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James Meek

James Meek’s latest novel is To Calais, in Ordinary Time, set in a plague year. His essay collection Dreams of Leaving and Remaining includes articles first published in the LRB.

In 1348

James Meek, 2 April 2020

The plague may have heightened awareness among the peasantry that communicating with God through a priest and doing their manorial lord’s work for free was something they acquiesced to, rather than the natural state of things, but these were customs and rituals linked directly to essential matters, eternal life and bread. With us, it is the reverse. Our practices, lost not as a direct result of epidemic mortality but the frantic effort to prevent it, seemed when we had access to them to be merely things we did, but can now be seen as substitutes for existential meaning: the office, the pub, the restaurant, the foreign holiday, the cruise. When you aren’t going anywhere, the danger is that you might start seeing the way things are going. Just as medieval peasants wondered whether the world would end if they refused to give their lord their labour for free, we might find ourselves wondering why, if the world is capable of mustering so much financial and material firepower to fight Covid-19 and save businesses from going under, it can’t muster it for other purposes.

From The Blog
9 March 2020

Not since the financial crisis of 2008, when there were fewer smartphones in the world by a factor of ten, has the world as a whole faced an emergency like the coronavirus epidemic. And while the financial crisis affected countries differently, Covid-19 affects countries in pretty much the same way. Such different parts of the world, all the same, all in it together. The fear, the uncertainty, the panic-buying, the masked figures swarming around hospital beds and public buildings. Palm trees in the background, then snowy mountains in the background, then apartment blocks in the background – is this San Francisco, Milan or Shanghai?

Short Cuts: Deepfakery

James Meek, 25 November 2019

Electionseason 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...

The Dreamings of Dominic Cummings

James Meek, 24 October 2019

Iwent​ travelling in Remainia. My aim was to write about St Albans in Hertfordshire, a city just north of London where voters and the local MP are out of sync on the wedge issue of the day. In 2016 the people of St Albans voted heavily to remain in the EU – among cities, St Albans was behind only Edinburgh, Cambridge, Oxford, Brighton and Glasgow in the rankings of pro-EU vote...

The Faragist Future

James Meek, 1 August 2019

I used to share the feeling that there was something contradictory about Rees-Mogg’s elderly Edwardian schoolboy act in Parliament and his cosmopolitan quest for value in the stock markets of the world. Burrowing deep into the facts in search of a gotcha! moment is a vital journalistic endeavour, and may it continue for ever. But having read through years of Rees-Mogg’s voluminous parliamentary speeches and looked at the activities of Somerset Capital Management, I find that the paradigm ‘He says he’s one thing, but actually he’s another’ misses the bigger point, which is that there is no contradiction. Rees-Mogg is out in plain sight. The Rees-Mogg of SCM and the Rees-Mogg of Parliament are facets of a single worldview that shows the actual nature of Faragist Britain.

Pushkin in English

James Meek, 6 June 2019

Pushkin lies entombed in the vast mausoleum of his reputation. According to Oleg Turnov, who compiles an annual list, new works of Russian Pushkinography are published at the rate of several hundred a year, rising to an average of three a day in 1999, the bicentenary of his birth, and range from multi-volume academic studies and serious biographies to lurid works like Aleksandr Zinukhov’s Who Killed Aleksander Pushkin? And when you finally get to Pushkin, you’re liable to be told that if you don’t speak Russian you can’t get to him anyway.

The Shock of the News

James Meek, 6 December 2018

The internet hasn’t so much changed people’s relationship to news as altered their self-awareness in the act of reading it. Before, we were isolated recipients of the news; now, we are self-consciously members of groups reacting to news in shared ways. Marvellously, this facilitates solidarity for the truly oppressed, for campaigners, for those with minority interests. But it also means that the paranoid, the suspicious, the xenophobic and the conspiracy-minded know they’re not alone. They’re conscious of themselves as a collective, as an audience, weeping, cheering, heckling and screaming from the safety of the darkness over the stalls, occasionally pulling on a mask to jump onto the stage and pull down the trousers of the performers or to start a false panic that the theatre is on fire.

For England and St George

James Meek, 11 October 2018

Every myth has two facets, the story that is told to make events or states of being comprehensible to people, and the underlying events or states that provide the material for the myth; a stylised, simplified dramatisation of change, and the change that demands dramatisation. Reckless, hypocritical, deluded, mendacious and chauvinist as they are, the Brexiteers found a real set of circumstances, and misapplied a popular, off-the-shelf folk myth to it. By simply rejecting the Brexiteer myth, without offering another, better one, the Remainers appear to deny the underlying changes.

NHS SOS

James Meek, 5 April 2018

In the year of its seventieth anniversary, the 1.3 million people who work for the National Health Service in England find themselves in a surreal situation. They’re effectively working within two realities at once, expected simultaneously to inhabit an NHS universe where a radical, highly optimistic reform programme is under way, and a second universe in which the organisation is unmistakeably close to breakdown.

Passionate Politics

James Meek, 30 November 2017

What is identity politics? Is it, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, a part of society you don’t like that’s fighting for its interests as fiercely as yours does? Or is it, as Mark Lilla puts it in The Once and Future Liberal, ‘a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition’? The book belongs to the genre of responses to Donald Trump’s election in which liberal American academics turn their rage on their own intellectual-political class. Lilla argues that the pursuit of identity politics by liberal graduates has crippled and distracted the Democrats.

Short Cuts: Fan-Owned Politics

James Meek, 31 May 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. Today, belief in the...

