Joanna Biggs

Joanna Biggs is a senior editor at Harper’s.

Atthe end of the Catacombs, having walked among the bones of six million Parisians, you come to a single gravestone. Somewhere in the ossuary are the remains of Racine, Charlotte Corday, Robespierre and Montesquieu, yet the only monument is to Françoise Gillain, who, you discover, died in 1821 after spending years trying to free a writer unjustly held in the Bastille. Arriving at...

Pure, Fucking Profit: ‘Assembly’

Joanna Biggs, 15 July 2021

It’sa while since I saw Cléo de 5 à 7, but I remember that it opens with a tarot spread. The tarot reader draws cards in groups of three, for past, present and future. The young woman with her, Cléo Victoire, her blonde hair elaborately curled back onto her head like a Parisian Dusty Springfield, bites her fingers, covers her face, and after confessing that...

From The Blog
31 March 2021

‘If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author,’ William Godwin wrote in 1798 of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, ‘this appears to me to be the book.’ Mary’s aim was off: she was trying to get back an errant lover but ended up ensorcelling Godwin instead. Falling in love with someone through their writing is slow and delicious and sad, like sighing gently over the years at a screen actor, like, say, the guy whose cheekbones and tousle stare out at me from a postcard on my fridge door, and who now stares out from the back cover of A Bright Ray of Darkness, his new novel – Ethan Hawke. 

From The Blog
8 January 2021

At the start of the third lockdown, I wonder: what if lockdowns suit me? And I worry: shouldn’t it be easier now to understand what they do to my thoughts? Every day, I go out to walk under the bare trees and listen to one of the two albums Taylor Swift made last year: folklore, which came out in July, and evermore, which came out in December. (I’m not the only one: evermore is currently the number one album in the US, and number two in the UK.) The songs are a product of lockdown – Swift wrote them in the blank space that opened up when a tour had to be cancelled – but they are also of lockdown in the way they use a trace of the life before, a line like ‘meet me behind the mall,’ to conjure a world.

Diary: The only girl in the moshpit

Joanna Biggs, 5 November 2020

One​ of the puzzling things about feminism is that it can be confused with being self-centred. If it’s good for me, a woman might say of something she wants to do – whether it’s Botox injections, running a country, writing a book or being chronically late – then it’s good for feminism! Sometimes this sort of reasoning is a necessary release; sometimes...

‘Ihope the book gives you a sense of joy, something to immerse yourself in that is not the horrific news that we’ve been experiencing constantly and relentlessly since March,’ Brit Bennett said of her new novel. The Vanishing Half came out a week after George Floyd was choked to death on a Minneapolis sidewalk; the novel itself begins weeks after Martin Luther King was...

On Dorothea Lange

Joanna Biggs, 16 July 2020

‘Iwould like to be able to photograph constantly, every hour, every conscious hour,’ Dorothea Lange told an interviewer in 1963, two years before she died. There had always been constraints on how she could photograph: first, the limp that remained after she had polio when she was seven, growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey in a German immigrant family; then the need to make money at...

Short Cuts: The Manifesto Instinct

Joanna Biggs, 18 June 2020

When​ is the right time to ask for what you want? One of the strange things about the feminist movement is that what women want hasn’t been that much of a mystery at all. (Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, Simone de Beauvoir: century after century, girls just wanna be human, not other.) But finding the moment to speak and the words to use? Reading Breanne Fahs’s collection of...

Almost​ from the moment she published The Second Sex in November 1949, Simone de Beauvoir was asked why she’d never written a female character who lived a free life, the sort she imagined in her final chapter, ‘The Independent Woman’. If the mother of 20th-century feminism couldn’t imagine a free woman, who could? At first she would answer brusquely. ‘I’ve...

Short Cuts: ‘Little Women’ Redux

Joanna Biggs, 2 January 2020

Iwas a little woman​ the last time I read children’s books, but this autumn, inching out of depression, I went back to the ones I loved as a girl (Ballet Shoes, A Little Princess) and read others (The Secret Garden, Little Women) for the first time. I am accidentally on trend: the Sunday Times recently declared ‘Civil War strumpet’ – high collars, low hems, frilly...

