27th of September: Now with 100% more Batman

Here we are again, for a round-up of the best stuff I read on the Internet this fortnight. Plenty of good articles to follow, so let’s get straight to it.

Song of the week is off an album that got heavy play when I was like, 17, but I don’t actually know if they’re a well-known band or anything so this might be as hipster as this feature ever gets. They’re from Sweden.

As ever, this fortnightly round-up is available as a blog or an email newsletter, so if you’d prefer it in the other format, follow the appropriate link. And please do pass it on to a friend if you enjoy it.

  • An actually good and balanced look at Corbyn’s position on Middle Eastern politics
  • Undermining a lot of the overblown analysis of ISIS
  • Think I’ve shared articles about this bloke before, but another piece on the Georgian who’s now one of ISIS’ top lads
  • Interesting piece on how Iranian influence is perceived in Syria
  • Another analysis of Russia’s move into Syria
  • This is a bit overlong, but makes a good case against the USA’s sprawl of military bases
  • Sam Kriss excellent on the ever-escalating absurdity of the Prevent strategy
  • These two essays are really raw, personal, and upsetting, from the long-term girlfriend of the blood cancer fella from a couple of weeks ago. Stunning writing
  • Nice profile of some nice activists in Brixton
  • Good excerpt from Juliet Jacques’ Trans
  • This interview with the new VP of the NUS is great
  • Masculinity – it’s bad
  • Don’t think “chill” is enormously a thing outside the American dating scene but it sounds bad and I enjoyed this
  • Hitler could never have successfully invaded the UK – here’s why
  • Very interesting on how a recent issue of a Batman comic tried to tackle issues of police brutality and racism
  • I know I promised I’d stop sharing Golby pieces every week but this one about Freshers’ made me feel like I was 18 again and I hated every minute of it
  • Great interview/profile/puff piece with Rihanna
  • TBH I had to listen to ‘Since U Been Gone’ again to understand this piece but I respect how hard they argue in its favour. Also from that same feature, this funny list of ridiculous tacky songs from 2005 reminded me that it was actually 2005/6 that I checked out of mainstream music for a few years, not 2003 as I had thought. So that’s good.
  • Imagine, in 2015, writing that it took a bloke covering it to really validate a woman’s art. State of it. This is good on the response to Ryan Adams’ Taylor Swift cover album.
  • Lovely retrospective of Metal Gear Solid 3 – which I still haven’t played!
  • Cool on what it’s like to return to a game after a long absence.

And there we have it. See you next week, on the blog, for the reading reviews. Have a lovely week x

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20th of September: Paper Books that’s made from a 100% paper

(cheers, Stew)

So, here we are. Innovating and that. I’ve been compiling these reviews for a few weeks now, so we’ll start with a bumper edition. If you’re here for the reading list, you’re in the right place at the wrong time. That will be next week.

See how this goes, tbh. Let me know what you think in the comments or somewhere, idk. Might do longer or shorter reviews.

Late for work, so I’ll leave you to it.

Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain – Trevor and Mike Phillips

Regular readers of the reading list (mouthful) will have noticed that there’s always a lot of articles about race relations and stuff in the United States, and far, far fewer on race relations in the United Kingdom1 . This is partly just because online discourse is sort of driven by the USA, partly because Ta-Nehisi Coates is sort of brilliant and most of his work demands sharing, partly because there doesn’t seem to be the same attention paid to these issues in the United Kingdom, and, probably mostly, tbh, because I’m just quite ignorant about my country’s history in this regard.

So I did what I do whenever I have a problem now, and Amazoned it. I knew of the Windrush as a significant moment in post-war immigration so I looked for that, and a book called Windrush came up. What follows this annoyingly-rambling-navel-gaze of a pre-amble is my take on it.

As a piece of social history and a document of a group of people/generation with incredible experiences and stories, Windrush, by Trevor and Mike Phillips is wonderful. The Phillips make a point of quoting their interviewees at length, often letting them go on for several pages if they have a particularly relevant perspective on events, and rarely quoting people for less than a solid paragraph. This has the effect of emphasising their voices over the book itself, which is, for the most part, good. The stories and memories stand on their own and aren’t broken down to support an argument.

