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The country’s going to the dogs, but at least the police have cleared the M25

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Sometimes, a report of bad news makes me realise that the world circumstances I’d been living in weren’t as bleak as I’d been assuming. The death of Ella Fitzgerald did this for me. I’d thought she was long dead. It made me realise that I’d missed years of enjoying the fact of her still being alive. Perhaps, along with the “in memoriam” segment at the Baftas, there should also be a “surprisingly still alive” video to encourage us to appreciate some elderly stars while they’re still faintly twinkling.

I used to get the same sensation of retrospective positivity from reported job losses in the British car industry. I was always pleasantly surprised that there were still that many jobs left to lose. That’ll be it now though, I always thought, but then, a year or so later, another gargantuan layoff was announced and I was once again impressed by how many people in the UK had apparently still been making cars all this time.

That’s assuming this isn’t some accountants’ trick whereby it is possible to have negative employees. I’m not talking about GPs’ receptionists – I mean mathematically. Perhaps it’s been discovered that making British workers redundant is such a reliably successful business strategy that some financial instrument has been invented whereby you can continue to do that even when there are no literal British workers left to lay off. Like a futures market in UK redundancies – or a “no futures” market if you happen to be British.

Come to think of it, that’s exactly the sort of thing that could cause the next global economic crisis – though we’d perhaps better let the current one finish first – when it is discovered that notional trillions of British workers must now somehow be made redundant in order to square the circle of global finance. A whole rainforest of P45 forms may need to be filled in on a daily basis.

I got that old familiar “I think the glass that just smashed might actually have been half full!” feeling again last week with reports of “M25 brought to standstill”. So it’s actually been moving then, has it, all this time? That’s nice! I’d been assuming it was now basically a car park. The M25 was a byword for interminable delays when I first moved to London around the time Ella Fitzgerald died. Decades of worsening traffic later, I reckoned it must have become unusable long ago, so the thought that something could noticeably slow it down was rather cheering.

I don’t suppose that was the reaction the Just Stop Oil protesters who caused the standstill were expecting. I think the response of the authorities is more what they had in mind: a great big high court injunction specifically prohibiting the thing they were specifically planning to do. That’s got to be gratifying if you’re doing a protest: to have the desperate gesture you’re about to make officially designated as aberrant behaviour. It’s like the high court was the protesters’ MC: “Ladies and gentlemen, this next protest is absolutely not allowed, so make sure you pay attention to that!”

It’s impressive that, in maximising the illegality of the protesters’ actions, the government is throwing itself squarely behind raising awareness of the climate emergency. It’s a deft move. Ministers know that, as discredited rightwing politicians, their words have little power to convince, but in these actions, they’re showing a real commitment to putting climate change high up the political agenda. It’s a far more powerful gesture than Rishi Sunak’s grudging attendance at Cop27.

So it’s all good really, unless of course the high court injunction was intended to stop the protesters. Anyone who thought that is a moron. I have a niggling fear that the transport secretary, Mark Harper, at least, may have held out some hope. “I instructed National Highways to apply for this further injunction… [to] make it easier to take action against this reckless minority of protesters,” he said, adding: “They could face imprisonment or an unlimited fine.”

Lots to unpack here. I’m not sure his assertion that the protesters constitute a minority is quite the zinger he hopes. When are protesters not? I don’t think there’s ever been a time, in all human history, when a majority of people have been protesting. Even during the French Revolution, I expect most people were keeping their heads down.

But the main idiocy is his implication that this small group of people who are consumed by the, I’m sorry to say, far from irrational terror that the planet is soon to become uninhabitable, is going to back down in fear of prison or a fine. Maybe it would disperse a crowd of thousands, but the hardcore few dozen dangling from motorway bridges have long since made their peace with it.

When Metropolitan police assistant commissioner Matt Twist said: “This action is grossly disproportionate to any legitimate aim that this group may have”, it made me wonder where he’s getting his news. An Opec-sponsored message board?