Sometimes​ I think people who write autofiction are narcissists. But I know for sure, because I am one, that people who read autofiction are narcissists. I once thought that I read about other minds as a release from my own until I came to the scene in Ben Lerner’s last novel, 10:04, in which the writer’s alter ego, Ben, is in a fertility clinic in Brooklyn to produce a cup of...

Short Cuts: Would you whistleblow?

Joanna Biggs, 7 November 2019

In February​ 2003, I spent a lot of time saying ‘liar’ to my computer screen. I was twenty, in Paris on my year abroad working as a translator of press releases about mechanical diggers and franking machines, while back home my country was trying to go to war illegally. I must have looked at the Guardian website every 45 minutes; for me, the 2003 online version of the Grauniad...

Diary: The way she is now

Joanna Biggs, 4 April 2019

It took me​ a long time to accept my mother’s brain was failing. I knew the usual pathways of her thought, the jumps she would make from this to that; these jumps were new. She’d always made her mind ours too. When we were teaching my little brother, Richard, to talk, to say ‘ta’ for a proffered rusk, my mother would stop me and my other brother, George, from...

I’m an intelligence: Sylvia Plath at 86

Joanna Biggs, 20 December 2018

Awake at 4 a.m. when the sleeping pills wear off, she finds a voice and writes the poems of her life, ones that will make her a myth like Lazarus, like Lorelei. But now she knows that her conception of her life, psychological and otherwise, is no longer tenable, and never was. Now what? ‘I love you for listening,’ Plath, abandoned and alone, tells her analyst Ruth Beuscher in a letter late in 1962. The rest of us are listening at last.

It isn’t that the sentences are difficult in Crudo, or the subject matter alien: it is rather that Crudo sits somewhere between a roman à clef and autofiction, the hip blend of fiction and memoir associated with writers like Knausgaard, Ben Lerner or Sheila Heti. If most of Crudo is true, then what does the novel gain by being a novel at all? At the back of the book, all the quotations are identified, providing a key of sorts. But Olivia Laing’s own Twitter feed is another key to the novel, as is the sort of knowledge of literary London that means you might know what the poetry prize being referred to is, or who Mitzi, Mary-Kay, Andy and the first owner of a plate that used to belong to Doris Lessing are.

Diary: Abortion in Northern Ireland

Joanna Biggs, 17 August 2017

On average, two women from Northern Ireland travel to England every day. Most are married, most are having their first abortion, most are between 20 and 34. Clinics in England have ‘Irish prices’, set slightly lower than private prices, but even so the cheapest available abortion with pills costs £274, and the average costs £410. Then there is a consultation fee of between £65 and £80. Then there are the travel costs: a round trip booked a week in advance on Ryanair in high summer – leaving at 6.55 a.m. and returning at 11.10 p.m. – costs £134.98.

In the Green House: ‘Fever Dream’

Joanna Biggs, 29 June 2017

When​ I remember my dreams at all, they’re not stories but feelings. I once dreamed I was breastfeeding a flamingo, and I could feel the beak, even in the morning telling, before I saw the bird bite me. But even when a dream feels real there is often something in it to let you know you’re imagining things – a pink feathered bird in the hospital blanket rather than a plump...

Whomph! Zadie Smith

Joanna Biggs, 1 December 2016

No other British writer of Smith’s generation (or since) has had her early, extreme fame. This has meant both that she has had to serve her novelistic apprenticeship in public, trying out ideas and seeing them fail or succeed in front of everyone, and that she has been protected from the hard knocks of a writing life, and so allowed to retain a certain childlike freshness in her relationship to the world. There is also a sense that we must protect her.

Short Cuts: Marguerite Duras

Joanna Biggs, 6 October 2016

To interview​ Marguerite Duras, you had to speak Duras. ‘Durassien’ stood, then and now, for inscrutability. Her novels consist of a succession of paragraphs entire of themselves; in her plots everything happens at once or nothing happens. Her movies were about giving the viewer as little to see as possible, and all the better if that meant the screen went black for up to half...

