Among The Farmers

  1. Vote Leave’s first campaign poster declared ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week.’ To understand the significance of this it’s first necessary to be clear that the oft-repeated £350 million figure is a lie. Not an exaggeration, or a question of interpretation, or a misleading claim, but a lie. It ignores the rebate Margaret Thatcher negotiated. When you factor that in, the EU actually ‘takes’ about £250 million a week from Britain. Deepening the dishonesty of the original lie, even that figure overstates Britain’s contribution by more than half, because the EU gives much of the country’s membership fee straight back. Subsidies to British farmers make up the biggest element of the money that’s returned, at £61 million a week.

     In Grimsby

  1. Allard had no ideological problem with Ukip, including their policies on immigration – ‘I know we’re at the end of a railway line, and not many people want to come here, and I’m OK with that’ – but that didn’t mean he was going to vote for them. He was still waiting for a credible explanation of how pulling out of the EU would bring a restoration of vanished days. ‘The Cod War thing was before my time,’ he said. ‘I joined when it had been and gone, the late Seventies, and gradually saw the harbour year by year emptying of fishing boats … If we’d been in charge of our own waters like the Norwegians and Iceland I think we would still see a vibrant catching industry round here. But the reality is we joined Europe … You can’t just say: “We’re quitting, we’re going to announce a two hundred mile limit.” You would have to be clear about the scenario if we came out.’

        In Farageland

  1. In view of Ukip’s insistence that it isn’t a racist party, I thought Heale might be defensive, or embarrassed, or apologetic, about having been a member of the NF in 1978. To my surprise, he came to its defence. ‘There’s been an attempt by many people to associate the National Front with the far right,’ he said, ‘but that’s not fair, that’s not true.’ Heale left the NF when he fell in love with and married an Egyptian woman. After some ugly encounters with other ex-members who were unhappy that he’d married outside his race, he moved to the coast.

     On Mad Men

  1. Sterling Cooper, the fictional advertising agency around which Mad Men is built, is a caricature of the commercial TV system that produced the series: a pool of creative people in bitter thrall to the accountants and deal-makers they rely on for money. Although we learn in parenthesis that the agency gets most of its income from commission on the ads it places, for dramatic purposes the agency is divided into two departments: Creative, which comes up with campaign slogans, artwork and copy for ads, and Accounts, which persuades, charms, fawns, bribes and pimps its way to getting and keeping corporate clients. Mad Men is a show about writers dependent on advertising, written by writers dependent on advertising.

       The Afghan Disaster

  1. We tramped silently through the cold looks of Gereshk market and crossed in thin-skinned vehicles the sudden boundary between the lush green plots of the irrigated zone and the powdery sand of the desert, where families will keep a single forlorn plant watered in the dirt in front of their mud-brick houses as a kind of pet. The Paras were reduced to the mere demonstration of their own existence. ‘You need more fighting troops out here,’ a sergeant told me one day, as we headed back from patrol in the back of an open truck. ‘This is such a big area to cover, the Helmand province. If you want to dominate the ground, you need a bigger force.’

       The Privatisation Scam                     

  1. VAT isn’t the only flat-rate tax on the poor. There are others, and they are onerous; they just aren’t called taxes, though they should be – private taxes. If a payment to an authority, public or private, is compulsory, it’s a tax. We can’t do without electricity; the electricity bill is an electricity tax. We can’t do without water; the water bill is a water tax. Some people can get by without railways, and some can’t; they pay the rail tax. Students pay the university tax. The meta-privatisation is the privatisation of the tax system itself; even, it could be said, the privatisation of us, the former citizens of Britain.

        The Leopard
  1. 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.


  1. Dima’s mother, Oxana, an art teacher who lives in Belgium, was sitting at her computer. She knew Dima was at the protests and was watching live streams of events on and around Maidan from multiple webcams. She was able to see the police closing off streets and called her son’s mobile, telling him the best way to get out. For Oxana the internet was boon and menace, giving her the sense that she had some control over events eleven hundred miles away, but offering the horrific possibility of witnessing the stilling of a pixel that might be her son.

   Where will we live?      

  1. 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?

      On James Salter

  1. Viri doesn’t get to enjoy his hour of man’s estate; he’s not aware of it. It exists only in the perception of others. That’s the tragedy described in Light Years, that one cannot live the appearance one presents to other people. The appearance of happiness in Viri and Nedra’s marriage is enjoyed by others in a way they can’t enjoy it themselves.