Somerdale to Skarbimierz

James Meek, 19 April 2017

The Mini Eggs production line was trucked the thousand miles to the new factory in the village of Skarbimierz in February 2010. In March, Caramel and Freddo were moved to Cadbury’s Bournville plant and Fry’s Chocolate Cream went to Blois in France. In June, the Crunchie bar line and Fry’s Turkish Delight were moved to Poland, followed in September by Curly Wurly, and in December by Chomp, Fudge, Picnic and Double Decker. ‘We watched the last few Double Deckers go through,’ said Silsbury. Someone took a photo of the final Fudge to come down the conveyor.

Jameson on Chandler

James Meek, 5 January 2017

We think​ of immigration as a movement in space, from one country to another. In conventional terms, those who were born in the United States are American; those who were not are immigrants. They were born in another country, in another culture. They bring with them from their homeland certain habits and values, shared assumptions and common experiences – certain prejudices, perhaps....

15 March 2003. In the evening I unwrap my gas mask, try it on, tighten the straps, take out the filter cartridge, check it’s not cracked. I unseal the NBC suit – short for ‘nuclear, biological, chemical’. I have a flak jacket and a helmet. I lay it all out on the horrible turquoise bedspread in the Radisson hotel room. Seldom can so many have gone from such odious luxury so quickly into war against such a poor country with so little provocation. I unpack and repack the medical kits. There is some good stuff in there, and a remarkable number of ways to treat diarrhoea.

Farms and Farmers

James Meek, 15 June 2016

Between its towns and cities, the rumpled skin of lowland Britain is covered and pierced in many ways, by church steeples, nuclear reactors, safari parks, six-lane highways, ruined monasteries, radio telescopes, wind turbines, landfill sites, golf courses. Mostly, though, it’s a patchwork of oblongs of open ground stretching to the horizon, marked at the join by hedges and lines of trees. Farmed fields, in other words. We perceive the countryside as if farmed fields were the default state, as if the two were synonymous. But why should this be true, when so much else has changed?

The Great Train Robbery

James Meek, 4 May 2016

People who live in cities assume their city is a thing in the way they talk about it. They ‘hate’ London, they ‘adore’ Belfast. We don’t speak of the railways as a whole in that way even though we move in and out of the railways constantly, and spend hours – years – of our lives there. The railways may, as Simon Bradley writes, be ‘a uniquely discrete system: a separate domain ... ruled by their own mysterious rhythms and laws’, but you seldom hear ‘I love the railways,’ or ‘I hate the railways.’

Robin Hood in a Time of Austerity

James Meek, 18 February 2016

The wealthiest and most powerful in Europe, Australasia and North America have turned the myth to their advantage. In this version of Robin Hood the traditional poor – the unemployed, the disabled, refugees – have been put into the conceptual box where the rich used to be. It is they, the social category previously labelled ‘poor’, who are accused of living in big houses, wallowing in luxury and not needing to work, while those previously considered rich are redesignated as the ones who work terribly hard for fair reward or less, forced to support this new category of poor-who-are-considered-rich.

After the Vote

James Meek, 17 December 2015

People mistrust originality, especially in politicians. The safe political performance is an enactment of the familiar. The political effort to extend British airstrikes against Islamic State from Iraq to Syria began in November when David Cameron set out his case to Parliament in relatively decorous terms. By 2 December, when Parliament voted in favour, an older, cruder performance had emerged. One of the prime minister’s enactments back in November was the voice that accompanies TV adverts from large corporations with millions of customers, like high street banks or big energy firms.

Diary: Real Murderers!

James Meek, 7 October 2015

From the outside, 100 Piccadilly is rooted in the psychic space of London, England, or at least this part of London: plastic Union Jacks, haggard tourists, sleek servants, billionaires’ children, dark, hoarded property. The golden stone of its modest neoclassical façade, designed by Robert Edis in 1883, blends into the street front overlooking Green Park. If you had to guess what lay inside you might hazard a hedge fund, or a tax avoidance consultancy, or empty space, left to fatten. Experimental art and its practitioners, surely, left Mayfair long ago, if they were ever there.

Jonathan Franzen

James Meek, 23 September 2015

Jonathan Franzen​ has been compared to 19th-century greats: to Tolstoy, to Dickens. In respect of his best and most successful book, The Corrections, the praise carries a false hint of the retrograde, of revival of old forms or subject matter. Published at the turn of the millennium, The Corrections is a work of its time, not for its topical themes of dementia, the medicated society or...

Who owns Grimsby?

James Meek, 22 April 2015

I’d come to Grimsby to see why, after seventy years of voting Labour, the town was flirting with the United Kingdom Independence Party. After a while I began wondering what had happened to make Grimsby a wild and lonely enough place for the sandpiper to feel at home. It turns out the reason is the same. Someone, or something, abdicated power in Grimsby, leaving swathes of it to rot. But who, or what? And what will the succession be? People tell you in Grimsby there was only one power: that fish was king, and that it didn’t abdicate, it was overthrown by foreigners.

Seventy Hours with Don Draper

James Meek, 8 April 2015

Luxurious flakes of snow fall on a lot filled with flawless Christmas trees for sale, lit by strings of lights hung from red and white candy-striped poles. The camera swoops on a family of five, husband, wife and three children, arranged in perfect descending height order from left to right, husband Henry to little Bobby. The shot is framed by two trees; in the upper right corner, a group of smiling shoppers coming through the lot balances the family in the lower left. Tall, masculine Henry is exquisite in camel-hair overcoat and a polo-neck in the same Christmas green as the pine needles.