Under Her Buttons: Ottessa Moshfegh

Joanna Biggs, 31 March 2016

Eileen​ is 24, all ribs, shoulders and hips with ‘lemon-sized’ breasts and nipples ‘like thorns’. She still has acne scars across her cheeks. She wears thick tights and skirts that pass her knees and buttons everything else up to the neck. Eileen reads National Geographic and lives with her father, an ex-cop and a drunk who is at least ‘easy to distract and...

I was blind, she a falcon: Elena Ferrante

Joanna Biggs, 10 September 2015

Are Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels even books? I began to doubt it when I talked about them with other people – mostly women. We returned to life too quickly as we spoke: who was your Lila, the childhood friend who effortlessly dazzled everyone? Or – a question not happily answered – were you Lila? S. said she had got back in touch with an estranged friend to give her the first volume in the series; K. felt that, impossibly, embarrassingly even, the books captured how she’d gone about finding an intellectual identity for herself.

On the Phone

Behind​ a branch of a fast-food chain in Lincoln, there is a featureless yellow brick call centre open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. From the level of noise as the call centre handlers walk in, they can often guess what’s happening across the country. Bad weather causes a surge in the number of calls: a dense, chattering sound. A terrorist attack is loud. But less...

Short Cuts: Transcendental Wardrobes

Joanna Biggs, 18 December 2014

Instead​ of the new season fantasy every woman is instructed to have as autumn approaches, this September I dreamed of throwing all my clothes out. Things that I used to turn to – a purple boiled wool cocoon dress, a swishy black midi skirt, a sheer silk blouse with a print of parrots and parasols – disappointed me. My clothes, I noticed, were mostly the colours of a bruise as...

Short Cuts: At the Food Bank

Joanna Biggs, 5 December 2013

In July, David Freud, the Conservative peer in charge of changes to the benefit system, wondered aloud in the Lords whether the boom in food banks was ‘supply-led’ or ‘demand-led’. Two years ago, 70,000 people used food banks and now 347,000 do. ‘What is a supply-led food bank?’ another peer wanted to know. Freud wrote the Lex column in the FT before Tony...

Tell me everything: Facebook Feminism

Joanna Biggs, 11 April 2013

Facebook may have started as a way to rank one woman’s hotness over another’s, but it has been quick to produce its first feminists. Everything goes faster in Silicon Valley: code is written overnight; engineers get around the office on aerodynamic skateboards called RipStiks; a company less than ten years old is worth $104 billion for a day before losing $35 billion in value. And so, as Sheryl Sandberg, might have said to herself, why can’t a movement effectively stalled for thirty years be kickstarted with a 15-minute online talk?

It could be me: Sheila Heti

Joanna Biggs, 24 January 2013

Every episode of Made in Chelsea, a ‘structured reality’ TV show which follows the lives and loves of a group of real (and very posh) people, is prefaced with a warning: ‘Some scenes have been created for your entertainment.’ But which ones? I’ve seen all four seasons now (I’m not proud of myself), so I’ve got pretty good at the game. There can’t be many trust-fund kids so untouched by the triple dip as to be able to throw a party every week, so the bash that rounds off each episode must be the programme makers’ way to get all the characters in a room with drinks to throw over one another.

On campus everyone wore jeans but in the city everyone wore mink, Simone de Beauvoir observed when she visited Vassar College to give a talk in February 1947. The reason, she thought, was that American women dress to tell the world about their standard of living, or to make men stare: ‘The truth is that the way European women dress is much less servile.’ If being a young woman in...

Among the Writers: In Beijing

Joanna Biggs, 10 May 2012

On the afternoon of 14 March, as the National People’s Congress was coming to an end in Beijing, men huddled to play cards in Hanzhongmen Square, Nanjing. Washing was spread over hedges to dry, tiny dusty birds sang in cages hung from the branches of trees, dogs fought, babies were sung to by their grandmothers and a street-sweeper stopped to help a man lift an iron bar. That evening,...

Clytemnestra in Brighton: Rachel Cusk

Joanna Biggs, 22 March 2012

On the cover of Aftermath, Rachel Cusk’s divorce memoir, there’s a drawing of a jigsaw. It’s the classic pattern, the one in which all the pieces – reaching out on two sides and sucked in on the others – are the same, and fit together at right angles. The book begins: ‘Recently my husband and I separated, and over the course of a few weeks the life that...