      On Cyprus  

  1. When Lawrence Durrell moved to Cyprus in 1953, his ticket from Trieste to Limassol (he went by boat) cost £47, while the beautiful old house he bought near a monastery in the hills above Kyrenia cost £300. Sixty years later, you can still get a one-way air ticket from Northern Europe to Cyprus, out of season, for £47 – in other words, the price has plummeted, in real terms – while houses have increased in value a thousandfold. The discrepancy explains much of what has happened to Cyprus over the past couple of generations.

      On Nikolai Leskov

  1. I suspect the reason Leskov still haunts the purgatory of reputations is that he sacrificed a portion of his ego on the altar of doubt. While Tolstoy set his face consistently against modernity and Platonov, in some respects Leskov’s true heir, was determined to champion it, Leskov doesn’t take a position on social change. His work embodies the multiple transitions that make doubt about identity a condition more defining of modernity than religious doubt – the transitions from rural to urban, from oral to written, from serving the individual to serving the corporate, from maker to consumer, from inherited status to acquired status.

      On Breaking Bad                

  1. I’m not sure why Breaking Bad comes across as such a political drama: whether it’s because Gilligan and his collaborators intended it that way, or because the creative space afforded by the medium encouraged a deliberate, unblinkered look at American society that was bound to result in social comment, or because I’m projecting my own preoccupations onto its rich storyscape. But it does. And the glaring drawback of America’s war on drugs – that the war has become a bigger problem than the drugs – is the least of it.

  1. In Mr. Savile’s astoundingly frank 1976 autobiography, he described how he and another man had spent the night with six girls young enough for their mothers to come looking for them. “To date, we have not been found out,” he wrote. “Which, after all, is the 11th commandment, is it not?”

  2. Don’t get found out. It’s the idea that you’re not doing anything wrong as long as the only people who know what you’re doing are you, the person you’re doing it to, and the people you’re doing it with.

        Rereading Anna Karenina

  1. Anna Karenina is no Romeo and Juliet story of star-crossed teenagers unjustly destroyed by their elders' cruel laws, but a story of adults vexed by boundaries. It is the portrayal of a clash between an old world of rigid religious codes, duels, fixed gender roles and strict class division and a new world of divorce, separation, custody battles, women's self-determination and uncertain moral rules.

  1. The novel is written, like the letter, to one person. It is the peculiar focus of the novel that no matter how many times the event is repeated, the writer must imagine his or her story being delivered, like a letter, for the attention of a sole recipient — not an actual person but an idealized reader, who is able to make herself believe that this message, this story, is for her in particular. Social media, on the other hand, expect a co-present audience. You aren’t just laughing at the author’s joke; you’re aware of whether others are laughing.

      In Greece

  1. There are more than a million illegal homes in Greece, he says. He gets up, goes to the window and points to a white concrete shack on the roof of a five-storey apartment block. ‘That’s illegal,’ he says. ‘And that shop down there is illegal. Over there on the hillside’ – he points to a cluster of houses on a slope in the distance – ‘they’re all illegal. They’ve been there for ten years.’

  2.   I suggest that as mayor for twenty years he must know who is on the take.

  3.   ‘Everybody knows, and nobody knows,’ he says.

        A guest of Tolstoy

  1. Youlya Vronskaya, the organiser of the Fifteenth International Yasnaya Polyana Writer's Meeting, picks me up from the airport outside Moscow on a bright, chilly afternoon. We drive south through dacha country, past old green wooden fences and new red brick walls awkwardly pressed together. The car in front is crammed with watermelons. We pass through a birch forest, the sun finding its way through the delicate leaves and making the silver trunks shine. In the centre is an enormous billboard advertising septic tanks.

          Day in Iraq          

  1. 16.37 Outside Balad, an American blimp with sophisticated radar originally designed to detect cruise missiles; two Apache helicopter gunships; and a $4m Predator drone are employed to arrest three men seen digging with a pickaxe by the side of the road. Near Ramadi, a marine patrol find a suspected car bomb and, while waiting for the disposal team, are approached by a ramshackle convoy of a Kia Bongo truck and a white car towing a blue van. The marines prepare to search the truck. An Iraqi steps out of one of the vehicles and raises his arm to throw a grenade. Before he can throw it, it explodes, blowing his right arm off. The marines open fire and kill one of the Iraqis, possibly the one who tried to throw the grenade. Five others are arrested.

