and Gutman in New York and Cairo. His story, deftly translated by Sharon Howe, wears this research lightly. Steinke’s history sheds a light on what he argues is a deliberately forgotten world, the old Arabic Berlin of the Weimar period, centred around the grand mosque in the Wilmersdorf district, which was “open, progressive and far from antisemitic” and which welcomed Jewish luminaries, including Albert Einstein and philosopher Martin Buber, to its cultural events. “It is a perception shared by many Muslims in western countries that the Holocaust was nothing to do with them, that Muslim migrants played no part in that history,” Steinke writes. “This book is evidence to the contrary.”

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Nov 13, 2021

The author of On Tyranny on the lack of historical literacy, how local news has been replaced by Facebook, and why novels matter to him

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University and the author of books about the 20th-century history of central Europe, including Bloodlands, which examined the devastating consequence of Hitler and Stalin’s simultaneous reign of terror over civilian populations, and won the 2013 Hannah Arendt prize for political thought. In 2016, after the election of Donald Trump, Snyder wrote a short book, On Tyranny, which provided 20 brief lessons – “Defend Institutions”, “Remember Professional Ethics”, “Read Books” – from the 20th century that might help readers protect democracy against dictatorship. It topped the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction in 2017. A new edition of the book, with illustrations by the German-American Nora Krug, whose graphic memoir Belonging confronted Germany’s Nazi past, has just been published.

What prompted you to want to make this graphic version of On Tyranny?
It came out originally in this extremely simple, accessible form. I always had the idea that it could take a different form, but that only became concrete once I read Nora Krug’s Belonging. I cold-called her and said: “Could you please do this?” Part of it was also to renew it. I changed the text a little bit, removed some of the stuff that was specific to 2016 and added some lines that recall what happened in 2020.

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Jul 19, 2021

This fascinating insight into our relationship with mind-altering plants weaves personal experimentation with cultural history

Michael Pollan has written for many years, brilliantly, about our relationship with food and farming, in particular for the New York Times. In 2018, in what seemed like a midlife departure, he published a book on “the new science of psychedelics”, which was a personal report on renewed scientific interest in experiments with LSD and Ayahuasca, after decades of taboo. Pollan saw no change of direction in that project, however; he insisted to me at the time that it was simply a natural evolution of his “abiding interest in how we interact with other plant and animal species and how they get ahead in nature by gratifying our desires”. The desire to change consciousness was a fundamental element of that relationship, he suggested. This book, which concerns our species’ symbiotic entanglements with three other potent plant-derived substances – opium, caffeine and mescaline – is a further development of a lifelong inquiry, which began, he writes, when he took up gardening as a teenager and attempted to grow cannabis.

His essays on perhaps the three most dramatically efficacious medicinal compounds proceed in a similar way, weaving personal experimentation with each of the “drugs” into informed histories of the ways in which they have taken such a hold of different human cultures. At the root of each case study is a pair of questions: the first asks why, as a species, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to propagate and disseminate these consciousness-changing molecules, and the second is why they are subject to paranoia and regulation in differing degrees.

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Jun 19, 2021

Far-right conspiracies ran unchecked online in the Trump years. It’s all gone quiet since the Capitol riot, but author Mike Rothschild believes there’s a radicalised audience waiting for a new rallying point

On 7 January this year, a day after the mob stormed the Capitol in Washington DC, a curious exchange occurred in the netherworld of global conspiracy. Alex Jones, the rasp-voiced mouthpiece of fake news for the past decade, was in conversation with the most visible leader of the previous day’s shocking events: Jacob Chansley, the self-styled “Q Shaman” who featured on the world’s front pages, in buffalo horns, animal skins and face paint.

Jones, on his fake-news platform Infowars, with its million-plus viewers and sharers, had for years been the loudhailer of unhinged stories that included the belief that Hillary Clinton was the antichrist, that Michelle Obama was a man, that the Pentagon and George Soros had detonated a “homosexual bomb” that turned even frogs gay, that 9/11 had been a “false flag” operation and, most viciously, that the Sandy Hook school murders, in which 20 children and six teachers died, were staged by “crisis actors” to promote gun control. Jones had inevitably been among those who addressed the restive crowd at Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” march (having donated $50,000 for the staging of the rally) and calling for supporters to “get on a war footing” to defend the president. Two days later, however, when faced with the rhetoric of Chansley, whom he had invited on to his show to explain the insurrection, it seemed even he, America’s conspirator in chief, finally couldn’t take the lies any more.

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Jun 12, 2021

The former Labour leaders’ visions for a better tomorrow share a stubborn political optimism, but are they on ‘the credible end of desirable’?

Among the things Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband have in common, apart from electoral defeat to David Cameron, is a fascination with the best of all possible worlds. That compulsion, which fuels both of these books, might be thought of as the globalist gene, the unbending faith that things can only get better if people would only listen harder to the wisdom of progressive thinktanks.

