On Optimism and Despair

A talk given in Berlin on November 10th, two days after the American presidential election:

'Sometimes it is put far more explicitly, like so: “You were such a champion of ‘multiculturalism.’ Can you admit now that it has failed?” When I hear these questions I am reminded that to have grown up in a homogeneous culture in a corner of rural England, say, or France, or Poland, during the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s, is to think of oneself as having been simply alive in the world, untroubled by history, whereas to have been raised in London during the same period, with, say, Pakistani Muslims in the house next door, Indian Hindus downstairs, and Latvian Jews across the street, is thought of, by others, as evidence of a specific historical social experiment, now discredited.'

Exquisite Corpse

Fifteen writers from a variety of genres contribute to an original short story.

"We’d wanted roles in this flick where there’s nothing left on earth to eat but cockroaches and babies. Verisimilitude, Francis said. To win great roles, do great stuff. We picked Trieste because the exchange rate was good. But rumors gypsies sold babies were false. So we stole one. We ate it, but got caught. I escaped; the gypsies chained him in a basement. He had to get their “queen” pregnant in six cycles. Five had passed."

Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets

Cultural, sexual, and generational clashes surround an aging New York drag queen.

"Clinton Corset Emporium. No awning, just a piece of cardboard stuck in the window. As Miss Adele entered, a bell tinkled overhead – an actual bell, on a catch wire – and she found herself in a long narrow room – a hallway really – with a counter down the left-hand side and a curtained-off cubicle at the far end, for privacy. Bras and corsets were everywhere, piled on top of each other in anonymous white cardboard boxes, towering up to the ceiling. They seemed to form the very walls of the place. 'Good afternoon,' said Miss Adele, daintily removing her gloves, finger by finger. 'I am looking for a corset.'

The Embassy of Cambodia

A neighborhood, a building, and a woman's precarious existence at the periphery.

"No doubt there are those who will be critical of the narrow, essentially local scope of Fatou's interest in the Cambodian woman from the Embassy of Cambodia, but we, the people of Willesden, have some sympathy with her attitude. The fact is if we followed the history of every little country in this world—in its dramatic as well as its quiet times—we would have no space left in which to live our own lives or to apply ourselves to our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures, like swimming. Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?"

Hanwell Senior

The history of a relationship between a son and his mostly-absent father.

"He lay down. His spine pressed into the soil a notch at a time, undid him. Upside down was a land of female legs. He was fond of these new bell-shaped skirts, wide enough to crawl under and be kept safe, and wished he had waited to marry, or married differently. He thought, What if I stayed here? Let the sun swallow me, and the orange dazzle under my eyelids become not just the thing I see but the thing that I am, and let the one daisy with the bent stem, and the rose smell and the girl upside down on the pub bench eating an upside-down ploughman's with her upside-down friend be the whole of the law and the girth of the world."

Letter from Liberia

A Monrovia travelogue:

Even Liberia's roots are sunk in bad faith. Of the first wave of emigrants, half died of yellow fever. By the end of the 1820s a small colony of 3,000 souls survived. In Liberia they built a facsimile life: plantation-style homes, white-spired churches. Hostile local Malinke tribes resented their arrival and expansion; sporadic armed battle was common. When the ACS went bankrupt in the 1840s, they demanded the 'Country of Liberia' declare its independence.
  1. Part One

  2. Part Two

E.M. Forster, Middle Manager

On the BBC radio addresses of E.M. Forster: “For one thing, he won’t call what he is doing literary criticism, or even reviewing. His are ‘recommendations’ only. Each episode ends with Forster diligently reading out the titles of the books he has dealt with, along with their exact price in pounds and shillings.