Civil disobedience is coming

Britain may be recovering from a heatwave, but its politicians are already fearful that winter is coming. Only now, more than 170 days since the war broke out, are policymakers realising the potentially catastrophic implications of their gung-ho approach towards Russia.

Just last week, it was revealed that the UK government is preparing for a “reasonable worst-case scenario” over the winter in which below-average temperatures and gas shortages could force authorities to trigger emergency gas-saving measures, including organised blackouts for industry and even households. And this is as energy prices continue to spiral out of control: this winter, the average annual energy bill for a typical household is expected to reach £4,200, or about £350 a month — more than double what households are currently paying and a four-fold increase on the average bill paid just a year ago. ...  Continue reading

Jerry Sadowitz is too good to cancel

“Jerry Sadowitz is a nasty piece of work. His venomous tirade is relentless, consisting of unabashed racism, homophobia, misogyny, antisemitism, xenophobia, and every other kind of prejudice known to humankind. If it exists, he hates it. The man is a monster. He’s also one of the best showmen on the Edinburgh Fringe.”

This was how I opened my review of Jerry Sadowitz’s show for ScotsGay magazine in 2008. I described his performance as “an explosion of hate on stage”, but noted that the effect was both prurient and deliriously funny. That Sadowitz’s unending bile is often interspersed with adroitly executed magic tricks makes his routines all the more compelling. When critics quote his jokes out of context, it’s easy to see why so many are offended — but when it comes to Sadowitz, context is everything. ...  Continue reading

Welcome to Philip K. Dick’s dystopia

Philip K. Dick, whose novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? inspired the film Blade Runner, did not live to enjoy his Hollywood success. He died on March 2, 1982, three months before the film was released.

In the years since, the novelist once dismissed as a gutter pulp sci-fi weirdo has steadily climbed the ladder of posthumous literary reputation. The case for Dick’s genius has never rested on his dystopian vision of technology, which he shared in common with masters like HG Wells and Stanislaw Lem, and with hundreds of sci-fi writers since. Good science fiction — as opposed to fantasy novels set on other planets — is defined by a quasi-philosophical examination of interactions between men and machines and other products of modern science. It is part novel and part thought-experiment, centered on our idea of the human. ...  Continue reading

How the British conquered Majorca

In the mid-Twenties, the author Ada Harrison visited Majorca and discovered that it had “fallen to Britain”. Majorca had “become one of those places which, the English say, are being ruined by the English”. The result was that the Hotel Continental in the Majorcan capital Palma was largely occupied by suspicious guests demanding “a diet of roast beef and rice pudding”.

By 1931, there was an air service with two daily flights to Palma from mainland Spain and another from Marseilles. According to the 1933 Lindo guide, the journey from London, by air with two stopovers, now took less than 48 hours — even though at the airport, even in the Fifties, passengers’ luggage was still collected by horse and cart and taken to their hotel. By 1935, with 135 hotels on the island, 71 of them in Palma, the number of tourists had more than doubled: there were 40,000 hotel stays and 50,000 cruise visitors. ...  Continue reading

How we gave up on Salman Rushdie

The year was 1989. It was only when Salman Rushdie took his seat at the memorial service that the lethality of his predicament sank in. The remembrance for the writer Bruce Chatwin on Valentine’s Day was held at a Greek Orthodox Church in Bayswater. The grand building filled with holy smoke, melodious clerical babble, and half of literary London. Rushdie sat next to Martin Amis.

“We’re worried about you,” said Amis. “I’m worried about me,” responded Rushdie. Sitting in the pew behind was Paul Theroux. “I suppose we’ll be here for you next week, Salman,” he chuckled.

Rushdie remembered the moment, funny in the queasy-hysterical way narrowly not being hit by a car is funny, in his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton. After Friday’s attack on the author, which may cost him an eye and possibly more, the book is charged with new meaning. ...  Continue reading

The problem with being uptight

It’s surely unfair to expect a brilliant scientist to also be a brilliant author. Some of the most valuable books I’ve encountered in my research have been the dreariest to read: repetitive, dense and joyless prose turning what could have been a fascinating journey through a world of ideas into an after-school detention. Psychology professor Michele Gelfand, though, manages to put those books to shame with the lucid and fascinating Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, which achieved that clichéd goal of popular science books: truly changing the way a reader see the world.

