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The UK once welcomed refugees - now we detain them indefinitely | Kamila Shamsie [04 Jul 2020|11:00am]

In a few decades, welcome centres for refugees have become detention centres built on violence and humiliation. The government must shut them down, writes Kamila Shamsie

In the last few months I’ve found myself returning, again and again, to a phrase that I associate with the project Refugee Tales and its campaign to end the indefinite detention of asylum seekers: counting up. When prisoners are given a jail sentence, they can count down to their release date; when refugees are placed in detention they can only count up from the date they were incarcerated, without knowing how high the number will go. In the last few months, we’ve all been counting up. Counting up from the last time we saw people we love, counting up from the last time we were at liberty to traverse the cities and towns in which we live, counting up from the last time we planned for an imaginable future; and, for some people, those who are most vulnerable, still counting up, from the last time they left the confines of their homes.

But when I say I’ve found myself returning again and again to that phrase, I don’t mean to imply that the months in lockdown led me to think that I know what it feels like to be in detention. Quite the contrary. While I was counting up I was also reading and writing and going on walks and able to see people I love, even if that was via a screen. I knew that the lockdown wouldn’t go on forever and, crucially, I knew the lockdown hadn’t been implemented with the express purpose of making people like me suffer. So when I considered those in detention centres I thought how lucky I was; I thought of how many people had been living in a counting up world well before the pandemic, and how they would continue to live in that world, regardless of treatments and vaccines.

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Books to transport you: the best travellers' tales for troubled times [04 Jul 2020|12:00pm]

From Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s flights over deserts to Scott’s last expedition to the Antarctic, Sophy Roberts picks her favourites

In times like these, I’m drawn towards short stories, novellas and pithy memoirs with a powerful sense of far-flung places: enigmatic flights of fancy.

In the 1920s, the pioneering French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry crisscrossed “desert as smooth as marble” to open up new mail routes across the Sahara. His 1939 memoir, Wind, Sand and Stars, weaves between past and present, the real and imagined, from cities of salt to antediluvian forests. He describes drinking dew to survive a plane crash, and the discovery of a single orange in the wreckage. “I lie on my back and suck the fruit, counting the shooting stars. For a moment, my happiness is infinite.”

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Love beyond sex, money and property: a case for friendship [04 Jul 2020|09:00am]

Reading novels about groups of friends can be an emotional lifeline in times of isolation – from pandemic lockdown to the aftermath of divorce

What claims do friendships retain, as family life takes over? How much do we live in our friends’ shadows, comparing our relationships, jobs and versions of motherhood? These were questions I asked myself, getting divorced in my late 30s just before having my second child. I was used to turning to my husband for practical help; seeking help from friends feels awkwardly regressive when you’re not used to it, and burdensome when they’re caught up in childrearing. As I emerged out of the turbulence of my 30s, I asked myself what remained of earlier friendships, and chided myself for allowing so many to take on sparse outlines, structured by occasional catch-ups rather than continuing shared experience. It was hard to know who to ask to come round when I was ill, to look after the baby when I was desperate for sleep, or just to leave their family for an evening when I hadn’t spoken to another adult for days.

Anxiously grateful for the friends who were there, sad about the ones who weren’t, I sought out fictional friends. I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, glad when Lila and Lenu’s bond reignites during Lenu’s single motherhood, curious about how much more alive their friendship seems than their marriages. There’s always been an element of friend-making for me in reading, though the writers I love are as maddening, as disquietingly alien as actual friends.

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Bread Winner by Emma Griffin review – victims of the Victorian economy [04 Jul 2020|08:00am]

Britain had never been richer, so how did working families become trapped in a nightmare of dirt and want? An intimate history, from darning to dinners in the gutter

As a lad in 1880s Bermondsey Sid Causer appeased his hunger by filching fruit from market barrows. Louie Stride, brought up dirt poor in genteel Bath, thought nothing of looking for dinner in the gutter. Joseph Sharpe from Derbyshire was obliged to go “barefooted and barelegged” and get by on “tea sops and flour porridge”. Causer, Stride and Sharpe are just a few of the pale, pinched children who stare out at us from the photographs of late Victorian Britain. The girls are bundled up in shawls while the boys have the oyster eyes of the permanently exhausted. Together they make up a visual shorthand for “the Victorian urban poor”. 