This is sort of double-edged sword, though one edge cuts less than the other. While a foregrounding of the experiences of the Windrush generation is exactly what I wanted and needed to read, the fragmentary nature of a book built entirely on interviews makes it very hard to see any sort of real through-line to it. Where someone like Antony Beevor does the whole ‘extensive research’ thing then crushes it down into a compelling narrative, this book seems content to let its subjects speak for themselves. So as a thing to read, I think it has its limits.

Nevertheless, the interviewees are incredible. Some of them remain prominent in British life today, and you are struck by how many of the initial generation of Caribbean immigrants went on to greater things only a couple of decades after arriving. The hardship and difficulty they went through is movingly recounted, and it can be quite eye-opening to read how nasty their reception was. There’s one unsettling passage that honestly reads like something out of Maya Angelou. It’s quite difficult to sustain the sort of self-satisfied superiority British liberals sometimes have when thinking about race in America when you look through it all.

Personalising the narrative does incredible things for the major events the book recounts – the successive riots, and particularly the Deptford fire, which I had never even heard of but is wrenchingly retold, among others, by relatives of some of the victims and a volunteer nurse on-site at the time. It’s properly heart-breaking stuff, and not really to be read on public transport, tbh. It also ensures the book is enriched by all the little details that must have stuck with these people for decades.

But yeah, it’s good. If, like me, you’re a bit of an ignoramus, it can’t hurt.

1  not to mention Brazil

Dominion – C.J. Sansom

There’s a lot that’s unpleasant about this spy thriller. It’s set in fifties Britain, so it’s very grey, very rainy, and all the characters have variously repressed and miserable backstories and childhoods that unfold throughout the story.

Also it’s set in an alternate history where Britain surrendered to the Nazis after the Norway campaign, and is now a satellite of a triumphant Nazi Germany. That’s pretty grim too.

It’s good though. It’s a propulsive story, with the cat-and-mouse between the British resistance and the SS carrying it all along – despite it being a 700-page slab of a book, I read it in the course of about three days. Almost as interesting as the actual plot, however, is the historical background it’s set against – Sansom includes an extensive bibliography at the end of the book, and it shows. The broad outline of history after Churchill didn’t succeed Chamberlain as PM is fairly plausible, and the grim scenes of special police and internment camps in the Midlands don’t seem as outlandish as you’d hope.

One minor/major flaw – man has such a vendetta against the SNP that he seems to have expressly included a Glaswegian character so that he could insert comparisons of them with the Nazis. Even aside from the actual politics, which are a bit much, it’s very tedious – you can almost see where the plot wrenches to a halt for a little chat about the SNP. There are then three pages dedicated to, again, comparing the SNP to the Nazis, in a historical note at the end. It’s like that Michael Crichton book where he wrote whole chapters of author-mouthpiece characters ranting about climate change being a hoax in the middle of a car chase. Exhausting, tbh.

Still, it’s pretty gripping.

London is the Best City in America: A Novel – Laura Dave

The ever-excellent Bim Adewunmi recommends this book a lot, and I finally took the plunge when I realised it was only a couple of quid on Amazon.

London is the Best City in America by Laura Dave centres around a young woman whose life has been sort of in suspended animation since she walked out on her fiancé several years before the story starts. Now, with her brother’s wedding bringing everyone back home, secrets will be revealed and decisions made etc. etc.

It’s OK. Frustratingly, there’s no way to criticise it without falling into very-unfairly gendered criticism and calling it chick-lit but it is basically a rom-com (which isn’t a bad thing!). It’s very pleasingly written and its characters are astutely observed and psychologically real-seeming, but in the sort of tropes and plot beats it hits, its, yeah, a rom-com. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, but I guess it did look a bit odd in my to-read pile, sandwiched in between two books about Nazis.