Shamed in Afghanistan

James Meek, 18 December 2014

The British army is back in Warminster and its other bases around the country. Its eight-year venture in southern Afghanistan is over. The extent of the military and political catastrophe it represents is hard to overstate. It was doomed to fail before it began, and fail it did, at a terrible cost in lives and money. How bad was it? In a way it was worse than a defeat, because to be defeated, an army and its masters must understand the nature of the conflict they are fighting. Britain never did understand, and now we would rather not think about it.

In Farageland

James Meek, 8 October 2014

Thanet, where Nigel Farage will try to win a Westminster seat at the next election, lies nicely along the axis of his commute between his home in South London and his office at the European Parliament in Brussels. If Kent, cartographically speaking, is England’s rigfht foot, the Isle of Thanet is its big toe, pointing east into the sea towards Belgium. It hasn’t been an actual island since the 15th century, when the channel separating it from the English mainland silted up, but it’s still surrounded by water on three sides, and when the sun shines in summer, the light suffusing the air over the chubby peninsula has a vertiginous depthlessness.

A Leopard in the Family

James Meek, 18 June 2014

My family kept a leopard. It shared space with us, my parents and my brother and sisters, in every house I remember. It was with us in London, moved with us to Nottingham and crossed the border with us into Scotland when I was five. We had to bunk up two to a room in the early years in Dundee, my siblings and I, but there was always a place for the leopard. When we dispersed to university, we left the leopard behind with our parents. It’s still there, in the cool brightness of the porch of their house on the hill in Broughty Ferry in the east of Dundee, with logs and potatoes and an old sideboard hand-decorated by my mother.

Putin’s Counter-Revolution

James Meek, 20 March 2014

The Russians and Ukrainians of the 1990s were able to temper regret at the collapse of the USSR with their own knowledge of the dismembered country’s shortcomings. A generation later, this is less and less the case. Many of the most articulate and thoughtful Russians and Ukrainians, those of middle age who knew the realities of Soviet life and later prospered in the post-Soviet world, have moved abroad, gone into a small business or been intimidated: in any case they have been taken out of the political arena.

The Housing Disaster

James Meek, 9 January 2014

A housing shortage that has been building up for the past thirty years is reaching the point of crisis. The party in power, whose late 20th-century figurehead, Margaret Thatcher, did so much to create the problem, is responding by separating off the economically least powerful and squeezing them into the smallest, meanest, most insecure possible living space. In effect, if not in explicit intention, it is a let-the-poor-be-poor crusade, a Campaign for Real Poverty. The government has stopped short of explicitly declaring war on the poor. But how different would the situation be if it had?

James Salter’s Apotheosis

James Meek, 20 June 2013

It isn’t Salter’s language alone that numbers him among the masters, but it is what strikes you first. From Light Years of 1975: ‘On the stands in nearby orchards were hard, yellow apples filled with powerful juice. They exploded against the teeth, they spat white flecks like arguments.’ From the story ‘Am Strande von Tanger’, on the death of a bird: ‘A heart no bigger than an orange seed has ceased to beat.’ From his first novel, The Hunters of 1957, a description of fuel tanks jettisoned by fighters, falling from high altitude over Korea: ‘There were a dozen or more, going down like thin cries fading in silence.’

Cyprus’s Depositor Haircut

James Meek, 9 May 2013

Before I went to Cyprus, before I met Panikos Demetriou, it seemed to me that ordinary people hadn’t done too badly in the rescue of the Cypriot financial system. Ordinary people with up to 100,000 euros in the two biggest banks, Laiki and Bank of Cyprus, got to keep their money; surely only the rich would suffer when the government confiscated the rest? Surely only rich people – and, in the case of those two banks, rather foolish rich people – would have more than €100,000 lying in a bank account?

Nikolai Leskov

James Meek, 25 April 2013

‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ has a murder scene as intimate, detailed and unflinchingly choreographed as its counterparts in Crime and Punishment and The Kreutzer Sonata. Katerina Lvovna has killed her father-in-law with rat poison because he promised to expose her affair with a peasant, and now that her husband has returned, she and her lover murder him too. The plain language, the...

Short Cuts: Anglospheroids

James Meek, 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...

‘Breaking Bad’

James Meek, 3 January 2013

There’s a scene in Breaking Bad, a third of the way through the 54 episodes shot and screened on US TV so far, that marks a significant moment in the gradual passage of its central character, Walter White, from hero to villain. Walter, a middle-aged high school chemistry teacher who’s become a manufacturer of illegal drugs, is walking down the aisle of a DIY superstore in his home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico when another customer’s laden trolley catches his eye.

Mikhail Shishkin

James Meek, 22 November 2012

Most writers of fiction want to give their readers the sense of an alternative passage of time to the actual one. This, the narrative drive, comes through a combination of events following one another in chronological order and events having consequences that lead to other events – a mix, in other words, of the consecutive and the contingent. Pride and Prejudice, The Big Sleep and The...

Does it matter that the power Britain relies on to make the country glow and hum no longer belongs to Britain? After all, the lights still shine. The phones still charge. Does it matter that the old electricity suppliers of eastern and north-west England and the English Midlands, the coal-fired power stations of Kingsnorth, Ironbridge and Ratcliffe-on-Soar, the turbine shops at Hams Hall, the oil and gas stations on the Isle of Grain, Killingholme, Enfield and Cottam are the property of E.ON of Düsseldorf?

Short Cuts: Yulia Tymoshenko

James Meek, 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...

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...

Diary: Bobos for Boris?

James Meek, 26 April 2012

One evening in London in 2004, knots of people – mainly mothers with young children – gathered on the pavement along the northern end of the No. 73 bus route. As the buses clattered through Stoke Newington, their ancient engines straining to accelerate up the slight slope of Albion Road, the children waved. It was the last night the old double-decker Routemaster bus would do duty...

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.