Disproportionate? They’re stopping traffic because they think the world is ending. And unlike various religious groups down the centuries, there’s a decent chance they may be right.

But the authorities are not merely showing stupidity in the face of these protests, there’s malevolence in the mix too. The new offence, under this year’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, of “conspiracy to intentionally or recklessly cause public nuisance” seems open to wildly illiberal interpretation. It was on suspicion of this crime that several potential protesters were arrested on Monday morning before they’d done any protesting.

What is the justification for new laws restricting protest? The mere fact that protests are on the rise? To address assistant commissioner Twist’s pet subject of proportionality, are they rising out of proportion to legitimate grievance? It doesn’t feel like it. It’s not that the people are getting more bolshie, it’s that the country’s getting worse. And the government’s response is to restrict the legal means by which we can say so.

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thedimpause
15 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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Oldest known written sentence discovered – on a head-lice comb

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Timeless fret over hygiene picked out on engraved Bronze age comb from ancient kingdom of Judah

It’s a simple sentence that captures the hopes and fears of modern-day parents as much as the bronze age Canaanite who owned the doubled-edged ivory comb on which the words appear.

Believed to be the oldest known sentence written in the earliest alphabet, the inscription on the luxury item reads: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”

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thedimpause
21 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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Low’s Mimi Parker was a voice of hope and healing in indie rock

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In the early days of their marriage, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s dream was simple. “We wanted to do something in life together – be in business together, or work together … Just be together,” Sparhawk told me in 2013. The solution materialised in 1993 when they formed Low, in which Parker sang and drummed until her death on Saturday of ovarian cancer.

They’d known each other since elementary school, growing up together in Clearbrook, a tiny city in rural Minnesota. Parker’s mother had been an aspiring country singer whose career had gone no further than a handful of shows in Minneapolis, but still loved singing old gospel songs with her daughters, occasionally performing at church or at funerals. After they began dating in their teens, Sparhawk would hang out at the Parker house, and jam with Mimi’s mother. It was there that Sparhawk and his future wife/bandmate first harmonised, singing Neil Young’s Heart of Gold together.

For Parker, music had been “kind of a dream, but not something I’d ever thought I’d do”. She had other passions anyway: sports, and riding snowmobiles across Minnesota’s wintery landscapes. But then Sparhawk suggested he and Parker form a band, giving her a snare drum and cymbal he’d found in the basement of the arena where he worked (Parker had played drums in her junior high concert band, years earlier). “She was a little reluctant,” Sparhawk remembered. “She’s really not terribly interested in being in front of people.”

That minimal drum set helped shape Low’s early, spare sound, but Parker’s voice – along with her songwriting – would prove her most crucial contribution to the group: a hushed, strong voice, holy yet human. “I vividly remember writing Words, off our first album, in our old apartment,” Sparhawk told me. “And then Mimi came in with the harmony, and it was like putting the spirit into a body, like taking something two-dimensional and making it three-dimensional.” The intimacy of their harmonies almost felt like we listeners were eavesdropping. Parker later told Ace Hotel that on the rare occasions she sang with anyone else, “it almost feels like I’m doing wrong … like I’m cheating on Alan, in a weird way.”

The spectral quality of their early demos charmed legendary indie maverick Kramer, who produced their debut album, 1994’s I Could Live in Hope. Critics christened their sound “slowcore” – a term the group detested. But Low soon transcended such pigeonholing, their unhurried pace and sparse arrangements earning a loyal cult following. After Gap soundtracked its 2000 Christmas ad campaign with the group’s glacial reading of Little Drummer Boy (off the group’s 1999 EP of holiday songs), Low found a modest commercial breakthrough.