I think what elevates it above being a fluffy, sweet story about a wedding weekend (aside from the fact that it’s like 200 pages long so can’t outstay its welcome) is the depth of the characters. Dave (I wish my surname was Dave) has a real gift for making all their actions seem entirely consistent with their personalities as described, which makes the unfolding of a reasonably-predictable plot much more rewarding than it could have been. She’s also wonderful at that highly-broken-up and detailed way of describing people’s movements, body language, and behaviour that I absolutely love.

Anyway, it’s short and quite nice and it’ll give you a break from constantly reading about Nazis (seriously stop that).

(segue!)

Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada

“Gabriel you should read less books about Nazis and read more novels, more fiction. Lighten up a bit.”

Loopholes, innit. Novels about Nazis, and extremely depressing ones at that.

Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada is very good though.

Essentially the story of an old couple in wartime Berlin who undertake a quiet campaign of resistance against the Nazis, with several peripheral characters becoming involved, and a fairly humanising look at the (still awful) police hunting them.

It’s an engaging and slightly grubby thriller with a sort of low-key inspiring moral core, which is more ably discussed by @How_Upsetting here – he draws very interesting (if ever-so slightly stretched) contemporary parallels around the key notion of “decency”.

It’s a fairly long one, with several digressions that are sort of brought back into play at various moments but mostly just seem to drag on a bit – the two ruffian-scoundrel characters, in particular, are exhausting. It’s also quite grim, predictably, as it takes place from like 1940 to 1943 which were not really good years in Berlin imo. It’s not quite to the point of being utterly crushing to read, as the central focus on decency keeps it from being a cynical or pessimistic book, despite everything inside it. Oddly, it reminded me quite consistently of Joyce’s Dubliners, despite those stories being set in late 1910s Dublin and not Nazi Berlin. I don’t really have anything to say beyond that comparison tbh, just thought it was interesting.

It’s a good book, idk.

Commando: Winning World II Behind Enemy Lines – James Owen

Been a while since I’ve read a legit WW2 book (by which I mean about a month) so the minute I got my shiny new Islington Library Card* I made a bee-line for the history section.

This one got picked because it was the only paperback about WW2, tbh.

But it was decent!

Owen presents the history of the Commandos from their formation to their disbandment at the end of the war, which creates quite a scattered story – Commando units saw action from Norway to Burma, and, tragically, the high casualty rate they suffered deprives the book of strong protagonists to anchor.

Similar to Bomber Command (reviewed a couple of years ago on this very blog), the author gets around this difficulty by almost personalising the unit itself – each mission’s impact on The Commandos is considered. However, he never fails to provide background details of the men involved and personal recollections to humanise them, which, again, makes the brutal losses all the more shocking.

As a military history thing, the main flaw I found with it is there are no maps. This might be partly because the Commandos saw action in a variety of chaotic, improvised battles and raids that don’t lend themselves to being diagrammed in the same way the Battle of Kursk would. Still, in one instance in Burma, Owen has to describe a set of Japanese positions in tedious detail and you’re only slightly the wiser as to what he means.

Still, good. Not many tanks, but.

*or as it’s now known, Passport of the People’s Republic of Corbyn

13th of September: Return To Form

Been a busy week here at Filling The Long Hours. And holding the list back for two weeks has finally paid off – got plenty to share with you today. With that in mind, I’ll get straight to it.

As ever, this list is available as a newsletter or a blog. If you’d prefer to access it differently, go for it. And if you enjoy the recommendations, please tell your friends.

Song of the week isn’t technically a song but Kendrick made an incredible appearance on the Late Show and performed a sort of medley from To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s electric. Apologies for the weird video – this one is better but I can’t embed it.

Two posts from the blog you might have missed this week. First up, a bit of house-keeping to announced a new book review feature here, and second, I got a bit sick of the distortions in the Syria debate. Hopefully more great #content to follow.

