Joe Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, was overseer at the Ballina Union Workhouse in County Mayo from 1848 to 1850 during the Great Irish Famine. Many died in the workhouse and others perished in the temporary fever hospital built against one of its walls. With his family, Blewitt emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1851. He did well, despite the political power of the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish Know Nothing movement, a nationalist and Protestant political party, which in the 1850s had a hundred congressmen, eight state governors, and a controlling position in half-a-dozen state legislatures. Before his job at the workhouse, Blewitt had been an engineer for the Irish Ordnance Survey; in Pennsylvania he helped to lay out the new mining town of Scranton.

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27 November 2020

Vote for Boulos!

Kathleen McCaul Moura

Pablo Ortellado, at the University of São Paulo, studies the way social media are used for political purposes. ‘We analyse all the messages that we believe come from Bolsonaro and his supporters. It makes you want to cry,’ Ortellado told me. ‘At the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic for example, people everywhere were receiving messages saying that Covid doesn’t kill, that it was made-up by the Chinese, that the hospitals are not full. There is nothing we can do about this spread of misinformation because it has already gone viral.’ Bolsonaro relies on Whatsapp more than Twitter or Facebook. ‘Because it is a private messenger app as opposed to a public platform,’ Ortellado says, ‘we believe it allows the president to disseminate malicious misinformation to millions of people without being caught.’

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26 November 2020

‘Blue Collar’ Fabulists

Arianne Shahvisi

‘Blue Collar Conservatives’ is a caucus of Tory MPs chaired by Ben Bradley, the MP for Mansfield, who self-identifies as working-class even though he went to a private school where the fees are nearly as much as the annual salary of someone earning minimum wage. Bradley’s misrepresentations don’t stop there. For such a young politician (he was born in 1989) he has an impressive record for dishonesty. In 2016, he claimed that a nearby council had spent £17,000 employing call centre workers in Mumbai. When challenged, he admitted the claim was pure invention, contrived to convince people the council was wasting money. (And if you’re going to tell a fib, why not build in a racist dog whistle?) In 2018, he tweeted that Jeremy Corbyn had ‘sold British secrets to communist spies’, a lie that cost him £15,000 in damages. Luckily for this ‘blue collar’ fabulist, two wealthy Conservative donors swept in to cover the cost of his blunder. Corbyn asked that the money be divided between a homeless charity and a food bank in Mansfield.

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25 November 2020

Letter from America

Scott Hames

Douglas Stuart is the first Scottish writer to win the Booker Prize since James Kelman in 1994. Stuart has cited How late it was, how late as his ‘bible’, though Shuggie Bain has more in common with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), another transatlantic misery-lit smash. Its more obvious Scottish precursors would include the tender brutalities of Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes (1958) and the Gorbals shocker No Mean City (1935). From the perspective of literary Scotland, the harrowing content of Stuart’s novel is largely beside the point. What matters is that a Scottish novel has been recognised on the world stage, boosting the prestige and marketability of the category itself.  

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24 November 2020

Menschenmetzger

Christopher Kissane

In 1519, eight years before Martin Luther wrote Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague, the Swiss preacher and reformer Huldrych Zwingli faced a deadly outbreak of plague in Zürich. It would have been safer to flee the city, but Zwingli stayed to minister to the sick and dying among his congregation, caught the disease himself, and nearly died. He wrote a poem, later set to music, chronicling his experience. The ‘Pestlied’ is a rare and visceral first-hand account: ‘Ich mein, der tod | sey an der thür’ (‘I think that death | is at the door’). The lines are both alien and familiar, out of time but topical, the archaic Swiss-German rhymes lyrically captivating but linguistically confusing (Luther once dismissed Zwingli’s dialect as ‘churlish, shaggy German’).

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23 November 2020

Egypt Locks Down

Tom Stevenson

Last week, Egypt’s National Security Agency made a series of arrests targeting the country’s leading human rights organisation, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. On 15 November, there was a night raid on the home of the EIPR’s administrative director, Mohamed El Basheer. On 18 November, Karim Ennarah, a researcher, was taken from the beach-front in the town of Dahab, where he was on holiday. EIPR’s director, Gasser Abdel Razek, was arrested the following day at his home in Cairo. His lawyers say his head was shaved and he was kept in solitary confinement with only a metal bed to sleep on.

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20 November 2020

The BAME Game

Jason Okundaye

‘Is Dishy Rishi on your side?’ asks a recent attack ad made by ‘One Rule for Them’, aiming to expose the chancellor’s allegiance to an international class of billionaires. Sunak’s portfolio is certainly breathtaking. The MP for Richmond (Yorks), known in his constituency as the ‘Maharaja of the Dales’, is the wealthiest in the House of Commons, boasting property worth around £10 million (most of that’s a five-bedroom mews house in Kensington). His father-in-law is the billionaire businessman and co-founder of Infosys, N.R. Narayana Murthy. He has declined to clarify whether Thélème Partners, the hedge fund he co-founded with Patrick Degorce, would profit from the escalating share price of the biotech firm Moderna, which reported on Monday that its Covid-19 vaccine appeared to have an efficacy of 94.5 per cent.  

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