Found in translation

“Hallelujah is essentially a Yiddish song Leonard Cohen wrote in English.” Daniel Kahn discusses his new version.

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A wonderful summer’s day. Bright sun. Hot. Today we wore light suits and cycled. I’m making remarkable progress in this art.

Then I lay on the grass, resting my head on my hands and gazed into the deep blue skies. I lay and wondered: “Will there really be war?”

Ivan Maisky, diary, 21st June 1941.

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Out of the shadows


An intriguing book that sometimes tries too hard. My Times review of David Olusoga’s “Black and British: A Forgotten History”

For all the fascinating material that it unearths, Black and British is not always an easy read. In his introduction Olusoga pays homage to Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking account Staying Power, published by the left-wing Pluto Press in the mid-1980s and still an engrossing survey. Where Fryer took a brisk, journalistic approach to storytelling, Olusoga amasses his data at a slower, more academic tempo, wandering into lengthy and sometimes wearying digressions on, say, the effect of the American Civil War on economic and cultural developments on this side of the Atlantic. Along the way he also reminds us that The Times gleefully threw its weight behind the Confederacy.

If the book seems to slip in and out of focus, it is partly because Olusoga has set himself such an ambitious task. As he explains, he is embarking on “an attempt to see what new stories and approaches emerge if black British history is envisaged as a global history and — perhaps more controversially — as a history of more than just the black experience itself”.

It is worth bearing those words in mind as you follow a complex, multilayered narrative that snakes its way from the Roman Empire to the early slaving ports of Sierra Leone, from Jamaica and Barbados to Virginia. Britain — or more properly, England — sometimes seems to drop from view altogether, only for the author to slowly draw together the various economic and social strands. This is, in short, a book that demands patience and application.

Posted in History, Politics, Race, Reviews, UK politics | Tagged , ,


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Something in the intensity with which Windrip looked at his audience, looked at all of them, his glance slowly taking them in from the highest-perched seat to the nearest, convinced them that he was talking to each individual, directly and solely; that he wanted to take each of them into his heart; that he was telling them the truths, the imperious and dangerous facts, that had been hidden from them.

“They say I want money – power! Say, I’ve turned down offers from law firms right here in New York of three times the money I’ll get as President! And power – why, the President is the servant of every citizen in the country, and not just of the considerate folks, but also of every crank that comes pestering him by telegram and phone and letter. And yet, it’s true, it’s absolutely true I do want power, great, big, imperial power – but not for myself – no – for you!  […] He pictured, then, a Paradise of democracy in which, with the old political machines destroyed, every humblest worker would be king and ruler, dominating representatives elected from among his own kind of people, and these representatives not growing indifferent, as hitherto they had done, once they were far off in Washington, but kept alert to the public interest by the supervision of a strengthened Executive.

It sounded almost reasonable, for a while.

Sinclair Lewis, “It Can’t Happen Here”.

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The candidate 

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The term “national socialism” seems to have been invented by the French nationalist author Maurice Barrès, who described the aristocratic adventurer the Marquis de Morès in 1896 as “the first national socialist”. Morès, after failing as a cattle rancher in North Dakota, returned to Paris in the early 1890s and organized a band of anti-Semitic toughs who attacked Jewish shops and offices. As a cattleman, Morès found his recruits among slaughterhouse workers in Paris, to whom he appealed with a mixture of anti-capitalism and anti-Semitic nationalism. His squads wore the cowboy garb and ten-gallon hats that the Marquis had discovered in the American West, which thus predate black and brown shirts (by a modest stretch of the imagination) as the first fascist uniform. Morès killed a popular Jewish officer, Captain Armand Meyer, in a duel early in the Dreyfus Affair, and was himself killed by his Touareg guides in the Sahara in 1896 on an expedition to “unite France to Islam and to Spain”.

Robert O. Paxton, “The Anatomy of Fascism”.

Posted in Europe, France, History, Notebook, Uncategorized, World War 2 | Tagged , , , ,

​Presidential election metaphor klaxon

Installation of the Lincoln memorial, Washington DC, 1920. Via @RADHISTORY

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Grayson Perry & the men

grayson-perry-2Reading the artist’s new book on masculinity was a frustrating experience. When he was talking about his own life he was great company, but he kept disappearing behind a cloud of right-on verbiage. From my review in The Times:

You spend page after page waiting for the oh-so-Islington prognostications to give way to Perry’s own Essex voice, quirky and contrarian yet laced with a winning measure of self-doubt. He is anything but the super-confident purveyor of wisdom: “I take risks. I am very competitive. I love throwing myself and my bike at speed down bumpy, muddy hillsides, yet when I return I am filled with anxiety about confronting my next-door neighbour about his infuriatingly yappy dog. I encourage students to design dresses for me that make me look daft and attention-seeking, but I burn with shame for an age after a bad review of my work.”

He is very sharp on how gender shapes our ideas about design and clothes. His personality shines through, too, in the full-page, cartoon-like illustrations that accompany the text. When, as a reformed road-rager, he wants to show us how men’s personalities change when they get behind the wheel of a car, he gives us a glorious image of a spear-wielding man charging across the savannah. At the same time you can’t help wondering if Perry is overstating his case. While he claims to be in favour of certain forms of masculinity, it isn’t always easy to detect what exactly they are. “The future of masculinity is a plethora of masculinities,” he announces in his tentative summing-up. But surely most of us can see how much has already changed just by looking at those giant billboards of David Beckham simmering in his underpants. Nowadays we are uncomfortable watching James Bond unzipping a woman’s dress, but we are happy to see him slowly gouging someone’s eyes out.

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