  • Pretty chilling interview with an imprisoned ISIS leader who used to plan suicide bombings. This piece on Yazidi women joining Iraqi militias to defend themselves does a great job of restoring agency to them and also contains some stunning photos. Finally, while the debate over drones and targeted killings is sort of boring and woolly as hell, this piece sort of convinced me.
  • Good analysis of Russia’s increasing role in Syria.
  • Tom Chivers gathers together some of the science on the value of shocking images in the wake of that photo of Aylan Kurdi. However, this critique of the use of the image is compelling and also ends with recommendations for practical action. This story of taking a refugee family into the author’s home is quite sweet.
  • Rebuttal to claims that homosexuality is somehow ‘foreign’ to Africa
  • Aditya Chakrabotty on fine form drawing lessons from a dinner ladies’ payment dispute in Camden
  • This fortnight has somehow brought us through several tragic anniversaries for the US. For 9/11, this story of the fighter pilot scrambled to bring down United 93 is chilling, while these seven tales of heroism are quite moving. Speaking of which, this little-known account of how Mexico pretty much invaded Texas to bring humanitarian relief in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is A+
  • Going in hard on shipping-container-buildings
  • Powerful on what growing up in debt does to you
  • Bit of a cheat, here, but someone on Twitter was gathering together entertainingly nasty reviews – there are plenty of good ones in the responses to this tweet
  • Very interesting on the gendered response to alcohol abuse in classic authors
  • Nothing like a Film Crit Hulk essay to make you reconsider a film you had sort of forgotten about – very interesting on Ex Machina.
  • It’s kind of unfortunate that GQ felt the need to flip the gendering on this, but lightly amusing article on Resting Dick Face
  • This will be of limited interest if you haven’t seen Bojack Horseman but that’s your problem – great review of the second season and its’ treatment of depression
  • Entertaining reappraisal of High Fidelity (the “pop culture CRB” is such a brilliant phrase)
  • I wasn’t convinced and am still not going to take selfies but I still quite enjoyed this guide, aimed at men, at how and why to take better ones
  • Make sure you pay attention to all the details of this Tom Phillips-photoshops-the-media about Corbyn’s victory
  • Lyrical on the tragedy of Wayne Rooney
  • Smart interview with Alison Brie off Community/Mad Men
  • I absolutely adore Demi Adejuyigbe, mostly for his incredible Hozier mashups, but his Banksy jokes are also gold – this roundup will clue you in.

And there we have it. I will see you all next week for a roundup of some book reviews, which will only be available here on fillingthelonghours.wordpress.com, and then in two weeks for another reading list! Enjoy the rest of your Sundays x

The War That Wasn’t

 

Of the many distortions and falsehoods that comprise ‘debate’ over Syria in the British press, I think the one that comes up most is the 2013 Commons vote on launching punitive airstrikes on Assad following his illegal use of chemical weapons. As apparently no-one remembers, when Assad crossed Obama’s ‘red line’ on using chemical weapons on civilians, there was a Franco-British-US rush to an ill-defined war. There were no objectives or long-term plans to this, it was a really strangely incoherent plan. It wasn’t a no-fly zone, or a full-on humanitarian intervention, it seemed to literally just consist of chucking some missiles at some command centres and chemical weapons facilities to chastise Assad for being a knob (which, tbf).

Ed Miliband, bless his soul, dared to demand some clarification on this plan. NB: he didn’t at the time oppose striking Assad [not gonna lie, lads, I’ve had to Google this bit because I’m a bit shaky on the details. So this post is immediately going to be 2x as factually based as anything on Comment is Free]. As it became clear that there was no support for this bad plan, even Tory MPs started rebelling, and Cameron lost the vote, leading him to rule out military action against Syria.

Summed up quite ably here, tbh:

This has since been recharacterised in the most dramatic and apocalyptic terms possible (including, to his discredit, by Miliband himself – “facing down the leader of the free world” indeed, Ed). It has become the marker of Britain’s retreat from the world stage, evidence of Miliband’s fundamental unseriousness, and a just sort of general decision by the UK to condemn the people of Syria to their fate.

More than that – it was a Chamberlain moment. As the Ukraine crisis kicked off, apparently-not-stupid man Sajid Javid* argued it was this vote that emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine. And so, gradually, the significance of this vote escalated to the point that now it can be used as shorthand for whatever the author wants it to.