But why were they so poor? Britain had never been richer. By the end of the 19th century all those lovely inventions, from tarmac to sewing machines and toilets to telegraphs, had transformed the fabric of ordinary life. Real wages had roughly doubled. Given that Britain was a byword for progress and prosperity, what was to be made of the revelation by social investigators such as Charles Booth and Henry Rowntree that an increasing number of working families were trapped in a gothic nightmare of dirt and want? 

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Letter from Italy: this pandemic is showing us who we really are [04 Jul 2020|06:00am]

The coronavirus response, once a parallel dance, has become a chaos of separate choreographies

In March, the acclaimed Italian novelist Francesca Melandri wrote a letter to fellow Europeans “from your future”, describing experiences of lockdown. Now, as restrictions are eased, she has another message.

I am writing to you from Italy, which means I am writing from the accelerated present of the pandemic. What started as a parallel dance among successive epidemics’ charts has become a chaos of separate choreographies. Depending on the country, the dance moves have been authoritarian, orderly and effective, fallible but humane, incompetent, in denial, abusive or even genocidal. The Covid-19 dancehall, however, is the same for everyone. Its walls are covered in mirrors. They are showing us who we really are and there’s no way we can avert our gaze.

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The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes review – an Irish Cain and Abel [04 Jul 2020|06:30am]

Resentment seethes between two brothers as their father lies dying in the wake of boom and bust


Caoilinn Hughes’s acclaimed debut novel, 2018’s Orchid and the Wasp, explored the long fallout from the global economic crash of 2008 through the coming-of-age story of Gael Foess, part of a formerly wealthy Irish family rapidly on the descent. Gael was a 21st-century Becky Sharp, cutting a merciless swathe through Dublin, London and the New York of Occupy Wall Street. Hughes’s follow-up, the darkly adventurous The Wild Laughter, loosely follows a similar theme of the consequences of boom and bust, but stays closer to the festering claustrophobia of home.

“‘Ireland is where strange tales begin and happy endings are possible.’ Charlie Haughey said that, and mind what a hammer of an end he got.” Wisecracking and woeful, Doharty “Hart” Black is the 25-year-old younger son of a terminally ill, failing farmer, Manus, a proud man known by his sons as “the Chief”. While Hart’s brother, Cormac, two years his senior, got the university education and then founded a series of successful startups in Dublin, Hart is left toiling on the family farm in County Roscommon, along with the boys’ brittle mother, a former nun, whom Hart mostly refers to with hostility by her name, Nóra. The elder son is favoured by the Chief for his flamboyance and entrepreneurial talent and by Nóra as a co-conspirator against the hapless Hart, whose eventual scapegoating is foreshadowed throughout.

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England's libraries begin to reopen but grave fears remain over long-term futures [03 Jul 2020|09:49am]

As branches prepare to start restoring services, experts warn a ‘perfect financial storm’ will cause further closures

As libraries around England cautiously prepare to reopen from Saturday, experts are warning that local authority shortfalls could be the “canary in the coalmine” for a fresh wave of cuts to libraries across the country.

Last month, reports suggested that an almost £200m shortfall in funding in Leeds could see the city council forced to close all 34 of its libraries if the government does not approve emergency funding – though six branches will soon open for borrowing. In Peterborough, meanwhile, the not-for-profit trust that has run the city’s 10 libraries for the last decade has been hit by “a perfect financial storm” and has handed control back to the city’s council.