The following year’s Things We Lost in the Fire was a masterpiece, defined by Parker’s contributions. Laser Beam was breathtaking, a resonant lullaby inspired by Parker watching her alcoholic father being Maced by a cop when she was a child, immersing the trauma in a healing stillness. On In Metal, she used the practice of bronzing a baby’s booties as a metaphor for the intense vulnerability that follows having a child – the fear they may come to harm, the sensation that parenthood itself is a fleeting experience, quickly ebbing away – singing “Partly hate to see you grow / And just like your baby shoes / Wish I could keep your little body / In metal”. Both songs were studies in Low’s ability to create music that is both beautiful and unsettling at the same time.

The albums that followed built on Low’s early acclaim, but also fearlessly dismantled and reassembled their paradigm, adopting rock dynamics with 2005’s The Great Destroyer and, on their three albums with producer and Bon Iver collaborator BJ Burton – 2015’s Ones And Sixes, 2018’s Double Negative and 2021’s Hey What – embracing a bold experimentalism in sync with darker lyrics which reflected a country in turmoil. Indeed, some of Parker’s finest songs came in Low’s final decade, not least Just Make It Stop, the highlight of 2013’s Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way. Over muted drums, emotive piano and brooding guitar strum, Parker sang with understated desperation – “I’m close to the edge / I’m at the end of my road” – but her harmonies offered a shard of hope, a sense that she wasn’t alone.

Like the wonderful All Night, from last year’s Hey What, Parker’s lyric seemed to allude to Sparhawk’s mental health struggles, which she told Carmel Holt, host of the Sheroes podcast, he had suffered from “for many years … It’s not one of those things that has an easy fix.” As the child of an alcoholic, Parker noted that she and Sparhawk were “a perfect storm”, but their love was strong enough that they were able to weather it. Indeed, whatever turbulence hit, their union endured, their chemistry a mutually sustaining thing. “It’s a good balance,” Sparhawk told me in 2013. “She’s shy. I’m still a stuttering 14-year-old boy with a guitar. My erratic psyche and her very in control, reserved nature have pretty much saved each other over the years. Mimi’s been the essence that’s made us able to do the things we do.”

It was on Holt’s podcast earlier this year that Parker revealed her December 2020 cancer diagnosis. In the interview she’d said that she’d had “some really intense chemotherapy” and surgery – “a crazy and surreal two years”. “Our time can be cut short,” she added. “We try to make each day mean something, to make a connection with our kids, our family.” The ability to make music, to release their universally acclaimed Hey What in the midst of this turmoil had, she said, “been a respite and a source of comfort … I’m thankful for the experiences I’ve had, the opportunities to make beautiful music, to collaborate with Alan, to understand his chaos and his tendencies to mesh them with my calmness and my search for harmony and beautiful things.”

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thedimpause
21 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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Philologist Irene Vallejo: ‘Alexander the Great’s library was the first step towards the internet’

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Born in 1979, Irene Vallejo is a Spanish writer, historian and philologist, and a regular columnist in the newspaper El País. She had written several books, including novels, essays and children’s books before she published El infinito en un junco (Infinity in a Reed), which won a number of prizes in Spain including the National Essay prize and spent 18 months in the bestsellers’ list there. Mario Vargas Llosa has described the book as “a masterpiece” and it has now been published in 30 countries. The English translation by Charlotte Whittle is titled Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World.

How did you become interested in ancient books and the beginning of the printed word?
It goes back to my childhood. My parents were great readers and our home was bristling with books. I was fascinated by these rows of tiny black insects running across [the page] that only adults could interpret. And later, my studies of classical philology brought me into contact with the period when books emerged for the first time. And I’ve always been curious about the first times things happened.

In your book you say that as a child, you thought every book had been written for you and the only copy was in your house.
And I used to think my father was Homer, because he was telling me the stories from The Odyssey! My parents used to change the names of the protagonists of the stories [to] me or my friends. So I thought that all literature was written for me, and I was so disappointed when I discovered this was not the case.

Why is the great library of Alexandria so important in your book?
Alexander the Great was probably the first person to have a really global gaze on the world, and it was his idea to build this comprehensive public library that was open to everybody – even slaves and people from non-privileged families. So this was something different in the democratisation of knowledge. They wanted to gather all the books from all cultures and make them available for everybody. It was like the first step to the internet.