Their twin “how to fix it all” volumes are published pointedly ahead of a quartet of global summits that neither will attend: the G7 meeting in Cornwall this weekend, August’s nuclear non-proliferation conference at the UN, the G20 summit in Italy in October and the Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow in November. To Brown, these meetings represent, post-Trump and, tentatively, post-Covid, “the opportunity to unwind the protectionism of the last decade and reactivate international collaboration”. You can only trust that President Xi of China and comrade Putin, not to mention our own Brexity prime minister, have received advanced copies of his book.

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May 16, 2021

The Nobel-winning psychologist on applying his ideas to organisations, why we’re not equipped to grasp the spread of a virus, and the massive disruption that’s just round the corner

Daniel Kahneman, 87, was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2002 for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. His first book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a worldwide bestseller, set out his revolutionary ideas about human error and bias and how those traits might be recognised and mitigated. A new book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, written with Olivier Sibony and Cass R Sunstein, applies those ideas to organisations. This interview took place last week by Zoom with Kahneman at his home in New York.

I guess the pandemic is quite a good place to start. In one way it has been the biggest ever hour-by-hour experiment in global political decision-making. Do you think it’s a watershed moment in the understanding that we need to “listen to science”?
Yes and no, because clearly, not listening to science is bad. On the other hand, it took science quite a while to get its act together.

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May 02, 2021

The potter and memoirist’s exacting study of a Parisian family’s collection of art objects is an exquisite coda to The Hare With Amber Eyes

Edmund de Waal, the master potter and memoirist, subscribes to the famous imagist dictum: “no ideas but in things”. This book is an exquisite and profound coda to The Hare With Amber Eyes, his bestselling personal history of a branch of his maternal family, the Ephrussi banking dynasty, told through the few surviving treasures – a trove of Japanese netsuke, including the hare – that escaped Nazi looting. Here he returns to that same milieu. Count Moïse de Camondo was a friend and neighbour of Charles Ephrussi during the belle époque in Paris, living at 63 Rue de Monceau, a few doors down from number 81, the Ephrussi mansion. Like Ephrussi, he was a man of great wealth and taste, who experienced the beginnings of the terrible wave of antisemitism in Europe.

The gift to De Waal as a writer lies in the fact that the house in which Camondo lived has been preserved according to his wishes exactly as it was at his death in 1935. Number 63, a fabulous golden stone house with parkland, was gifted to the French nation in part in memory of Camondo’s only son, Nissim (the name means “miracle”), who was killed in the first world war, in part because he was a great collector, a man incapable of throwing anything away. The house is a vitrine of that past in which there was “talk and food and porcelain and politesse and civilite and everything possible”, a museum of curiosities, each one bearing what De Waal calls in his epigraph “lacrimae rerum”, the tears of things.

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Apr 18, 2021

In these seductively curious essays, Dyer scrutinises images and photographers, unearthing hidden truths and a sense of the uncanny

Geoff Dyer first became interested in photography not by looking at photographs but by reading about other people looking at them. That meant the holy trinity of seers: Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and John Berger. For Dyer, the most inspirational of these three was Berger, about whom he wrote his first book, Ways of Telling, 35 years ago, and from whom he learned his habits as a critic – always letting the evidence of his eyes have precedence over theory, and bringing what psychologists like to call “his whole self” to the task at hand. In Berger’s writing, that had invariably meant something soulful and learned, almost sculptural in intent. Dyer’s sensibility is more fleeting and alive to comic ironies; his writing dramatises both a restless attention, and the moments it is stopped in its tracks. He shares with his mentor, however, that autodidact’s sense of bringing his singular frame of reference to bear on a singular framed image. “Naturally, I have no method,” he says, characteristically, by way of casual introduction to this collection of short essays. “I just look and think about what I’m looking at.”

Dyer has achieved that rare elevation as an essayist that allows him to demand all his published thoughts be preserved between hard covers

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Apr 18, 2021

The New Yorker editor on Fragile Earth, a new collection of the magazine’s climate crisis writing, the continuing dangers of Trumpism – and seeing his family for the first time in a year

David Remnick has been the editor of the New Yorker since 1998. The Fragile Earth, a selection of the writing that has appeared in the magazine about climate change, is out now.

You say that as a young reporter you wrote quite a lot about dramatic weather events. Can you remember when those localised storms and fires and floods started to suggest something more apocalyptic?
When I was at the Washington Post, Len Downie, Ben Bradlee’s successor as editor, was obsessed with “weather stories” and played them big. And there was much high-minded, wise-guy joking about this, as if it were the height of ordinariness. But when I think back on it, Downie was right. Weather is what envelops and affects us all. And our decades-long heedlessness to climate change has done great damage to the world. So when we think about all of these unusual storms and fires, these are no longer “weather stories” – banalities, part of the nature of things – they aren’t merely that. They’re exacerbated by human behaviour over time and they are harbingers of worse.