Diary: In Athens

James Meek, 1 December 2011

Darkness has fallen, and with it, a dynasty. George Papandreou, the prime minister, is on the car radio, making his parting speech. Since 1944 he, his father Andreas and his grandfather Georgios have been prime minister six times between them. Papandreou 3.0’s premiership was blighted from the start. On 20 October 2009, only 16 days after his mild-soup PASOK socialists had come to power, his finance minister piped up at a meeting with European counterparts in Luxembourg. Reminding them of Greece’s already high budget deficit, he confessed that, actually, it looked like being about twice as high. Sorry! It’s been downhill ever since, as the assortment of Greek and foreign lenders who allowed the country effectively to run up a huge mortgage jacked up the interest rate on that mortgage to fantastic levels.

Short Cuts: In the Ghost Library

James Meek, 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...

The NHS Goes Private

James Meek, 22 September 2011

Wrightington Hospital, in the countryside near Wigan, is an accretion of postwar buildings of different eras clustered round an 18th-century mansion. It was sold to Lancashire County Council in 1920 after the death of its last resident, a spendthrift, according to one writer, ‘with a fanatical attachment to blood sports’. The hospital promotes itself as ‘a centre of orthopaedic excellence’. National Health Service hospitals have to promote themselves these days. Earlier this year it survived a brush with closure. It’s neat and scrubbed and slightly worn at the edges, unable to justify to itself that few per cent of the budget the private sector sets aside for corporate sheen, although it does have a museum dedicated to John Charnley, who, almost half a century ago, pioneered the popular benchmark of the NHS’s success or failure, the hip replacement operation.

In the Sorting Office

James Meek, 28 April 2011

Somewhere in the Netherlands a postwoman is in trouble. Bad health, snow and ice and a degree of chaos in her personal life have left her months behind on her deliveries. She rents a privatised ex-council flat with her partner and so many crates of mail have built up in the hallway that it’s getting hard to move around. Twice a week one of the private mail companies she works for, Selektmail, drops off three or four crates of letters, magazines and catalogues. She sorts and delivers the fresh crates but the winter backlog is tough to clear. She thinks her employers are getting suspicious. I counted 62 full mail crates stacked up in the hall when I visited recently. There was a narrow passageway between the wall of crates and her personal pile of stuff: banana boxes, a disused bead curtain, a mop bucket. The postwoman is paid a pittance to deliver corporate mail. She hasn’t done her job well, yet so few people have complained about missed deliveries that she hasn’t been found out.

Tolstoy Leaves Home

James Meek, 22 July 2010

What are we saying when we say someone has ‘gone out of their mind’? The thing about going out of your mind is that the mind is still there; you can go back. You haven’t lost your mind. You’ve just gone out of it. The Russians use the same phrase. The Russian adjective meaning ‘crazy’, which is the same as the noun for ‘insane person’, is sumasshedshy, literally ‘who was going out of their mind’. Sofia Andreyevna Tolstoy, wife of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, did go out of her mind at the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana in 1910. She didn’t lose her mind. She went back to it later, and lived another nine years. But she did lose her husband, who ran away from her and died of pneumonia in a rural stationmaster’s house a few days later.

David Peace

James Meek, 6 August 2009

Stories rely on mystery. Who killed the old lady? We don’t know, so we read on to find out. Perhaps we do know, so we read on to see if the killer will be caught. It may be that we know the culprit’s identity, and know they’ll be caught, but we read on to find out how, and why they did it. Or perhaps we know all these things, but, having been introduced to a set of...

England’s Water

James Meek, 31 July 2008

Looking through the photographs I took in Tewkesbury in May, I found two pictures of Chuck Pavey and his floodwater hand. There’s Pavey, a 66-year-old retired electrician in a Manchester United hooded top, a wispy white pageboy haircut and dark glasses, standing by a wall on the bank of the River Avon. He’s holding his right hand horizontally in the air, about thirty centimetres above the top of the wall, which comes up to his waist. The olive-coloured Avon ripples away, three or four metres further below. In the background is an arched pedestrian bridge, a willow tree with its lower fronds stroking the water, and the massive red brick wall of a derelict flour mill. In the next picture, Pavey is standing next to the freshly whitewashed wall of the White Bear pub, looking more agitated, as if he’s afraid I still haven’t got the point. It’s the same stance, except that this time the hand has risen above his head. It hovers about two metres above the level of the road; it comes three-quarters of the way up the casement of the pub window. I got the point. If you’d tried to stand where Pavey was standing on Monday, 23 July 2007 – the day water levels peaked in Tewkesbury – you’d have been treading water.

A Great Radical Modernist

James Meek, 22 May 2008

The opening story in James Kelman’s 1998 collection, The Good Times, is called ‘Joe Laughed’. It’s nine pages long and is told from the point of view of a boy who plays football on a patch of waste ground among derelict industrial buildings by the river in a large, unnamed city which British readers are bound to assume is Glasgow. You don’t find out the boy’s name, or his age, although hints and the boy’s style of reflection encourage you to guess he’s between 14 and 16. At half-time, the boy and two friends start exploring an abandoned factory. After a bit, the boy’s friends hit him and run away laughing.

The Rise of the Private Army

James Meek, 2 August 2007

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. Such tunnels, such golf-carts, such fleets of helicopters armed with machine-guns. Such tours of firing ranges where hired muscle in beige boiler suits incinerates cardboard targets with grenades and automatic weapons. ‘What do you think of our little playground, Mr Bond?’