When Jane Austen became famous at the age of 38, she didn’t go to literary lunches, meet her readers or take tea with Madame de Staël. But she did accept one invitation, from the Prince Regent’s librarian: the Prince Regent was a fan – would she like to come and look round his library? After the visit, the librarian, who had been a clergyman, wrote to her: had she...

Who will get legal aid now? Legal Aid

Joanna Biggs, 20 October 2011

Legal aid isn’t the sort of thing people worry much about losing. Unlike schools or the NHS, it’s not a part of the welfare state many of us have had dealings with. The sort of people who use legal aid aren’t always very sympathetic: they’ve often done something wrong or foolish or both. The lawyers who represent them seem to be looking after number one. The system isn’t very old, but insiders talk about it in a combination of ancient-sounding phrases and arcane technical language. Yet legal aid deserves attention, not least because it’s one of the fastest growing areas of government expenditure, and so an irresistible target for deficit reduction.

The Clothed Life: Linda Grant

Joanna Biggs, 31 March 2011

Linda Grant’s new novel, We Had It So Good, begins in sunshine. There’s the epigraph: ‘He had like many another been born in full sunlight and lived to see night fall.’ (That’s from Waugh’s Men at Arms.) Then the first image: Stephen Newman in his shorts, aged nine, on the ‘most exciting day’ of his life – a day spent in the fur storage...

At the Occupation

Joanna Biggs, 16 December 2010

The stately dome and columns of University College London are dominated by a bedsheet banner proclaiming its occupation and the grey stone is scrawled with coloured chalk: ‘Cut Out Cuts: Don’t Con-Dem Me!’ Inside, the campus has supposedly been put on lockdown. Guards in yellow jackets sit by hastily produced signs announcing ID checks. The students have their own security...

On Teesside

Joanna Biggs, 21 October 2010

Middlesbrough magistrates’ court is hearing a clump of domestic violence cases on a drizzly August afternoon. The room is prison-like, the only windows a strip high in the wall above the magistrates’ bench and the royal coat of arms. The prosecuting solicitor begins each case with something like: ‘It was 3 a.m. and the defendant had been on a night out.’ A bag had been...

Keep on nagging: Azar Nafisi

Joanna Biggs, 27 May 2010

It is Tehran, 1995, and our heroine is getting ready:

Too excited to eat breakfast, I put the coffee on and then took a long, leisurely shower. The water caressed my neck, my back, my legs and I stood there both rooted and light … I smiled as I rubbed the coarse loofah over my skin … I put on my oversize bathrobe – it felt good to move from the security of the embracing...

A few summers ago, I sat in on lectures at the Sorbonne, where it seemed to be the fashion for the lecturers to talk in metaphors. Beckett’s prose was a snowball rolling down a mountain: you start with nothing, and as it picks up more snow, you end up with something. His novels were a washing machine: language is slung into the drum and turns until it comes out clean. This kind of talk...

Degoogled: Keith Gessen

Joanna Biggs, 22 May 2008

Sad young and literary in 1938 and you could at least prove yourself opposing Hitler, sad young and literary in 1968 and you could demonstrate in Grosvenor Square, but what if you had the misfortune to be sad young and literary in 1998? This terrible moment in the history of being young is where 33-year-old Keith Gessen begins his first novel. Mark, Keith and Sam, our three sad young literary...

Negative Honeymoon: Gwendoline Riley

Joanna Biggs, 16 August 2007

They’ve known each other, Joshua Spassky and Natalie, for five years, and have often met, as lovers. They last met at the West Yorkshire Playhouse; Joshua was over from the US rehearsing a play he’d written. But they’d not seen each other in a while. She stops off at the ladies on her way to find him: ‘I rubbed make-up onto my nose and cheeks, under my eyes. I had...

Nosy-Poky: Two Caravans

Joanna Biggs, 22 March 2007

Every Saturday morning of my seventeenth and eighteenth years, I drove from Dover, where my family lives, to Folkestone, where I had a weekend job. I took an A road to avoid the lorries on the M20, but sometimes they would find my route and I’d have to follow one along the cliff road until it came to the lay-by outside the village of Capel-le-Ferne, and pulled over. Early one morning,...