  2. [Interactive version]

      On the Tolstoys

  1. ‘If I could kill him and create a new person exactly the same as he is now, I would do so happily,’ she wrote a few months after they were married. The following year, a teenager being steadily impregnated by a man in his mid-thirties who was writing War and Peace, she wrote:

  2. In a moment of grief, which I now regret, when nothing seemed to matter but the fact that I had lost his love, I thought even his writing was pointless. What did I care what Countess So-and-So in his novel said to Princess So-and-So? Afterwards I despised myself. My life is so mundane. But he has such a rich internal life …

  3. The age difference weighed on her. ‘At this moment I should love to go to a dance or do something amusing. He is old and self- absorbed, and I am young and long to do something wild. I’d like to turn somersaults instead of going to bed. But with whom?’

  1. The common thread that leaps out of Coetzee’s work is not so much the gulf between men and women as the gulf between two incompatible life-paths, the path of surrender and the path of appetites. Again and again, his books put these two ways of living in opposition – one character will be passionate, lusty, engaged, hungry, while the other will be austere, self-denying, detached, finding virtue in deserts and silence and small things. David Lurie and his daughter in Disgrace; Paul Rayment and Elizabeth Costello in Slow Man; the concentration camp doctor and Michael K in Life and Times of Michael K. Or, to use examples Coetzee has used, Byron and Jesus.

  1. We’ve become so used to the American and Irish novelists polishing their sentences till they glitter with ingenious similes and wise passions that the notion of another kind of poetic prose, one where the poetry is in the larger structure rather than word by word, seems alien now. But that is what Occupied City is, and perhaps the novel as collection-of-poems-and-prose is where a novelist takes shelter during the periods when the prose can’t seem to take the weight of the stories any more.

  1. Even here in Ajegunle, the biggest, toughest inner-city slum in Lagos, the plot where the unfinished church stands is valuable as building land. Once there was a government plan to raze Ajegunle and let its residents scatter as best they could. It wasn’t carried out; but Ajegunle has never sensed more nervously the heave and crush of the vast, taut metropolis coiled around it, straining against its bounds. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and if Lagos hasn’t yet overtaken Cairo as Africa’s biggest city, it will. The dread of sudden eviction chafes deep into the already hard dollar-a-day lives of the people who call Ajegunle home.

                   On the economic crisis

  1. "Nowadays," wrote Saul Bellow in his novel Humboldt's Gift, "the categories are grasped by those who belong to them." It's not just that we see the economic crisis rearing up out of the sea in the distance, like a slow-motion tsunami from which, despite its creeping speed, we cannot escape. What makes the situation peculiar is that the crisis that threatens us also seems to be us; we are simultaneously menaced by the wave, and exist as elements of the wave.


  1. In Kieron Smith, you see as in no previous Kelman novel how much the honesty and rigour of Kelman the writer have priority over the personal beliefs of Kelman the public speaker, interviewee and polemical writer. It is not that the one contradicts the other, but that, by having a child as his hero, the anger of Kelman the social critic, believably passaged into the thoughts and words of the central characters of his earlier novels, no longer has a place...


  1. On the afternoon of March 31 2000, Boris Pasternak, editor-in-chief of the Moscow publishing house Polifakt, drove to the suburb of Podolsk to look up one of his authors, the food writer and historian Vilyam Pokhlebkin. Pokhlebkin was late delivering the final manuscript of his new book, A Century Of Cooking, and had failed either to turn up for a scheduled meeting or to respond to telegrams. The writer had no phone. He had no fridge or TV, either, although he did have 50,000 books crammed into his apartment...

  1. Christian Wolmar’s ‘The Subterranean Railway’

  2. Not Killing Frank Gardner

  3. The Tsunami: Erasing a Town

  4. Anna Politkovskaya Hopes...

  5. Curated by Fire: the Momart Inferno

  6. In Iraq

  7. How not to rebuild a railway

  8. Something happened in Burnley

  9. Sweden and the euro

  10. ...but the cotton ain’t high

  11. Invasion +26

  12. Invasion +25

  13. Invasion +20

  14. Invasion +18

  15. Invasion +16

  16. Invasion +15

  17. Invasion +14

  18. Invasion +13

  19. Invasion +12

  20. Invasion +10

  21. Invasion +8

  22. Invasion +7

  23. Invasion +6

  24. Invasion +5

  25. Invasion +4

  26. Invasion +3

  27. Invasion +2

  28. Invasion +1

  29. A country far away, of which we know little: 12 November 2001

  30. Writing about writing about war, five days before 9/11

  31. Why do we fear Islam? - 11 September 1999



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