Exploring the glorious literary heritage of Bengal

The first time I went to India, nearly 30 years ago, I was sent as a young novelist by the British Council. Unusually, my first encounter with the country was Kolkata, a city I loved instantly. At the first event, after I had finished reading, an audience member gently asked if I liked Indian novels. I thought I was prepared, and mentioned R.K. Narayan, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai and Vikram Seth. The questioner smiled. ‘Those are all writers in English,’ he said. ‘What about writers in Indian languages?’ I was stumped. Perhaps many people of generous reading habits have the same block without knowing it. The liveliness of English-language writers

A timely morality tale: The Spoiled Heart, by Sunjeev Sahota, reviewed

Who would have thought that the battle between champions of old-school socialism and contemporary identity politics for the post of General Secretary of Unify, a fictitious British trade union, would make for such riveting reading? Nayan Olak and Megha Sharma have little in common save their skin colour. He is the son of corner shopkeepers, who started work on the factory floor at 16 and is now the union’s Head of Workplace Disciplinary Actions. She is the daughter of a non-dom property magnate and recently appointed Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.  Their political priorities are neatly encapsulated in their job titles. While never explicitly favouring either candidate, Sunjeev Sahota

Scrawled outpourings of love and defiance

To come across dates and names carved into a choirstall or ancient tree is to experience a momentary frisson, a startled connection with the past. Yet this practice of making ‘unauthorised’ personal graphic statements in public spaces is often thought of as antisocial, something to be erased immediately. Unless of course they are by Banksy, whose spray-painted outpourings cost local councils a great deal to clean off before they came to be regarded as valid documents, articulating the thoughts and imaginings of the disaffected. In her ingenious new book Writing on the Wall, the art historian Madeleine Pelling has chosen to use these often transitory pieces of historical evidence as

Portrait of the Week: hate crimes, surprise knighthoods and flaming rickshaws

Home The Hate Crime and Public Order Act came into effect in Scotland, making it a crime to communicate or behave in a manner ‘that a reasonable person would consider to be threatening or abusive’, with the intention of stirring up hatred based on age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity or being intersex. The Scottish government offered online training to 500 Police Scotland ‘Hate Crime Champions’. The author J.K. Rowling named ten people who call themselves women that she called men. Police Scotland said complaints had been received about her, but that but no action would be taken. Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, said: ‘We should not be criminalising

James Heale

Could Sadiq Khan lose London?

With Labour 20 points ahead in the national polls, a lot of Tories have already written off next month’s mayoral contest in the capital. London, they maintain, is a Labour city that occasionally votes Conservative. But supporters of Sadiq Khan and his Tory challenger Susan Hall agree: it’s going to be closer than many think. The mayor’s image is as likely to be found on Conservativeleaflets as on Labour ones Three factors are held by both camps to be at play. The first is the incumbency factor versus ‘time for a change’. Khan’s re-election team has consulted other campaigns which won three in a row; all agreed this was the

In defence of forgiveness

It is often the small constants in the culture that give the game away. Much of the news today is not about anything significant, but rather a sort of lower gossip. Every day, some new scandal bubbles along. Someone is found to have said something once, often a long time ago. The culprit is shamed and condemned. Take the case of Frank Hester, a donor who has given an estimated £10 million to the Conservative party. Few had heard of him until recently. Then it was reported that at a meeting at his company headquarters in 2019, Hester said that Diane Abbott MP made him ‘just want to hate all

How depressing when people over-identify with their ethnicity

I am a Jew. I live in a council estate in London where considerably more than half of my neighbours are Muslims. These people aren’t my friends, but we get along fine: I pick up their parcels; we coordinate complaints to the council about the strange, blue-tinged fluid that sometimes drips from everyone’s ceilings, as if someone in the penthouse had decided to fill their flat with jelly. Elsewhere, our distant cousins are doing terrible things to each other. It’s increasingly hard to imagine a world in which these distant cousins can live together, intermingled but mostly minding their own business – but that’s exactly what we do every day

What does Rachel Reeves stand for?