In Nell Freudenberger’s first novel, Yuan Zhao, a Chinese artist, is invited to Los Angeles as a visiting scholar at St Anselm’s School for Girls. He is famous for the experimental performance art and painting he made as a member of the artists’ community in Beijing’s East Village during the early 1990s, and what is more alluring, for being arrested for his art, but he...

Beware of clues! geek lit

Joanna Biggs, 21 September 2006

I watched The Godfather for the first time with my little brother. I’d been worried he was too young for it, but that was before we got to the notorious scene in which the camera starts out hovering over Jack Woltz’s pool, climbs into his bedroom, then crawls up his sleeping body, finally pausing at a smear of blood on the top edge of his blanket. At this point, my brother...

From The Blog
19 April 2016

The bank windows had been smashed. On a surviving pane, held with a star of white masking tape, there was an image of a girl in a white T-shirt and jeans shouting ‘Rêve Générale’ into a loudhailer, a new interpretation of the old call for a ‘Grève Générale’. Instead of a general strike, or as well as one, a communal dream. Every evening since 31 March, when there was a protest against proposed labour law reforms, there have been gatherings at place de la République in Paris to discuss new ways of doing politics, or at least of resisting the old ways.

From The Blog
20 February 2015

PJ Harvey recorded her eighth album, Let England Shake (2011), in a church on a Dorset clifftop with ‘a graveyard which has trees bent by the wind’. On Saturday, she finished sessions for her ninth album in the basement of Somerset House on the banks of the Thames, whose water had cracked the institutional white paint and seeped mouldily into the carpet. She worked on the songs for a month in a purpose-built white studio with one-way windows, letting the public eavesdrop on her (there were four 45-minute visiting sessions each day; tickets sold out fast). I went on the last day.

From The Blog
30 October 2013

The most penetrating exhibit at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig isn't in a glass case. Housed in the 'Runde Ecke' ('round corner'), the nickname for the old Stasi HQ, the museum has sought to preserve the smell of the GDR. It's an antiseptic aroma, with a bleached ageing sweetness to it, as if you found a tube of Germolene from 1912. I don't know how you hang onto a smell, but they've kept the beige patterned lino, the metallic filing cabinets, the creamy grubby walls, so perhaps that's part of it. I wonder what they do if they sense the pong is fading.

From The Blog
17 September 2013

The line that got the most applause at the opening rally of the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow came from Nick Clegg, but it wasn’t about housing or tax or civil liberties or nuclear power. It was about the party itself: ‘People who don’t understand us like to call debate division. I think it is debate that gives us our unity.’ He said that after the Syria vote he’d told David Cameron: ‘It’s not a defeat, it’s just a reference back.’

From The Blog
31 May 2013

This was a big week for Facebook feminism. A worldwide coalition of feminist groups, led by the UK's Everyday Sexism Project and Women, Action and the Media in the US, have been challenging Facebook's advertisers (mostly via Twitter) to suspend their ads until the platform agrees to remove some straightforwardly offensive images making hitting and raping women sound like fun. (They are depressingly easy to find on the internet. A couple is having dinner, a single rose in a vase on the table: 'Win her over... with chloroform.' This is the tame end.) If asking the advertisers to ask Facebook to ask whoever posted the images to take them down sounds like a roundabout way of going about things, that's because it is: Facebook, who have censored photos of breastfeeding in the past, had already vetted the images and didn't think they violated 'Facebook's Community Standard'. On Wednesday they backed down and issued a statement setting out how they were going to change their moderators' ways.

From The Blog
22 May 2013

At one point on Monday night, during a meeting at the LSE about the government’s new proposals for legal aid, the lights went out. It went dark as Steve Hynes of the Legal Action Group was speaking about the justice minister, Chris Grayling, and Hynes’s quip – ‘Oh God, does Grayling control the lights as well?’ – brought one of the only genuine laughs of the night (the others were bitter). Grayling was invited to the meeting but didn’t make it, as far as I could tell. It didn’t matter. He was on everyone’s minds anyway.