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The Summer of Her Life by Thomas von Steinaecker and Barbara Yelin – review [22 Jun 2020|08:00am]

The emotional memories of an elderly German woman are brought vividly to life in this quietly moving graphic story

In books, people don’t wear masks – or not yet. All the same, as I turned the pages of The Summer of Her Life, a graphic novel set largely in a care home for elderly people, I had the strangest feeling it must be some kind of publishing miracle: a comic written, drawn, edited and now published entirely during the lockdown. Crikey, but it’s prescient. At a time when the old have never been more vulnerable and, in many cases, lonely, here is a befitting reminder that the frail souls you see sitting in a semi-circle in a day room on the TV news, their eyes distant and their hair like candy floss, do not necessarily feel as you think they look. Somewhere inside, they’re all the things they used to be: young, ambitious, just about to fall in love. 

Gerda Wendt, the story’s unlikely heroine, is so debilitated these days, she sometimes struggles even to raise her arms for her daily flannel wash. To move from bed to window, she requires a walker; to make journeys any further afield, she cannot do without a wheelchair. But her mind is beautifully intact. Unlike some of her fellow residents, men who are mostly quite content to watch repeats of crummy TV dramas (so long as the girls are pretty), she would rather scroll through her memories, back to her girlhood and forward to her middle age. How, she wonders, did she get from A to B? Was her life well-lived? In her salad days, self-doubting and impulsive, she chose love over her career, her passion for a musician called Peter triumphing over her passion for astrophysics – and she worries away at this now, a process that is sometimes delicious (here she is, in bed with him all over again) and sometimes painful (sudden betrayal is piercing even remembered at a distance of half a century).

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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett review – two faces of the black experience [23 Jun 2020|08:00am]

A light-skinned twin sister constructs a new identity as a white woman in a clever novel that confounds expectations

North American literature is rich with dramatic tales of light-skinned black protagonists who attempt to “pass” for white. At their peak in the 1920s – whether in Nella Larsen’s Passing or Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun – these mostly young women wrestled with the fear of being uncovered while being seduced by the rewards of freedom from the perceived stain of blackness.

Brit Bennett’s intriguing new novel, The Vanishing Half, amplifies the trope of the “tragic mulatto” (a self-loathing mixed-race American) by sharing the dilemma of “passing” with identical twin characters, Stella and Desiree. In 1950s America the teenagers disappear from Mallard, a fictional small, racially homogeneous and snobbish “coloured” town in Louisiana, and embark on lives marked by opposing trajectories.

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Four new collections up for the Forward poetry prizes – review roundup [02 Jul 2020|11:00am]

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz; Citadel by Martha Sprackland; Magnolia 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles; and The Air Year by Caroline Bird

When the toxic legacies of US racial politics boil over into mass protest, as now, it is always worth remembering how one person’s state of emergency is someone else’s quotidian normality. “The war never ended and somehow begins again”, writes Natalie Diaz in the opening poem of her remarkable collection Postcolonial Love Poem (Faber, £10.99), which has been shortlisted for the Forward prize. Building on her striking debut, When My Brother Was an Aztec in poems of blasted landscapes and fierce desire, rivers and snakes and basketball (which she once played professionally), Diaz unfolds a poetry of radical embodiment and embodied radicalism. An inscribed member of the Gila River Indian Community, Diaz commands a cosmic-mythic range (“I carry a river. It is is who I am … This is not metaphor”), while also writing poems of rare intimacy (“Ode to the Beloved’s Hips”). Seldom since Allen Ginsberg’s Howl has British poetry had more to learn from a US import.

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Paying the Land by Joe Sacco review – a triumph of empathy [02 Jul 2020|06:30am]

The painful history of the Northwestern Territory’s indigenous people takes the celebrated cartoonist away from AK47s and mortar shells, and into a different kind of war

There is a moment, in his 2003 collection Notes from a Defeatist, when you can see Joe Sacco finding out exactly what he was meant to do. The pieces have been competent enough so far – satires of office grunts and nerdy librarians, of a “cartoon genius” trying not very hard not to sell out; exercises in a familiar kind of knowing autobiographical bathos. And then he interviews his mother.