Rule Makers, Rule Breakers explores Gelfand’s research into differences between cultures. Specifically, she describes cultures that are (using terms invented by Finnish-American anthropologist Pertti Pelto) “tight” and “loose”. Tight cultures are conformist “rule makers” while loose ones are creative “rule breakers”. According to Gelfand, tight nations include India, Singapore, South Korea, Norway, Turkey, China and Portugal; loose nations include Spain, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, the Netherlands and Ukraine. (The UK sits somewhere towards the middle, and is slowly becoming looser.) ...  Continue reading

There is no “Biden Doctrine”

I keep thinking of the people falling from the sky. The images are seared into my mind: Our Afghan allies, the people we were callously leaving to their fates after 20 years, clinging to an American plane taking off from Kabul Airport, only to drop to their deaths moments later. Afterwards, Joe Biden had the gall to declare “with all of my heart, I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision, and the best decision for America”.

A year on, how should we evaluate Biden’s declaration? Well, the Taliban has reinstalled a tyrannical theocratic government under which the precious freedoms gained by Afghan women over the past 20 years have been completely reversed. If the “best decision for America” involves trampling liberty and solidarity underfoot, then I don’t want to imagine what the worst decision would look like. ...  Continue reading

The many failures of Ben Affleck

It is now generally agreed that there is something grubby about enjoying paparazzi photographs, especially when the subject has mental health issues. But there appears to be an exception for Ben Affleck. A few years ago, when the actor was separating from his wife Jennifer Garner and glumly promoting Batman v Superman, somebody started a Tumblr page called “Ben Affleck Looking Sad“. One image in particular — cigarette in hand, head thrown back, an expression of weary exasperation — has become a meme which roughly translates as “Fuck everything”. Before that, there was a meme called Sad Keanu, but Reeves’s apparent dejection suggested a melancholy profundity whereas Sad Ben was just a middle-aged man with a cigarette and a paunch, attracting an odd mix of sympathy and mockery despite his history of anxiety, depression and alcoholism. Shortly afterwards, Affleck checked into rehab. ...  Continue reading

Donald Trump’s next move

In the spring of 2021, after writing two books generally butchering Donald Trump, I received an unlikely invitation to visit him at Mar-a-Lago so I could write a third. Negativity was not something he feared. To the extent it added to the further sturm und drang that surrounded him, he courted it.

For three hours, and in a relaxed mood, he harangued me about the stolen election and all the various bad people, dark forces, and disreputable agencies of government out to get him. This was rendered jauntily, even proudly. He clearly enjoyed the telling. This was his story.

The conversation led to dinner with him and Melania on the Mar-a-Lago terrace and the continuation of his catalogue of grievances, now broadcast to the long line of nightly well-wishers coming to his table. As I tried to leave, he held my arm for a few last-minute words about his unbelievable fortitude in the face of his enemies, adding: “What if they stormed in here to search the place? Mar-a-Lago! Here! Do you believe that’s possible? Well, I wouldn’t put it past them!” ...  Continue reading

University needs to hurt

Reality comes in degrees, but the law must draw clear lines. English law permits the abortion of healthy foetuses up to 24 weeks after conception — but no later. It also lets you drive on your 17th birthday — but not a day before. Obviously one day makes little real difference, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Yet as Kant might have said: that’s all very well in practice — but does it work in theory?

This question is neither entirely impractical nor entirely a joke: knowing why you draw a line here and not there makes it more defensible than an arbitrary one. The Lord originally demanded 50 righteous men from Sodom as the price for sparing the city. By methods that are wearily familiar to any parent who’s been in arguments over bedtime, Abraham whittled Him down to 10. (“Fifty, Lord? But then why not 45?.” “Ok, 45.” “Thank you, Lord. But then why not 40?” Etc.) You suspect that if the Lord had chosen 50 for a reason, He would have stuck to it — not that it made much difference in this case; not to Sodom. ...  Continue reading

The last American aristocrat

Not long after the Trump election I was invited to a dinner party of the sort I’d only recently learned existed. Here’s how it goes. The host is wealthy, as are half the guests, and the other half are intellectuals there to provide entertainment. Waiters bring courses prepared by the chef in the kitchen while the host guides the conversation, calling upon the intellectuals to spit out little chestnuts of wisdom. After my first book came out, I found myself at a few of these, feeling a bit like a dancing bear as I said a few words on US military policy or veterans’ affairs before the host moved on to the next topic. ...  Continue reading

The EU has created a new dictatorship

Seifeddine Ferjani was just ten years old when he arrived in the UK. It was 1990, and his family had been forced to flee Tunisia after his father, Said, became close to the opposition figure Rached Ghannouchi. For the next 20 years, Ferjani grew up in London; he never went back.

But then a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire at repeated abuse from the police, and the Arab Spring began. Ferjani and his family knew they had to return. Four months later, they finally did.

“It was completely and utterly amazing to me,” he remembers. “Tunisia had changed. What first struck me was something that might seem odd: there were garbage strikes everywhere. People were refusing to pick up the garbage because they were not being paid enough. That, to me, was symptomatic of a new day.” ...  Continue reading