As the world discovered when she was caught lifting other people’s work for her book on women in economics, Rachel Reeves is not the most original of thinkers. But she has political talents. She has cultivated her image as an uninspiring technocrat in order to present herself as someone who will not spring surprises or take risks as chancellor. She thinks the state is inefficient and taxes are too high. She believes in ‘securonomics’, which sounds like a pleasing contrast to years of Tory policies. It is easy to preach fiscal discipline, but in office Labour would find it very difficult to contain spending Polls show that voters now think

Putin may seem confident – but Russia’s future is bleak

How old will you be when Vladimir Putin’s next presidential term ends in 2030? Which of today’s world leaders will still be in office? By that time Putin will have been in power for 29 years, and just under half the population of the Earth at that time will have been born during his reign. On current form, Putin is set to see in at least two more US presidents – or more, if he chooses to stay in power until 2036. Putin has made a fetish of defending a Russian national sovereignty that no one had attempted to destroy When Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in 2022 many

Joe Biden’s dog is out of control

I was shocked to read about the behaviour of Joe Biden’s dog, Commander. According to a CNN report based on freedom of information requests, he bit US Secret Service agents on 24 separate occasions between October 2022 and July 2023. There were also numerous other incidents involving the White House staff. These were not playful nips, either. The agents reported being bitten on the wrist, forearm, elbow, waist, chest, thigh and shoulder, with at least two bites requiring stitches. On one occasion, an agent was bitten so badly that tours of the White House had to be suspended for 20 minutes while a janitor mopped up the blood. During his

Permanent stalemate in Gaza suits Netanyahu

Jerusalem After midnight on Thursday is dead-time for the Israeli media. The weekend editions have gone to print (newspapers don’t come out on Shabbat) and the Friday night TV news shows have been pre-recorded. The country’s journalists are yearning for respite from a long week covering the war. Benjamin Netanyahu chose that black hole of news, 2 a.m. last Friday, to leak his ‘Day after Hamas’ plan for post-war Gaza. There was no speech. No briefings. Just a page and a bit, double-spaced, presented to his cabinet for discussion. The plan has not been designed to end the war in Gaza. It is about Netanyahu’s own political survival But the plan

Katy Balls

The Trumpification of the Tory party

Anthony Scaramucci, Donald Trump’s former director of communications, has a phrase that sums up his old boss’s effect on political debate: ‘the universe bends towards him’. In the US, discussion about this year’s election is all about Trump. But he is exerting the same gravitational pull in Britain, both on the Tories as they face opposition, and Labour as it mulls the likely dilemmas of government. Trump is resentful of those who have been ‘nasty’ about him: this includes nearly everyone in the Labour party Theresa May offers a case study in how not to deal with Trump. She hoped to befriend him and acquire some kind of post-Brexit trade

Could Britain have a farmers’ revolt?

Nine years ago, when Rishi Sunak was campaigning to be the Conservative candidate for Richmond in Yorkshire, he knew his background wouldn’t work in his favour. Here was a millionaire City slicker – fresh from a spell in Silicon Valley – standing in a rural safe seat against local rivals. William Hague, who was retiring from the seat, told him he’d need to do a crash course in country living. Sunak replied that he’d milk some cows right away. Now, the Prime Minister takes great pride in his familiarity with rural issues. He cites hill farming as a passion and boasts to friends of his ‘deep knowledge of sheep’. The

Taiwan can’t escape China’s shadow

The Taiwanese rock band Mayday – ‘the Beatles of the Chinese-speaking world’ – are being investigated by the Chinese Communist party for the crime of lip syncing. Local authorities are combing through recordings of Mayday’s Shanghai concerts from November looking for evidence of ‘deceptive fake-singing’, as the CCP calls it, which has been illegal in China since 2009 (although the law is rarely enforced). Last month, an anonymous Taiwan-ese government source told Reuters that the investigation had been cooked up because the pop stars refused a request from Beijing to say something nice about China in the run-up to Taiwan’s election this Saturday. The band found itself at the centre