The Birth of al-Qaida

James Meek, 8 February 2007

In 1995, in Sudan, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri put two teenage boys on trial for treason, sodomy and attempted murder, in a Sharia court of his own devising. Of the two boys, one, Ahmed, was only 13. Zawahiri, the partner in terror of Osama bin Laden, had them stripped naked; he showed that they had reached puberty, and therefore counted as adults. The court found the boys guilty. Zawahiri had them shot, filmed their confessions and executions, and put video copies out to warn other potential traitors.

Our Man in Guantánamo

James Meek, 8 June 2006

When Moazzam Begg was kidnapped by the American government and its Pakistani foederati on 31 January 2002 – ‘kidnapped’ appears to be the appropriate legal term to use of Guantánamo Bay prisoners, none of whom has ever been charged, tried or formally designated a POW – he experienced a curious moment of melodrama. Seized from the house where he was staying in...

Ivan the Terrible

James Meek, 1 December 2005

Like a single-column photograph in a newspaper, the portrait of Tsar Ivan IV on the dust jacket of Isabel de Madariaga’s book has been cropped down to the essential features: the mournful brown eyes, the long, slightly beaked nose, the plump little mouth nestling in the silver-black whorls of a beard which bleeds out to the edge of the paper. On the inside of the back flap is the...

The Tale of the Tube

James Meek, 5 May 2005

“I boarded a Metropolitan train to Amersham, wondering whether the person who designs the upholstery for the seats is the same person who designs the carpeting at Heathrow and the blouses for British Airways’ female cabin staff and why, if so, he has escaped punishment for so long. The train started at King’s Cross. There’s a 700-yard tunnel under Mount Pleasant but the rest of the line, like the other early Underground lines – the District, the Hammersmith & City and the Circle – was built using a method known as ‘cut and cover’, where navvies dug down from the surface, then roofed the tunnel over. Officially 307 people were displaced in the Farringdon area when the line was built, but unofficially, 12,000 people were moved, most of them poor, and the landlord of the Pickled Egg in Clerkenwell got £100 compensation for having his foundations shaken.”

Bees

James Meek, 4 November 2004

Not long after​ the First World War, the movie baron Samuel Goldwyn set up a stable of Eminent Authors in an attempt to give silent screenplays more literary weight. One of the recruits was the Nobel Prize-winning Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck. Initially, neither party seems to have been troubled that Maeterlinck spoke no English, and the great Belgian set to work on a screen version...

The Day My Pants Froze

James Meek, 8 July 2004

“I’ve been to northern Siberia and the Russian Arctic half a dozen times, and can remember meeting very few people who did not express a desire to leave. Whether it is the miners in Vorkuta being paid in sandwiches (it was snowing when I landed, on 21 June), or the former slave-labour camp inmates, now pensioners, who are still economic prisoners in the Arctic city Norilsk sixty years after the Soviets kidnapped them from western Ukraine, or the alcoholism and tuberculosis among the native Evenks in the forest town of Tura, there are too many reasons to be miserable in the Russian north.”

Fat

James Meek, 7 August 2003

“Grouping together those who are in imminent danger of multiple organ failure because they are so heavy with those who are stout is misleading. Being a few pounds overweight may increase the risk of heart disease and other nasties, but everyone has to die of something. The experience which unites all the overweight, from the massively obese to the faintly porky, may not be health problems but a loss of dignity, whether it involves the quest for food, the search for a way to become thin or submitting to the lies of the marketeers who push both.”

Rainspotting

James Meek, 22 May 2003

Rainspotting​ is the ultimate anorak pastime. You really need an anorak to do it. You could use an umbrella, only then it’d be difficult to write at the same time. You could sit indoors. Most trainspotters don’t have a sixth-floor window overlooking Crewe Junction, but everyone in Britain gets a corporate-box view of the weather. ‘In the past few years,’ Brian...

Keeping cool

James Meek, 6 February 2003

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...

Michel Houellebecq

James Meek, 14 November 2002

This is the third of Michel Houellebecq’s novels, and in it, as in the previous two, his hero yearns, mostly in vain, for men and women who are strangers to each other to reach out spontaneously and touch each other: for men to be able to dispense with verbal courtship, for women to put aside cultural restraint, discrimination and any desire to be seduced; and for the sexes to spend as...

Biotechnology

James Meek, 11 July 2002

A few weeks ago I visited a clove plantation. The cloves – buds on a tree that, with its black and white bark, looks a bit like a birch – weren’t yet ripe: they were small, bright green and juicy. At the prompting of the guide, I picked one off the tree, put it in my mouth and chewed it. A second before I took the immature clove, it was a part of the living tree. It consisted of millions of clove cells, each containing a complete set of clove genes built up from DNA. In each cell, tens of thousands of clove proteins were interacting. Using the clove genes as a template, some clove proteins were assembling fresh clove proteins, other clove proteins were sending messages to each other, and yet more clove proteins were using the gene templates to replicate the genes themselves as part of the construction of new clove cells. That’s the substance of life’s continuity: genes acting as templates for proteins, which copy the genes, which act as templates for proteins, and so on and on for ever. I put that little green thing in my mouth, with its billions of alien clove genes and clove proteins fizzing in their sudden emergency. And I didn’t turn into a clove.

Flamingo Plucking

James Meek, 21 March 2002

In 1870, the Imperial authorities in London ordered a heraldic designer to come up with a flag and crest for a part of the British Empire called Turks and Caicos. The designer had never heard of the place, but he was sent a sketch by a local artist which showed a typical scene: men wielding long-handled instruments and, behind them, large white mounds. Public interest in Arctic exploration...

In the slow weeks before the Taliban fled Kabul, weeks of B-52 vapour trails drawn across blank blue skies, of sporadic bombing and constant rumour, it was easy to find General Abdul Basir. He kept open house in his office, a small, single-storey building at the mouth of the Salang Valley. Bare mountains crowded close on every side, shutting out the light. Basir was building a grander suite...