The original title for Papyrus in Spanish was El infinito en un junco (Infinity in a Reed). Can you explain?
It’s a metaphor for my description of what is wonderful about books. The idea that infinite feelings, experiences, fears and emotions can be [contained] in something so small and common. I’m thinking of the first books in history, which were papyrus scrolls [made from a type of reed]. It’s also a tribute to Pascal [Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher], who described human beings as reeds. He said we are fragile like reeds, but we have the power of learning and understanding.

What was the most surprising thing you learned when writing the book?
The biggest revelation in my research was the figure of Enheduanna – that the first person we know of who signed a text was a woman. She’s not in [textbooks] in high schools or university. I was studying classical philology for many years before I heard of her. It’s more difficult for a woman to enter the literary canon, and I wanted to make an effort to recover these names and fragments of poems or speeches, to recover the existence of these women.

Do you think that in our societies, where books are so easily available, we undervalue them?
Yes. We take them for granted, but there was a long story before this, of people facing dangers, sometimes dying, for books. And that’s the adventurous history I wanted to tell in this book. This is an essay about books and reading, but it’s also a huge adventure and I conceived it to be read with the same kind of thrill you get from a novel.

How has the success of Papyrus changed your life?
It was a huge surprise. In Spain you’re not expected to have success with essays, and also I wrote the book at a very painful personal period. Our son was born with a very serious health condition, with a long hospitalisation, and I wrote this book because it was therapeutic for me. [It] was born as a safe haven in those painful times. I wasn’t even sure that I’d be able to finish it. I didn’t know if anyone would publish it. And it’s had a totally unexpected reception – a lot of readers have embraced it, and my life has changed. All this happened during the lockdown, and it was so unexpected that a book about history, about classical philology, could be of some help in that difficult time. But somehow, readers found solace in my book.

How and where do you write?
Nowadays I’m not [working on] a big project because promotion is too demanding and I’m travelling all the time. So I’m just writing articles and taking notes, but I don’t have the calm or the time to start a new project. But since I became a mother, I got used to working everywhere and reading everywhere. Spoon in one hand, book in the other.

Which living writers do you most admire?
Mary Beard was a model for me, because she’s also a classical philologist like I am. She’s always breaking boundaries and defying the accepted knowledge about the ancient world. And she’s able to communicate with irony and a sense of humour. She’s a bestseller in Spain. I also love Tom Holland; his essays are very inspiring. I love Orlando Figes and Terry Eagleton. I love these books that are a border between fiction and nonfiction, and essays that have humour and irony. I’ve always been very much inspired by the tradition of British essays. I also love John Berger, and The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey. This kind of essay isn’t very common in Spanish literature. We have the academic essay, but I wanted to use the skills I’ve learned as a novelist and [write] a kind of essay aimed at a wider audience. I think the most remarkable examples of these kinds of essays are written in English nowadays.

And if you could keep just one book from the ancient world, which one would it be?
My first answer would be The Odyssey, because it was the story [through] which I fell in love with literature. It’s essential for me. But I love so much ancient history: Herodotus or Tacitus. And Thucydides; he’s so insightful and useful for analysis of today’s world. So after The Odyssey, I would save Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.

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thedimpause
24 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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Feeding Of The Five Thousand 29-10-2022

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On this day, 44 years ago Crass recorded their first album in southern Studios – 18 Track EP, 29th October 1978.

We recorded it in one go – starting during the day and working well into the night. It is still my favourite Crass album

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thedimpause
31 days ago
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TS Eliot’s Waste Land was a barren place. But at least a spirit of optimism still prevailed | Kenan Malik

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A century on, the epic masterpiece speaks to today’s anxieties about loss of tradition

He promised “a new start”.

I made no comment. What should I resent?

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thedimpause
31 days ago
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