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Mar 27, 2021

From the troubled marriages to the breakthroughs that led to Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral… a beautifully written book by Roth’s chosen biographer

In response to that staple biographer’s question, “when were you happiest?”, Philip Roth tended to think of his first year as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, when he was free to pursue his persistent “Byronic dream” of “bibliography by day, women by night”. In the six decades that followed, as Blake Bailey’s compulsively readable life of the novelist reveals, this idealised schedule was generally compromised one way or another, to Roth’s frequent frustration and sometime derangement. In Chicago and subsequently during his two-year national service beginning at Fort Dix, he had regular visits from his first obsessive lover, Maxine Groffsky, and he reminisced fondly to Bailey how on meeting, they would always tear each other’s clothes off at the door. “I haven’t done that in a while,” Roth mused, aged 79. “I take them off nicely, I hang them up, I get into bed and I read. And I enjoy it as much as I enjoyed tearing the clothes off.” That late-life liberation from desire is 900 pages in the making.

The two great and lasting traumas of Roth’s life were his marriages. He came to believe he had been trapped into both of them. First by Margaret Martinson, a waitress five years his senior, whom he had initially seduced as a “test” to see if he could charm a “shiksa blonde” and who Bailey later describes, through Roth’s eyes, as “a bitter, impoverished, sexually undesirable divorcee”. Martinson tricked him into a terrible union with false claims that she was pregnant, backed up with a sample of urine bought for $3 from an expectant mother in a homeless shelter, and threats of suicide if Roth should ever leave her. The second perceived “entrapment” was with the actor Claire Bloom, with whom Roth spent nearly 20 years from 1975, years that she documented in her brutally critical memoir of his role in their drama, Leaving a Doll’s House.

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Feb 07, 2021

The former Daily Mail columnist details the lies that assisted the prime minister’s rise to power, but is slow to admit his own part in a culpable media

There have been some spectacular U-turns from political observers in the past five years – Piers Morgan’s desperate and tragically belated efforts to distance himself from Donald Trump, for example – but no reverse-ferret has been quite so vehemently trumpeted as that of Peter Oborne. Back in 2016, in his Daily Mail column, Oborne was proclaiming a new dawn of Conservatism, with Labour in collapse and David Cameron a busted flush. A “glittering prospect of 12 uninterrupted years as prime minister” awaited the winner of any leadership campaign, he suggested, and Boris Johnson’s years as mayor gave him “huge credibility” for the role. When the Brexit referendum got under way Oborne confidently announced: “In my opinion, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are the two most brilliant politicians of their generation… courageous men… [with] the personal charisma and intellectual gifts to ensure that the case for Britain to leave the EU is seriously heard,” which “anyone who is a patriotic Briton – and everyone who believes in democracy – should welcome”.

How to square that unqualified endorsement with the blunt question he asks at the beginning of this short and entertainingly outraged book: “What led the British people to put a liar into Downing Street?”

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Jan 24, 2021

Conversations featuring the likes of Noam Chomsky, Brian Eno and Slavoj Žižek imagine a more communal world after Covid

In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, 10 friends escape from the city of Florence when it is shut down by the Black Death and hole up in a villa in the hills, where each night for a fortnight they tell one another stories of love and tragedy. Something of the same spirit animates this collection of conversations that occurred in the strangest of fortnights in our own times: the weeks at the end of March and the beginning of April last year when the whole world was first forced behind closed doors by Covid-19.

The conversations, conducted over Zoom, are mostly convened by the Croatian activist and writer Srećko Horvat who, along with Yanis Varoufakis, is the driving force behind DiEM25, a radical initiative that aims to more fully democratise the EU. The storytellers in this case, isolated in their studies and sitting rooms across the world, include leading figures of the intellectual left such as Noam Chomsky and Richard Sennett; critics of surveillance capitalism like Shoshana Zuboff and Evgeny Morozov; artists, musicians and actors including Brian Eno and Gael García Bernal; and, inevitably, contrarians like Tariq Ali and Slavoj Žižek. Their subject is the opportunity presented by the pandemic to reshape society, to “build back better” as the politicians’ phrase goes.

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Jan 24, 2021

Employment today is atomised, casual and unequal, argues US author Sarah Jaffe in her book Work Won’t Love You Back. Here she discusses why the way we look at work needs to change

If the past year has made us ask one question, it must surely be: how is it that our society so often chooses to place the least value on the work it needs the most?