From The Blog
2 November 2012

At the end of last month, it was decided that the archive of the Women's Library was to move from a university in the East End to a university in central London. 'LSE saves Women's Library from closure,' the Guardian announced. London Met needs to save money; LSE has room in the new library it's building – nothing could be more practical. All that will be lost is a purpose-built, award-winning, lottery-funded building that has been standing for only ten years (and which may turn out to be worth more demolished). Woolf wasn’t joking when she said a room of one’s own needed ‘a lock on the door’.

From The Blog
28 August 2012

In the age of Bradley Manning and girls in Vegas with cameraphones, it seems quaint that France should be getting its political gossip from the literary invention of 1641, the roman à clef. Le Monarque, son fils, son fief: Hauts-de-Seine – chronique d'un règlement des comptes by Marie-Célie Guillaume has stayed on the non-fiction (nobody's fooled) bestseller lists since it was published earlier in the summer and has sold thirty thousand copies in France. Not content with having caught Sarkozy leering at the Israeli model Bar Rafaeli, complaining to Obama about Netanyahu, getting pissed with Putin, stealing a pen from Romania's president and calling a group of journalists his 'amis pédophiles', France wants to read about their ex-president accepting blowjobs for subsidies, stabbing political allies in the back and giving his son one of the most powerful positions in his old fiefdom.

From The Blog
19 August 2012

I can't say if the Pussy Riot trial tells us anything new about Russia, but it tells me something about feminism. In the UK at least, the new feminism has been polite, well-mannered and, well, twee. When the pro-life protesters get out their tiny plastic models of foetuses, we get out our iced gingerbreadwomen. We open feminist conferences not with exhortations, but with jokes about sexist children’s books. Abortion clinics are inspected for pre-signing forms, but hardly anyone is saying that the 1967 act is antiquated and unfit for purpose. Big gestures can seem empty and small ones futile. I’ve left too many meetings, conferences and rallies feeling the absence of Angela Davis, of Simone de Beauvoir – and, it turns out, of Pussy Riot.

From The Blog
18 April 2012

I sort of find it heart warming. Bored mother of two teenage boys has midlife crisis and instead of buying a car, moving to Oaxaca or having an affair, she writes raunchy Twilight fan fiction for two years. When she’s finished she changes the names from Bella and Edward to Anastasia and Christian and a small Australian e-book publisher puts it out: success enough for anyone with a midlife crisis novel, especially someone who wrote under the unlikely handle ‘Snowqueens Icedragon’. But that’s not all.

From The Blog
20 October 2011

It seems as if the student occupations and protests of last year have already passed into legend. There have been documentaries, books, e-pamphlets, anthologies, songs and now TV dramatisations. In last night’s episode of Fresh Meat, Channel 4’s new (and increasingly funny) comedy about being a first year at university, the Manchester housemates took a coach to a London march. The screen split in two, and as the fictional students on the top of the screen pulled moonies and discussed which target they would throw their pigs' blood at, the real students marched on Parliament Square below.

From The Blog
21 April 2011

On the same day that the architect of the Gherkin announced the death of the skyscraper, it emerged that Little, Brown have paid a ‘high six-figure sum’ for a romance, set in 2008 just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, between an out-of work-architect and a recently retired banker. So while we live through the consequences of the credit crunch – the Sure Start centres closing, the paramedics being sacked, the libraries disappearing – it seems we want to relive the moment in a cosy rom-com mode.

From The Blog
28 March 2011

‘Fortnum and Mason’s is surrounded by police as this is a crime scene. Persons responsible will be arrested’: a message sent out by the Metropolitan Police text service for protesters at 18.33, just as I was getting home from Saturday’s TUC march. The slogan was ‘March for the alternative!’ – ‘what sort of alternative?’ Evan Davis asked on the Today programme that morning – but UK Uncut’s flyers encouraged us to ‘occupy for the alternative’. Fortnum’s was targeted because its owners, Whittington Investments, ‘have dodged over £40 million in tax’. Inside, ‘this has basically turned into a giant picnic,’ Laurie Penny tweeted, apart from the moment a display of chocolate bunnies was knocked over and had to be put painstakingly back together. Pictures and videos show protesters sitting on the floor, nestled between the glass cabinets and wooden counters or gathered behind brass railings, singing. The occupiers were arrested: of 149 charged by police on Saturday, 138 were done for 'aggravated trespass' or sitting on Fortnum's carpet for a few hours. Even Fortnum's have admitted that 'the damage is minimal.'