Portrait of the week: Post Office scandal, Tube strikes off and dog meat banned

Home Although it had long been known that between 1999 and 2015 more than 700 sub-postmasters were convicted of false accounting, theft and fraud (based on the faulty Horizon computer accounting system software), the government suddenly proposed to do something about it because of a public outcry following an ITV drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office. The Metropolitan Police was investigating the Post Office over fraud possibly arising from money being ‘recovered from sub-postmasters as a result of prosecutions or civil actions’. Paula Vennells, who held high office in the Post Office from 2007 to 2019, said she was handing back her CBE ‘with immediate effect’, although it is

My election advice for Starmer? Offer a new Citizen’s Charter

A giveaway Budget in March preceding a general election in May against an improving economic backdrop: that, we’re told, is Downing Street’s favoured scenario. But still the election is Keir Starmer’s to lose, so here’s my start-the-year advice to him. Don’t bang on about Rishi Sunak being too rich; don’t make immigration the issue, because you have no solutions; don’t pretend to admire Margaret Thatcher; but do channel John Major – to whom you bear much closer comparison – and offer a new Citizen’s Charter. What? Isn’t that 1991 exercise in footling managerialism, forever associated with the ‘cones hotline’, remembered as a laughable failure? Maybe, but its intention was good:

Must we live in perpetual fear of being named and shamed?

You should feel thoroughly ashamed of reading this infamous rag. Or else you might decide to revel, shamelessly, in its critics’ prim disapproval. From political squalls to global wars, David Keen argues that a ‘spiral of shame’ and shamelessness now traps individuals and societies in arid cycles of pain, rage and revenge. Manipulative actors – ‘advertisers, warmongers, terrorists, tyrants and charlatans’ – sell us ‘magical solutions’ to the anguish of the shame they themselves stoke. But they merely pass the burden to other groups, leaving us with more suffering. Keen writes: ‘Such actors do with shame what the Mafia does with fear.’ The author teaches conflict studies at the LSE.

Javier Milei’s radical reforms could start to heal Argentina’s economy

Argentina has spent most of its 200-year history in deficit; no other country currently owes the International Monetary Fund a greater sum of money. The new finance minister, who entered government with President Javier Milei earlier this month, has been stark in making the point: ‘Out of the last 123 years, Argentina ran a fiscal deficit in 113… we have come to solve the addiction to fiscal deficits.’  Milei’s government is wasting little time carrying out what it calls ‘shock therapy’. The official value of the peso, Argentina’s currency, has been halved against the US dollar. Why might a government want to weaken its own currency, pushing up the price

Good riddance to neoliberalism

I listened to a fascinating debate on the BBC’s The World This Weekend about the ideological origins of that thing, populism. The agreeably thuggish Javier Milei had just taken the reins of Argentina and, perhaps a little late in the day, the TW2 (as it is known in BBC circles) production team had noticed that almost every election held anywhere these days – except perhaps Australia and here – tends to result in a win for a party which is either overtly populist, as in Argentina, or is called populist by its opponents and the BBC. What the hell is going on, they wondered, only ten years too late. Who

Portrait of the year: resignations, wars and kangaroo courts

January The government stopped a Gender Recognition Bill passed by the Scottish parliament becoming law. Isla Bryson, now a transgender woman, was convicted of having raped two women; the 31-year-old was sent to a women’s prison, then transferred to one for men. A Met Police officer, David Carrick, aged 48, pleaded guilty to 24 charges of rape. Nadhim Zahawi was sacked as Conservative party chairman. Strikes by railway workers, Underground drivers, ambulance drivers, nurses and hospital doctors continued on and off all year. Ukraine struck a building in Donetsk housing Russian forces. A Russian missile destroyed a block of flats at Dnipro. Jacinda Ardern suddenly resigned as prime minister of New