The advantage of a story set in wartime is that all the characters are obliged to form a relationship with death. Death is the life and soul of the war party. You can get death to come to parties in peacetime, too. Murders happen. Cars crash. Cancer buds. But he isn’t expected in every house, on every street. In the novels of European peace, the consequences of betrayal are difficult to...

Welcome to McDonald’s

James Meek, 24 May 2001

In 1917, a pair of teenagers who had lied about their ages to join an ambulance unit destined for the Western Front found themselves in the same training camp in Sound Beach, Connecticut. One of them was Walt Disney. The other, only 15 years old, was Ray Kroc, the man who later made McDonald’s an empire. When Kroc and his comrades went off to the nearest town on furlough to look for...

The history of viruses

James Meek, 22 March 2001

Last September, the Royal Society organised a conference to discuss Edward Hooper’s book The River, which promoted the theory that HIV was accidentally spread to humans from chimpanzees through a polio vaccination programme in Africa in the 1950s. Coincidentally, or not, on the eve of the conference, a British TV channel screened the 1995 Hollywood thriller Outbreak, starring Dustin...

Sex is best when you lose your head

James Meek, 16 November 2000

In 1853 the Reverend Frederick Morris, an opponent of Charles Darwin’s and a man with a Victorian sense of propriety, urged his parishioners to emulate the fidelity of a small bird called the dunnock. Be thou like the dunnock, he told them – the female and the male impeccably faithful to each other.

What would the Rev. Morris have made of the scandalous truth? Far from being...

Drowned in the Desert

James Meek, 20 July 2000

In Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, the killer demon Azazello has a wonderful talent. He can shoot someone in a named part of their heart – an auricle, say, or a ventricle. He puts a bullet hole through a marked spot on a seven of spades even though the card is covered by a pillow. His skill arouses Margarita, who has ‘a passion for all people who do anything to perfection’.

From The Blog
9 June 2017

Since she unexpectedly started up and began to move on her election campaign, Theresa May has looked a lot like a driverless car – one of those vehicles built by Apple or Google that is supposed to be able to drive itself to its destination autonomously, using the vast computing power and clever sensors provided by its powerful designers to trundle safely from the car park to the shops and back without any intervention from a human at the wheel. Just punch in where you want to go – Brexit, via a quick stop at General Election to fuel up with extra seats – sit back and let the computer do the work.

From The Blog
13 May 2017

Hello. My name is Jeremy Hunt, the elected Politician responsible for the good Running of Britain’s National Health Service. It has come to my attention that Criminals have entered a Number of NHS Hospitals through old Windows. This is a Disgrace and an Outrage. It is the Responsibility of Hospital Managers to make sure that their Windows are sound, secure and absolutely proof against Intruders, as well as Draughts. It is the responsibility of Nurses and Doctors, in the long Hours they must have between dealing with Patients, to carefully note down all cracked, broken or out of date Windows they see, and report them to their Supervisors (not to me, obviously, as I am too busy working to make the NHS fit for the Ranks of exciting developing Nations like Ukraine and India which we are about to join post-Brexit).

From The Blog
3 May 2017

At the heart of this week’s Brexit shenanigans is a fact: Britain pays more into the European Union than it gets back. This is an opinion-free fact. (They do exist.) It takes no account of the wider benefits that membership brings to Britain, the continent and the world. The fact is there whether you believe, as I do, that some form of payment is worth it, or, as those who voted Leave last June do, that any amount is a tyrannical imposition.

From The Blog
9 November 2016

There are many similarities between the Brexit vote and Trump's win. The reliance for victory on white voters without a college education, fear of immigration, globalisation being blamed for mine and factory closures, hostility towards data-based arguments, the breakdown of the distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘conclusion’, the internet’s power to sort the grain of pleasing lies from the chaff of displeasing facts, the sense of there being a systematic programme of rules and interventions devised by a small, remote, powerful elite that polices everyday speech, destroys symbols of tradition, ignores or patronises ‘real’, ‘ordinary’ people, and has contempt for popular narratives of how the nation came to be.

From The Blog
21 October 2015

There are many reasons why China’s involvement in building nuclear power stations in Britain is wrong, yet those who oppose it, or question it, have struggled to articulate their unease without sounding racist, paranoid or Little-English, or getting bogged down in arcane financial minutiae. One obstacle to exposing the British government’s error is language. In the case of China and the nukes, politicians, journalists and finance professionals are complicit in misleading usage of the words investment and tax. George Osborne, a master of such lexical abuse, maintains that Britain needs Chinese investment, and that the planned Chinese-French reactors won’t cost the British taxpayer a penny. Both propositions are false.

From The Blog
12 February 2015

There is a dangerous false assumption at the heart of the West's negotiations at, and reporting of, peace talks in Minsk over the fighting in eastern Ukraine. It is that Russia wants to have direct control over a small area of Ukraine – about 3 per cent of the country; the area, slightly smaller than Kuwait, now under separatist rule – and that Ukrainian forces are fighting to win this area back. You can't blame Western negotiators or journalists for thinking this is what is going on, because it's what the Ukrainians are bound to tell them. That doesn't mean it is the underlying truth. The evidence so far is that what Russia actually wants is indirect influence over the whole of Ukraine, and for the West to pay for it.

From The Blog
26 January 2015

Syriza's victory in the Greek general election is a hopeful moment for Europe. It shows how a radical left-wing political movement, brought together in a short time, can use the democratic system to attack three menaces: the rentier lords of jurisdiction-hopping private capital, the compromised political hacks of the traditional parties who have become their accomplices, and the panphobic haters of the populist right.