From The Blog
10 February 2011

The black-brick Georgian terrace house at 5 Bloomsbury Square had been empty for years. Two weeks ago the Really Free School moved in. Now there is bunting hanging between the first floor windows and lessons to attend in the afternoons and evenings: Arabic, Alexander Technique, Art for Children but also talks about Palestine, radical feminism, wi-fi hacking, the financial crisis; they’ve even had Newsnight’s economics editor, Paul Mason, come to talk on the Paris Commune – perhaps he was learning from them as much as they from him – and after he had finished you could join in a game of ‘Werewolf’.

From The Blog
1 June 2010

Yvette Cooper said at the weekend that criticism of her decision not to stand for the Labour leadership was unfeminist. I didn't entirely follow her reasoning, but then I also don’t understand why having small children should be a reason for Cooper to hold back but not for her husband, Ed Balls. No such qualms would restrain Louise Bagshawe, heavy metal fan, chick-lit author, ardent Catholic, divorcée, millionaire, mother of three and the new Conservative member for Corby and East Northamptonshire. ‘I was quite annoyed that Margaret Thatcher was prime minister,' Bagshawe has said, 'because that meant I couldn't be the first woman prime minister.’

From The Blog
28 May 2010

Every week of my language degree, we were set a few paragraphs of a novel to translate into French. Someone in Graham Greene would be having a conversation about the sort of country one doesn’t bother learning the French word for; someone in Iris Murdoch crossed a bridge over a river that bubbled and fizzed untranslatably or, at a particularly low point, Bertrand Russell combed out the concept of liberty in a way that should slide comfortably into French but refused to for me. Perched on the edge of a sofa in a book-lined study, each of us would offer up a sentence to be dismantled by a tutor who had decided on the best version 25 years earlier.

Despite the bad memories, I will be dusting off my dictionary for a live translation event at the British Museum next month (it's part of the London Review Bookshop's World Literature Weekend).

From The Blog
4 March 2010

‘The book about you is going to be wonderful,’ Nancy Mitford wrote in May 1934 to her sister Unity, who had gone to Nazi Germany to have lunch with Hitler, ‘you are called Eugenia let me know if you would rather not be.’ Wigs on the Green, the only one of Nancy’s novels not to be republished after the war because, as she wrote to Evelyn Waugh, ‘too much has happened for jokes about Nazis to be regarded as anything but the worst of taste,’ is finally reprinted today after 65 years. Until now it was the book that seemed so alluring in footnotes and endnotes: satirical, excoriating, the one that caused Diana to break with Nancy for years.

From The Blog
25 June 2009

Everyone I know hates him, but – God forgive me – I go a bit gooey for Andy Murray. Usually I can hide it well enough but there he was last week, topless, on the cover of granny's favourite listings magazine. And there again, winning Queen's and ripping his knuckle-skin on his racket strings. And then there, winning his first round match at Wimbledon and slagging off all the other British players for being damp squibs.

From The Blog
22 March 2010

The Fawcett Society sells a T-shirt with the slogan 'This is what a feminist looks like' (here's Patrick Stewart in one) but what do feminists do these days? Among other things, bake cupcakes, upcycle furniture, knit and make quilts.

From The Blog
18 November 2009

Jacques Audiard’s new film, A Prophet (which won the Grand Prix at Cannes and best film at the London Film Festival), is a prison thriller, yes, but an odd one. In the best scene our hero, Malik, is handcuffed in a car, being taken by a rival gang through the countryside near Marseille to the beach for negotiations (he’s on day release).

From The Blog
3 May 2009

On an unused door in Bristol, birthplace of Banksy, someone has stencilled, several times, in silver spray-paint: ‘Carol Ann Duffy for Poet Laureate’. And then in thick black marker between each glittering demand: ‘Yes!’ – I imagine they came back, ecstatic, on Friday to graffiti their graffiti. I didn’t know anyone cared so much. I thought everyone was with Ian Hamilton, who wrote in the LRB, just before Andrew Motion was appointed ten years ago, that ‘the whole thing is now generally agreed to be a joke.’ The post did, in fact, begin as a joke. The modern poet laureate evolved from the court jester.

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