Carmen Sacco grew up in Malta, and was a child when Mussolini went to war in Abyssinia, bombing the highlands and gassing civilians; the Maltese, fully expecting to be next, bought gas masks and drilled for raids. In the event, bombing began five years later; Joe, who was born in Malta but grew up in Australia, tells his mother’s story from her point of view. In one series of drawings, Carmen, walking home from school, is caught alone on a country road, and strafed by a Messerschmitt; the reader is down on the ground with her, next to the sole of her shoe, looking past her torso, past her head, up to the empty sky above the empty road – empty, that is, except for the plane, turning to come back. It is a triumph of empathy, of detail, of perspective.

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The great escape: 50 brilliant books to transport you this summer [20 Jun 2020|08:00am]

A vampire in Shanghai, artists on Hydra, and identical twins run away to New Orleans... dazzling novels plus the best politics, history,and memoir to take you away from lockdown

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel
The long-awaited conclusion to Mantel’s trilogy about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell is a 912-page rollercoaster of relentlessly absorbing political machination and human frailty, as Mantel tracks the inner life of her subject with extraordinary acuity. Unmissable.

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London’s New Scene by Lisa Tickner review – seven events that smashed the art world [03 Jul 2020|08:00am]

From the pop art of Peter Blake, Pauline Boty and David Hockney to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up … how 60s’ London came to lead the way

In Lisa Tickner’s exploration of seven key events in the art world between 1962 and 1968 we are drawn into experiences that smashed through the old ways of doing things – in the gallery, on TV, in films – with confident flair, irony and cool wit. It is no surprise that London in the 1960s began to be regarded as one of the leading capitals of art in the western world.

In 1952 a magazine photograph of Zsa Zsa Gabor taken in the Tate Gallery, showing her posing with one leg thrown up and resting on a waist-high plinth, had nearly lost John Rothenstein his directorship. The fashion photo on the front cover of this book suggests that, by 1964, things had changed – the playful shot of a leaping model, aided by two students, was taken by Elsbeth Juda in the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s Rauschenberg exhibition. The latest in urban art and fashion were now in alliance.

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Fracture by Andrés Neuman review – the damage of the past [03 Jul 2020|06:30am]

The Argentinian writer’s best novel yet follows a Japanese man investigating his country’s history of trauma and survival

Novels are experiments: they offer writers an opportunity to play with time, to invent places and to imagine and inhabit lives other than their own. Fracture is by far the Argentinian writer Andrés Neuman’s most successful experiment. Neuman is a poet, short story writer, columnist and firm favourite of the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who proclaimed: “The literature of the 21st century will belong to Neuman.” A bold claim, and doubtless as much a curse as a blessing, but Neuman has been doing his best to live up to the hype. The recipient of multiple awards and prizes, and still only in his early 40s, he is now undoubtedly an international figure – with global ambitions.

Mr Watanabe is a figure condemned to live through history, observing and observed

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David Baddiel: 'I don't really have shame as an emotion' [03 Jul 2020|09:00am]

The writer and comedian on admiring John Updike, crying over Station Eleven and laughing at Alan Partridge


The book I am currently reading
I’m listening to À la recherche du temps perdu on audiobook. I find it helps with the hoovering. I’m also rereading Roger’s Version by John Updike, which – as well as being about adultery, as per – is also about religion and physics, similar to my play God’s Dice. It’s slightly frightening, considering I last read it in the 80s, how much it subconsciously influenced that play.

The book that changed my life
Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike – there’s going to be a lot of Updike. He and his fellow Great Male Narcissists, as David Foster Wallace called him and Bellow and Roth and Mailer, are very out of fashion, but important cultural correction away from their misogyny though that was and is, he’s just too good a prose writer for me to say anything else. When I read Rabbit Is Rich – the greatest of the Rabbit books – I began to understand entirely how the job of art, as Updike puts it, is “to give the mundane its beautiful due”. Of course he got that – a bit – from Proust.