From The Blog
19 September 2014

The early Scottish referendum results didn't look good for the would-be dividers of the kingdom. My pro-independence Orcadian friend, down in London for a wine fair, went to bed before three a.m., disconsolate, not long after a furious thunderstorm lit up the deserted streets and made drums of the cars. I stayed awake long enough for the moment around four when my home town of Dundee went heavily for Yes, swiftly followed by another Yes in West Dunbartonshire. Suddenly the two camps were neck and neck.

From The Blog
6 August 2014

Will Vladimir Putin order direct military intervention in Ukraine? Russia already enables a free flow of Russian volunteers and mercenaries to fight against government forces in eastern Ukraine. It is supplying the rebels with weapons, vehicles and ammunition. It is shelling and rocketing Ukrainian territory daily, and promotes the portrayal of the Kiev government as cruel, illegitimate fascists in Russian-language media. The key leaders of the rebels, like Igor Strelkov, Alexander Borodai, Igor Bezler, Nikolai Kozitsyn and Vladimir Antyufeyev, are Russian citizens or Russian nationalists from ex-Soviet territories under Russian control.

From The Blog
19 July 2014

We can't be sure that, in the tragedy of Vladimir Putin and Russia, the tragedy of the privatisation of a beautiful old prison by one of its former jailers, a new act has begun. The governments of Europe may hold their breath, move on, tut and do nothing while France sells Russia a powerful new warship in the autumn. Or they may decide that letting Russia invade and promote killing and destruction in neighbouring countries is a bad thing. As the Financial Timeswrites in an editorial, 'Russia will become an international pariah and a dark new era in East-West relations will begin.'

From The Blog
18 June 2014

David Cameron has signed a piece of paper with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, opening the way for the company that makes the nuclear weapons for the world's biggest Communist state to build and run nuclear power stations in Britain. The deal is morally wrong, a betrayal of the British people, and a damaging blow to democratic principles. Nuclear power in Britain can only be built with the help of large subsidies from citizens. In the past, these subsidies came through general taxation. Since electricity was privatised by Cameron's predecessors, the tax to subsidise new nuclear will be a private tax, hidden in our electricity bills, the collectors of which will be the electricity firms themselves.

From The Blog
25 April 2014

On Thursday, while Ukrainian government troops began an attempt to disarm, arrest and if it came to it kill the heavily armed pro-Russian fighters who have taken over government buildings in the Ukrainian town of Slavyansk, Russian government troops carried out an almost identical operation in the Russian town of Khasavyurt, in the Caucasus. Ukrainian troops killed between one and five anti-government fighters in the course of their operation. Russian troops killed four anti-government fighters during theirs.

From The Blog
28 February 2014

Over the past twenty years Russia has removed a set of territories from other countries. It removed the eastern part of Moldova, now known as Transdniestria; it removed the north-western Black Sea part of Georgia, Abkhazia; and it snipped away the territory controlling Georgia's main road to the Caucasus mountains, South Ossetia. The intention now appears to be to carry out the same operation in Crimea, removing it from Ukraine.

From The Blog
20 February 2014

In the past 48 hours Ukraine has reached that tipping-point where the romantics become realists and the realists romantics. In the conventional world, romantics are those who think in terms of national destiny, the will of the people, of battle, of glory and self-sacrifice, of the radical political gesture; the realists those who prioritise money, balance sheets, personal safety, resignation, fatalism, the acceptance of an unjust, imperfect world where people know their place and limits, where things change slowly.

From The Blog
25 September 2013

Ed Miliband's promise to freeze household energy prices, even if it doesn't happen, is a meaningful step towards a better understanding of what has truly happened to democracy in Britain in the last thirty years. The Labour initiative exposes a weakness in the hitherto unchallenged power of the mainly overseas investment agents who have taken over – or, in the case of the Royal Mail, are about to take over – formerly not-for-profit British providers of essential services.

From The Blog
11 September 2013

A couple of weeks ago, on the eve of the vote in the House of Commons on military action against Syria, I happened to be passing through Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, on my way from Odessa to Bucharest. I was on holiday. I went for a walk and, out of carelessness, lost my passport. Although the roads and pavements of Chișinău, decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, have potholes big enough to lose a child in, the internet’s a glideway; even the roadside sausage shacks have wifi. My phone told me that if I took €114, two photos and a police report to the British embassy, they’d give me a temporary passport.

From The Blog
18 March 2013

Years ago, in the early days of the financial crisis, Cyprus was one of the first European countries to reassure bank savers of relatively modest means by guaranteeing their deposits up to a limit of €100,000. What this meant was that the government made a promise. Anything could happen to a bank. It could go bankrupt. Branches could crumble into lumps of concrete and shards of glass, servers explode in showers of sparks, cashiers and mortgage consultants plunge flaming from fourth-floor windows, and small savers would still get their money back.

From The Blog
5 October 2012

In Ajax bar in Oxford, Mississippi, they muted the baseball commentary during the Obama-Romney debate and left the game playing on the screen near the door while the candidates sparred on the big screen over the bar. We couldn't make out the nitty-gritty of what they were saying, just the mood music: Mitt v. Barack sounded like marching band Sousa v. the Well-Tempered Clavier.

From The Blog
20 March 2012

The privatisations are joining up. First it was gas. Then telecoms, oil, electricity, public housing, water, the railways, the airports. There are moves afoot to obliterate the concept of the council house; NHS hospitals are to be privately run, built and managed; now David Cameron wants to get private companies and foreign governments to 'invest' in Britain's roads. What does it all mean? The episodic character of privatisation – one sector being sold, then a pause, then another – has hidden a meta-privatisation that's passed the halfway point. The essential public good that Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and now Cameron sell is not power stations, or trains, or hospitals. It's the public itself. It's us.

