The residents of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank can drive to the seaside in a mere 30 to 45 minutes along their exclusive roads, while a generation of Palestinians have grown up unable to get to the coast. In August, however, reports started circulating on social media that Israeli soldiers weren’t stopping Palestinians who were crossing through gaps in the apartheid wall to go to the beach. The gaps are more often used by Palestinian labourers going to work in Israeli cities.

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25 September 2020

Ofcom gets it right

Rachel Shabi

Last week, Ofcom decided not to investigate a routine performed by the dance group Diversity on Britain’s Got Talent earlier this month. So far so good. The performance, which referred to the death of George Floyd and the wave of protests that followed, drew a record-breaking deluge of 24,500 complaints: that the dance routine was ‘racist towards white people’, portrayed the police negatively and supported a political organisation. ‘In our view,’ Ofcom responded, ‘the clear overarching narrative of the performance was to reflect the events of 2020 and to call for social cohesion and unity.’

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23 September 2020

On a Magic Carpet in the Aa-Kerk

James McVinnie

On 23 April 1710, the recently built tower of the Aa-kerk in Groningen collapsed, killing two people and destroying the organ, which had been installed by Arp Schnitger 13 years earlier. The tower was rebuilt but the organ gallery remained empty until 1815, when another Schnitger organ, dating from 1702, was relocated there, where it still stands. It is one of the supreme surviving examples of Schnitger’s work (though with alterations and additions from later organ builders), and speaks with an amazing clarity and beauty into the long, high, bright, plain church interior.

I first got to know the instrument in 2014, playing a concert of music by Nico Muhly and Philip Glass. Spicy-sounding baroque organs turn out to be well suited to 20th and 21st-century American keyboard and organ music: the repetitive spin of a Glass arpeggio or a Muhly filigree comes alive. But I also knew that the heart of the instrument lay in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries, especially J.S. Bach. I returned to Groningen in the dead of winter in 2017 to record Clavierübung volume three, Bach’s longest and most significant collection of music for the organ.

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22 September 2020

Cures for Unemployment

Phil Jones

There’s a long history of describing laid-off workers using metaphors of disease. The first comprehensive policy effort to deal with unemployment in the UK was the Labour Exchanges Act of 1909. ‘Relief works cannot seriously be regarded as a cure for unemployment,’ Gavin Hamilton said, proposing the bill in the House of Lords. ‘At the best they are only a palliative. What is wanted is not a drug to still the pain of this disease, but a cure which will reach deep down to its roots.’ Only recently, though, has unemployment come to be seen as a disease of the individual rather than social body.

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18 September 2020

The National Trust flexes its mansion offer

Nicholas Penny

The National Trust, unsurprisingly, has had a bad year. An honest statement of how the fulfilment of its duty to preserve places of historical interest and beauty has come under great pressure might have persuaded many of its members to double their subscriptions – especially if the Trust were to abandon some of its more extravagant and sillier initiatives. But the PowerPoint presentation entitled ‘Towards a Ten-Year Vision for Places and Experiences’, written by the director of visitor experience and leaked last month, must have left many people feeling that further support for the organisation should be conditional on the removal from office of those in the executive who endorsed such a document.

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17 September 2020

How bad can he be?

Patrick Mackie

Kenneth Branagh walks away from (or is it towards?) an exploding car. 

Christopher Nolan’s rampant new movie Tenet is the blockbuster charged with drawing us back to the cinema, so its spectacular opening carries a bit of an affront. There is an armed assault on the opera house in Kiev just as the audience has settled for a performance; they are quickly knocked out by some sort of nerve agent. It may be that Nolan’s ideal viewer is someone stupefied into passivity while bullets whoosh and thud around. Maybe he worries that that is our culture’s ideal. We had moved stolidly in our masks through the polite new biopolitical arrangements at the little multiplex in Witney, but here was an audience in far worse shape. Our air may have been thick with all sorts of threat over the last few months, but at least we were not actually being raked with bullets. The sound design is scintillating enough to make you feel close to it, though.

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16 September 2020

Aliens, Penguins and Bacteria-Hunting Balloons

Chris Lintott


There’s a long history of astronomers looking for signs of life on Venus. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, reports circulated of a mysterious glow, known as the Ashen Light, which sporadically appeared on the planet’s night side. Could it be a product of civilisation, perhaps the glow of vast ritual bonfires breaking through the thick clouds that were known to blanket the planet? Later writers speculated about vast underground cities, or intelligent creatures who made the most of the thick atmosphere for aerial acrobatics. When spacecraft finally visited our neighbouring planet, in the 1960s, dreams of life on Venus receded. A runaway version of the greenhouse effect has changed what may once have been a pleasant world to a decent approximation of hell; the surface temperature is hot enough to melt lead, the pressure on the ground high enough to crush a visiting astronaut, and those thick clouds are mostly sulphuric acid. A few dreamers still wrote of floating cities in Venusian clouds, but attention turned to Mars as the best bet for searching for past or present life. Until this week, that is.

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