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England's libraries begin to reopen but grave fears remain over long-term futures [03 Jul 2020|09:49am]

As branches prepare to start restoring services, experts warn a ‘perfect financial storm’ will cause further closures

As libraries around England cautiously prepare to reopen from Saturday, experts are warning that local authority shortfalls could be the “canary in the coalmine” for a fresh wave of cuts to libraries across the country.

Last month, reports suggested that an almost £200m shortfall in funding in Leeds could see the city council forced to close all 34 of its libraries if the government does not approve emergency funding – though six branches will soon open for borrowing. In Peterborough, meanwhile, the not-for-profit trust that has run the city’s 10 libraries for the last decade has been hit by “a perfect financial storm” and has handed control back to the city’s council.

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David Starkey dropped by publisher and university after racist remarks [03 Jul 2020|11:40am]

HarperCollins will no longer publish the historian and Canterbury Christ Church University terminates his role after he said ‘slavery was not genocide’

HarperCollins has dropped David Starkey as an author, saying that the racist views the bestselling historian expressed in a recent interview were “abhorrent”.

On Thursday, Starkey told the rightwing commentator Darren Grimes that “slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain would there? You know, an awful lot of them survived.”

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'I stuck my foot in the door': what it is like to be black in UK publishing [03 Jul 2020|01:36pm]

‘More African’ covers. Adding racist characters. As authors and industry insiders share their experiences, readers can see how the books they read are changed by white publishers

Publishing is in the middle of a reckoning. In the weeks since the death of George Floyd, as black authors topped UK books charts for the first time, and #Publishingpaidme exposed the disparities in what black and white writers are paid, publishers – long criticised for employing overwhelmingly white workforces who cater for white readers – have been grappling with their record with black authors, editors and agents. And black people in publishing are not holding back, sharing details of the “hostile environment” they’ve been working in.

Last week’s release of the Rethinking “Diversity” in Publishing report confirmed what many people already knew. With interviews with 100 authors, agents and publishing staff, it found that UK publishers still serve a supposed core audience of white, middle-aged, middle-class readers, a mission that changes books by black writers in ways that are invisible to a reader by the time they hold the book in their hands.

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David Mitchell: 'I think most writers have a deep-seated envy of musicians' [03 Jul 2020|10:00am]

The bestselling author’s new novel Utopia Avenue dives into London’s 60s music scene. He talks about writing cameos for Bowie and Zappa, world-building and not repeating his greatest hits

David Mitchell and I are talking – nerdily, greedily – about a moment in popular music when prog rock, folk rock, acid jazz and psychedelia all bubbled jauntily to the surface of the cultural pot. I’m telling him about how the guitarist and songwriter John Martyn ended his days in the small town near where I live in rural Kilkenny; he’s filling me in on how Jimi Hendrix’s bass player, Noel Redding, lived out his life in Clonakilty, the seaside town in County Cork where Mitchell lives with his wife Keiko and their two children. Redding, he says, continues to dominate conversation: “In people’s memories and anecdotes, he’s still walking the streets now.”

But neither of us was there for the heyday we’re remembering, and which provides the setting for Mitchell’s eighth novel, Utopia Avenue, its title the name of his invented four-piece band. In the late 1960s, both of us were just being born. So why the fascination with recreating this precise period?

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Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers review – a suburban mystery [01 Jul 2020|08:00am]

There is compassion and quiet humour to be found in this tale of a putative virgin birth in postwar Britain

In the mid 50s, scientists began to give serious consideration to the possibility of single-sex reproduction. Dr Helen Spurway, a biologist at the University of London, observed that guppies were apparently capable of parthenogenesis. It had also been demonstrated that it was possible to induce spontaneous conception in rabbits by freezing the fallopian tubes.

In December 1955, the Sunday Pictorial (later renamed the Sunday Mirror) took a tabloid response to Spurway’s research by launching a Christmas appeal to find women who believed they had experienced a virgin birth. Most who came forward were ruled out for displaying some confusion about what virginity entailed. But there was one case over which several eminent doctors failed to reach a consensus – that of a woman named Emmimarie Jones, who apparently conceived a daughter while confined to bed in a German sanatorium.

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