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The Financial Times reported today that the UK has the worst death rate from Covid-19 ‘among countries that produce comparable data’ (new data from Spain now put it ahead of the UK). The delay to introducing lockdown measures was made worse by shortages of PPE, a chaotic testing policy and a failure to protect care homes. The standard the government wanted to be measured by was ‘excess deaths’ – a public health term meaning the number of deaths above the expected level in any given period – and by this measure its policies have fallen short. ‘The UK has registered 59,537 more deaths than usual since the week ending 20 March,’ the FT says. The evidence points to a catastrophic mistake. But something worries me about the apparent neutrality of the term ‘excess deaths’. British political culture is very good at making avoidable deaths seem like an unfortunate fact of life, or a matter of personal responsibility.

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28 May 2020

Inflammable Films

Anna Aslanyan

An exhibition of pictures or other optical effects by means of a cinematograph, or other similar apparatus, for the purpose of which inflammable films are used, shall not be given unless the regulations made by the Secretary of State for securing safety are complied with.

The 1909 Cinematograph Act used the term ‘inflammable films’ in a literal sense – cellulose nitrate catches fire easily – but some local authorities interpreted it to mean ‘morally dangerous’, and it led to censorship. Still, the act wasn’t as confusing as the latest flurry of communication from the British government. One of its requirements was that exhibitors provide fire exits, which led to the emergence of purpose-built picture houses. Many of the buildings are still standing, though few of them are still cinemas.

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26 May 2020

The Crime Bureau

Forrest Hylton

Bolsonaro’s cabinet meeting, which lasted several profanity-laced hours, was more like a mafia conclave than an affair of state. No reference was made to the thousands of dead and dying. The one reference to the virus came from the environment minister, who noted that with everyone distracted by the pandemic, the time was ripe to privatise and liberalise the Amazon further. Brazil now has to explain those remarks to the UN. The main issue in the meeting was that Bolsonaro had tried without success to change the head of the federal police in Rio so that no one would ‘fuck over’ his family or friends. He would therefore fire whomever he needed to, including the then justice minister, Sérgio Moro, and replace them with ‘people who belong to our structures’.

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22 May 2020

Cram it sideways

Thomas Jones

Eric Foner’s piece on the history of the electoral college has been getting an unusual amount of attention online this week, with a huge spike in pageviews on Wednesday and Thursday. It was shared on Pocket (the app formerly known as ‘Read it Later’), but also in more surprising places, such as a politics forum on a fansite for the Texas A&M college football team. It may have been doing the rounds in less public quarters, too, on Facebook and WhatsApp, since we’ve received dozens of angry – and eerily similar – letters to the editor from people who don’t appear to be regular readers of the paper.

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21 May 2020

Ringing a Bell to a New World

Adam Shatz

Two years ago, I asked the free jazz pianist Matthew Shipp if he would take part in a concert I was organising in remembrance of Cecil Taylor, who had just died. He said he’d be willing to give a talk, but not to perform. Taylor hadn’t influenced his work, and he didn’t want to encourage the notion that he had. I wasn’t surprised (I’ve known Shipp for more than twenty years). His feelings about Taylor were complicated, and the two men often jousted, especially on the subject of Bill Evans, whom Taylor disparaged as the great white hope of jazz piano, and Shipp reveres. Shipp had also been saddled with the ‘heir of Cecil Taylor’ label for three decades, even though the resemblances in their playing are superficial. The only comparison with Taylor that Shipp ever welcomed was made by a mutual friend, the saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, who told him: ‘You’re just like Cecil Taylor – you’re both bad motherfuckers.’ 

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20 May 2020

Beyond Thanks

Rachel Malik

It would be nice to think that such statements, like the weekly ‘clap for our carers’, acknowledged the value of affective labour. But when work is characterised as a set of exceptional actions or feelings – sacrifice, heroism, selflessness, going ‘above and beyond’ – the question of pay, or economic and social security, can be avoided. On Radio 4’s Westminster Hour on Sunday, Kit Malthouse, the justice minister, said that he hoped the crisis would foster the development of care work as a credentialised, ‘desirable, professional career’. Would there be more pay, he was asked. ‘Possibly,’ he replied. Like the ‘care badge’ proposed by Hancock (one of the most toe-curling government micro-responses to the pandemic), the great thing about praise and thanks is that they don’t need to come with guarantees of anything else.

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19 May 2020

The Wrong Shark

Arianne Shahvisi

‘The Bazaar at Constantinople’, watercolour by J.F. Lewis
Wellcome Collection

One of the central motifs of Orientalist painting is the Eastern market, with sunbeams cutting through dusty air onto opulent fabrics, bright piles of fruit, pyramids of spices, and enigmatic stall-holders (the genre has its own subsection on Wikipedia). The modern analogue is the holiday photograph of the exotic bazaar or mercado. There’s one of me in a souk in Palestine, feigning shock in front of a shark impaled on a giant fishhook, reminiscent of a scene from Jaws. As with other Orientalist representations, these images have a dual effect: they express desire and fascination, on the one hand, and repulsion and condescension on the other. Foreign markets are both alluring and horrifying.

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