From The Blog
22 September 2011

You can understand how they might be grouchy at UBS, the Swiss bank that reckons it has lost $2.3 billion through alleged jiggery-pokery by one of its employees, Kewku Adoboli, only three years after the bank was bailed out by the Swiss government. When one of UBS's economists, George Magnus, says that French banks are now the ones that need to be bailed out – as he did this morning in the Financial Times – you might suspect a tinge of schadenfreude.

From The Blog
9 August 2011

Some years ago, not long after we saw the looting and burning of Baghdad together, I went with my Iraqi friend Ghaith for lunch in Broadway Market, in Hackney, one of the many parts of London where gentrification of a previously run-down area has been going on for years. The street was, and is, lined with cute shops, bars and restaurants for attractive, trendy, second-generation creative and media types. It has become one of the poles towards which the compass needles of estate agents and fashion-conscious yuppie couples quiver. There is no point in looking to buy a house nearby unless you have at least half a million pounds at your disposal. When Broadway Market actually becomes a market on Saturdays it is as if the council-owned tower blocks and estates behind, around and in between the gentrified patches, where less well-off and poor people live, belong to some other dimension. As Ghaith and I walked down the street a disturbance began.

From The Blog
20 December 2010

Trouble does seem to haunt the footsteps of Colin Matthews, the chief executive of BAA, the company that runs the currently icebound Heathrow airport on behalf of its Spanish masters Ferrovial. This is the same Colin Matthews who was running the private water monopoly Severn Trent in 2007 when 350,000 of its customers were cut off for days on end; they were subsequently charged for the days they had no water, even though, at the time they were unable to wash, the company authorised a payout of £143 million to its shareholders.

From The Blog
22 November 2010

You could be forgiven for not noticing it, but the new British government has just been forced to do what the old British government was forced to do: bail out Britain’s banks. The bail-out of Ireland marks a new stage in the privatisation of government by the financial system. Two governments, the British and the Irish, have been effectively taken over by a venal banking network which, using ordinary savers and productive businesses as hostages, forces the state to cough up whatever sums are required to save it from the consequences of its own greed and idiocy.

From The Blog
20 October 2010

An extract from George Osborne’s statement in the House of Commons on the 2010 Spending Review: I am grateful to the work of my right honourable friend, the member for Sumburgh West, in investigating the current provision of organs in this country, and I have considered his recommendations carefully. Good kidney function is an essential part of the workings of a modern, civilised society, and the Coalition is determined to ensure that Britain has kidney function second to none in order that we may punch above our weight in the global economy going forward.

From The Blog
13 October 2010

The essential moral of Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ for people who live in a modern western democracy is that when the laughing stops, the emperor is still the emperor. Indeed, he is more powerful for having allowed himself to be laughed at. As for the small boy who pointed out his nakedness, he can deal with him later. In his new title sequence for The Simpsons, already shown in the US and due to air in Britain on 21 October, the graffiti artist Banksy tracks away from the Simpson family on its suburban Springfield sofa to show a subterranean Asian sweatshop making Simpsons merchandise. A child dips images of Bart into a vat of acid, kittens are pulped to make stuffing for Bart dolls, the tongue of a beheaded dolphin licks envelopes, an enslaved panda hauls a cart, an exhausted, broken unicorn punches holes in DVDs.

From The Blog
30 June 2010

The story of Russia’s deep cover suburban spies in America is the perfect pitch for a 13-part TV series. It’s The Wire (illegals v. law enforcers), The Sopranos (aspirational lifestyles and typical middle-class problems among people living dangerous secret lives) and V (aliens among us) rolled into one. Lost? They do seem to have been. Like Nigerian email fraudsters, whose sensational Moll Flanders-like tales of inheritances and warped morality suggest their talented authors would make more money bashing out African soap opera scripts than they ever would ripping off naive northerners, the easiest way for the Russian taxpayer to get back the money wasted on this loony espionage venture would be to deport the spymasters responsible to Los Angeles with a contract for a 50 per cent cut of whatever the going Screenwriters Guild rate is these days.

Embalming Lenin’s body

James Meek, 18 March 1999

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. Inside, under a glass cover, was the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh, two years dead, dressed in a white suit.

From The Blog
19 June 2009

I paid my electricity bill today, and spent some time trying to work out how much of my bill goes to the French government to defray the costs of running that large, complex and hexagonal country. I don't live in France. I live in London and, like millions of other Britons, buy my electricity from EDF, aka Electricité de France, which snapped up three of England's privatised electricity minnows in 2002. Privatisation, a policy supposed to liberate us from the burden of allegedly inefficient state-owned industries, has led to more than five million households and businesses in this country buying electricity and gas from a state-owned industry in that country.

Letter
In responding to my article about Severn Trent and the 2007 floods, John Clayton falls into a common error about my common error, namely in failing to distinguish between risk and cumulative risk (Letters, 11 September). The odds of being in a plane crash are, indeed, the same every time you board a plane, no matter how many times you have flown before. But, all other variables being identical, if...

James Meek

Jonathan Raban, 7 February 2008

James Meek’s last, bestselling novel, The People’s Act of Love, published in 2005 to great critical acclaim, was set in 1919, in ‘that part of Siberia lying between Omsk and...

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James Meek

Michael Wood, 21 July 2005

James Meek’s early fiction is alert, acrid and funny, and only slightly too insistent on its own quirkiness – as if it were hoping reviewers would call it surreal (they did) and...

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