I just re-read the article that really set off this rant and I’m fuming again.

Apparently-lucid-political-commentator Matthew D’Ancona thinks this is a good paragraph:

d'ancona

It isn’t.

In order to keep this slightly unhinged rant of a post on-track, I’ll ignore most of it, as it’s all speculative, baseless drivel of the sort that apparently you get paid for if you once edited The Spectator.

That first sentence though. I’ll refer us to past-me for this one:

It’s breath-taking. For a ‘faction’ that is so relentlessly keen to proclaim its readiness to face reality and take tough decisions they seem consistently delusional.

To be plain.

This was not Iraq (for all the British press’ tedious desperation to make everything about Iraq). This was not even Libya. The goals of whatever operation had been planned in the summer of 2013 were not about “levelling the playing field”, or “getting Assad to the negotiating table”.

They were a lot more limited, and a lot less coherent. Counterfactuals are obviously a mug’s game but I think you have to stretch yourself into some really shaky mission-creep arguments to try and claim that the operation being proposed in the summer of 2013 would have led to any substantial improvement in the situation in Syria**.

So it probably didn’t matter that much in the grand scheme. I know writing is hard*** and that Syria is really complicated and really depressing but can we just… let go of this particular form of shorthand.

It’s bad.

More on this sort of thing to follow, I think.

 

 

*I was talking about this with a friend the other day – it is a bit baffling that such an apparently brilliant and successful bloke says such stupid shit

**there’s also the sort of still-inconclusive fate of the OPCW deal that in theory deprived Assad of all his chemical weapons. For a while that looked like a real triumph of diplomacy, but there’s consistent reports of chemical attacks in Syria, though I’ve read that they are using cruder and less lethal toxins as the worst stuff was dismantled. So there’s that too.

***this post has taken me about five tins of Stella, four hours, three rewrites, two listens to Sia’s album and one very patient [redacted], so I know all about how difficult writing is tbh

“Hang on, lads, I’ve got a great idea.”

No, this isn’t just an excuse to make you listen to the song from The Italian Job again, promise.

As you may know, my laziness and poor time management have recently led to a change in the posting schedule for the old reading list. It’s now on a biweekly thing, which is working a bit better – there still really isn’t as much #content as I would like in the list, but that’s related to two other things which actually work in this blog’s favour:

  1. A lot of what I’ve read this week has been fucking dreadful. More on this to follow but man alive there’s been some badly-written bad opinions out there this week. Consequently, not a whole lot to recommend to you.
  2. I’ve been reading loads of books instead of my Pocket queue. Between not wanting to look at screens before bed and not wanting the ruffians at work to nick my tablet, I’m all about the books at the moment, which I can’t really put in a list for you.

What I can do, however, is toss off some really-not-very good reviews of them and tell you what I think about what I’m reading because if there’s one thing I want this blog to be, it’s basically dependent on other people’s work for content. I’ve done book reviews on here before, but they’ve tended to be a bit substantial and sort of things I’m quite proud of, so they stand alone. I’ll keep doing that if that’s where the muse takes me, but for the most part I’m expecting four hundred words, a picture of the cover, and like maybe one good point?

So here’s how it’s going to be.

There will now be two regularly-running reading recommendation features on this blog.

Every fortnight from this Sunday, the reading list will, as ever, grace your social media, your inbox, and provide you with the best of the Internet to keep you busy through your tedious rainy Sunday afternoon or your miserable daily commute.

Then every fortnight from next Sunday, I will post a few short reviews of whatever book-type things I’ve read that fortnight. This ups the pressure on me to keep reading, but I’m off to get an Islington Library card tomorrow so that should be fine.

The intervening days will have the usual intermittent attempts to have thoughts at length, or more likely, radio silence, but there we go. Back to one reading list a week, one way or another.

Oh, and I’m not putting the reviews in the newsletter, so you’ll have to come and give me some clicks here if you want to see them.

Hopefully this’ll be interesting for you, and I hope to see you here every Sunday again.

If it isn’t, IDC really, this is mostly for my own amusement. Hence:

 

xxx