One effect of the pandemic has been to strip away some of the mythologies of the labour market to reveal its bare essentials, what we have come to know as our “key workers”: that extraordinary frontline army in the NHS, the indispensable “caring professions”, the teachers who have tried to manage their children at home and our children on Zoom, the refuse collectors and transport workers and shop assistants and delivery drivers who have risked their health to keep it all going. How can it be that these jobs, that none of us can do without and not all of us would be able or prepared to do, are routinely among the lowliest in terms of reward? Should it really only be the market that decides what work is worth? How can we continue to justify a world in which Dido Harding’s management consultants pocket in a couple of days what an ICU nurse might earn in a month or where Jeff Bezos makes many, many times more in a second than one of his warehouse workers takes home in a year?

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Dec 28, 2020

A fragmentary, poetic reimagining of Bacon’s last days in Madrid reads like a private communion with the painter

The facts of the death of Francis Bacon were these: in April 1992, the artist, against his doctor’s advice, took a trip to Madrid to visit his last great love, the young banker José Capelo, the subject of his final triptych of paintings. A few days after arriving in the city, Bacon, aged 82, was taken by ambulance to a convent hospital, suffering from familiar kidney and breathing problems. For six days until his death he remained in intensive care, looked after by a nun called Sister Mercedes. In those six days, the atheist Bacon received no visitors and, with limited Spanish, spoke only a few words. His body was cremated two days after his death, according to his wishes, at a municipal cemetery, without ceremony or mourners. As his biographer Michael Peppiatt noted: “A life filled with the extremes of human emotion and devoted to expressing them with utmost force had ended, almost anonymously, in utter silence.”

Related: Max Porter: 'Writing allows me to worry about stuff better'

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Nov 21, 2020

In her final interview just before the first lockdown, the renowned travel writer spoke cheerfully of her last journey

Usually, nine months after meeting someone, interviewing them and writing about them for the newspaper, you would expect one or two details of the encounter to stay alive in your mind. But my recollection of the day in late February that I visited Jan Morris at her home in north-west Wales is not like that. Every moment remains vivid.

Perhaps, you might say, this is because my pre-lockdown journey there – driving through Snowdonia on a wild, windy morning and down to the sea at Criccieth – was just about the only travelling I’ve done all year. But I don’t believe it is that. As anyone knows who ever made that journey to visit her at home, or who ever opened any of her 40 books, Morris dealt in adventure. Having packed her life brim full of extraordinary journeys, pilgrimages and quests, she knew exactly how to conjure their contours for others.

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Nov 01, 2020

The fashion photographer and documenter of 60s London looks back in the company of old friends and lovers in a raw and surprising memoir

Spare a thought for the sleepless nights of Mr Edward Shrimpton, a self-made builder, who by 1960 had bought himself a 200-acre farm in Buckinghamshire, and sent his two daughters to the best local convent school. First, his eldest, Jean, 18, falls for a married man, an East Ender, who has been taking “glamour” pictures of her. And if that weren’t enough, his younger daughter, Chrissie, is knocking around with a student, whose only prospect of gainful employment seems to be with a music group who are yet to release a record. Faced with the prospect of David Bailey in his hay barn and Mick Jagger in his back bedroom, it seems that Edward Shrimpton could not decide who to aim his shotgun at first.

Sixty years on, Jean Shrimpton and Bailey can still conjure the thrill of those early liaisons, in which at least one free-spirited image of the decade that followed was created. They never did an interview together in the years that they made each other famous, as far as they recall, so when they sit down here, at the heart of Bailey’s predictably candid memoir, it’s like they are piecing together little fragments of a shared fantasy: the landmark Vogue shoot in New York, taking studio fashion on to the street, him bringing flowers to her, and carrying them without embarrassment, their first sex, on Littleton Common (“ah yes, I remember it well”). “It took me three months to get my leg across,” Bailey recalls, to emphasise his gallantry.

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Oct 25, 2020

The philosopher’s new book attacks the idea that any ideology has the answers to life’s questions – but advice from cats might be his exception…

What’s it like to be a cat? John Gray has spent a lifetime half-wondering. The philosopher – to his many fans the intellectual cat’s pyjamas, to his critics the least palatable of furballs – has had feline companions at home since he was a boy in South Shields. In adult life – he now lives in Bath with his wife Mieko, a dealer in Japanese antiquities – this has principally been two pairs of cats: “Two Burmese sisters, Sophie and Sarah, and two Birman brothers, Jamie and Julian.” The last of them, Julian, died earlier this year, aged 23. Gray, currently catless, is by no means a sentimental writer, but his new book, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, is written in memory of their shared wisdom.

Other philosophers have been enthralled by cats over the years. There was Schrödinger and his box, of course. And Michel de Montaigne, who famously asked: “When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?” The rationalist René Descartes, Gray notes, once “hurled a cat out of the window in order to demonstrate the absence of conscious awareness in non-human animals; its terrified screams were mechanical reactions, he concluded.”

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