The Weekend Essay

Coffee House’s weekly long read

Nick Cohen

The Tory war on woke won’t work

Visibly desperate Conservatives are counting on their opposition to the left’s cultural revolution to save them, if not from defeat, then at least from annihilation.  The party’s deputy chair Lee Anderson forecasts that a ‘mix of culture wars and trans debate’ would be ‘at the heart’ of the party’s coming election campaign. You only need to listen to Tory ministers or read the Tory press to see that plan being followed. Left-leaning commentators have a convincing response which boils down to a simple exclamation of, ‘who the hell are you trying to kid?’ As by-election results show, the electorate will punish the Conservatives for 14 years of national decline with the anger

Philip Patrick

The Fukushima water is safe. So why does no one trust it?

Japan will today begin releasing tritium-laced water from the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant into the ocean (weather permitting). Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida made the announcement on Tuesday after a meeting with relevant ministers. The Japanese government has stressed the necessity of the plan and its safety, but it has nonetheless escalated an international conflict over the issue. China has responded by imposing an immediate ban on all Japanese seafood imports.  The discharge has been sanctioned by a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is part of a long-term decommissioning plan for the plant that suffered major damage from the March 2011 earthquake. Tritium is not damaging

You should read Simon Raven

It is high summer but in the early mornings you can already sense the first thrilling signs of autumn, the perfect reading season. What a good moment to revisit the enjoyably cruel England of Simon Raven, as described in his matchless series of novels Alms for Oblivion. It is pagan, unjust, beautiful, funny and evocative. It encompasses the melancholy era of national decline, from the last trumpets of empire to the seedy, garish concrete and glass squalor of Ted Heath’s fevered age. It is funny, bitter and full of a surprisingly uninhibited love of this country. It is interested in history, patriotism, courage, money, food, drink and sex, not necessarily

Joe Biden was right to withdraw from Afghanistan

‘Today was hard. I can’t imagine what it was like for the families of those we left behind.’ That was an email from a friend who’d served in Afghanistan, sent as the chaos of the western withdrawal from Afghanistan played out on rolling news almost exactly two years ago. His grief – mirrored across the military and the media establishment on both sides of the Atlantic – now feels a long time ago, at least to those detached from the 20-year fight against the Taliban. Like many a separation, however, over time it becomes clear it was the right thing to do. The US had spent almost a trillion dollars fighting and nation building in Afghanistan. They’d lost more than 2,000 men. And as events post-withdrawal were to

Theo Hobson

Why I’m romantic about climate change

Why hasn’t an anti-technology movement emerged? It seems to me that we face two overlapping crises. One is obviously climate change. AI, if it doesn’t wipe us out, is supposed to help us fix that. But artificial intelligence leads us to the other crisis, one that is harder to name: let’s call it alienation-through-technology. Are they, at root, one and the same? Imagine that Elon Musk solves climate change next month. He develops a totally clean energy source so everything can continue much as we are with no need for apocalyptic anxiety. It would be wonderful news, I suppose. But part of me would feel a bit miffed. Because there

UFOs or not – something is up

As famous capital cities of world-straddling superpowers go, Washington DC is somewhat disappointing. The grandiose urbanism is surely meant to resemble the boulevards of Paris, with the parks of London, but in reality the dreary post-modern/neo-classical bombast makes it looks like Tashkent married to Milton Keynes. A city that is planned to project power actually projects tedious, if reliable, stolidity.  But that, for my purposes, is the thing. Washington DC is nothing if not boring. And pompous. And self-consciously serious. And yet, over the last few years, months, even days, a story has been emerging, from this same ponderous city, which is mind-bustingly crazy, possibly world changing, yet often unnoticed or airily

The end of the Silicon Valley dream

It is difficult, given what Silicon Valley has become, to convey exactly what it was like in the 1970s and ‘80s. It was a remarkable centre of technology, but also the embodiment of the spirit of capitalism at its very best, as epitomised by garage start-ups like Apple. Greed, of course, is always a human motivation, but the early Valley culture was created by entrepreneurial outsiders who genuinely wanted to make the world better. In the early days of the tech revolution, some watchers imagined an almost utopian, communitarian society on the horizon. In 1972, the California writer and zeitgeist diagnostician Stewart Brand predicted in Rolling Stone that when computers became widely

How Salzburg made Mozart

Arriving in Salzburg, ahead of this week’s Whitsun music festival, the first thing that greets you is a rather grumpy statue of the greatest composer who ever lived. Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in this implausibly pretty Alpine city, and each time I return here the boyish creator of the world’s most beautiful music seems more ubiquitous than ever. Wandering the narrow alleyways of Salzburg’s medieval Altstadt, its cobblestones worn smooth by centuries of tourist traffic, Mozart’s pale and pensive face stares back at you from the window of every souvenir shop, emblazoned on every conceivable knick-knack, from fridge magnets to action figures (my personal favourite is the

Ross Clark

Britain’s rivers are filthy

The name Chris Whitty will forever be associated in people’s minds with Covid-19. But in a recent cri de coeur he reminded us not only that he continues to exist following the end of his daily appearances on our TV screens, but that there are many other ways in which pathogens are out to get us. In a newspaper piece written with the chairs of Ofwat and the Environment Agency, the Chief Medical Officer raised the subject of Britain’s filthy rivers. While Britain’s environment has improved in many ways, with cleaner air, more trees and some species returning after centuries’ absence, our rivers have defied the trend, being more afflicted with sewage

Kate Andrews

What if Rishi fails to deliver all five pledges?

When Rishi Sunak delivered his five key pledges at the start of January, the latest data we had for the inflation rate was for last November. It was up 10.7 per cent on the year, having fallen from a peak of 11.1 per cent the month before. Everyone thought this was the start of a fast and spectacular fall, with virtually all forecasts showing a welcome decline in the rate of inflation. Off the back of those forecasts, the Prime Minister oozed confidence when he promised to ‘halve inflation’ by the end of this year. Speaking to an audience in Stratford, Sunak promised that an ‘ease’ to the cost-of-living crisis and greater

Modernity is making you sterile

Cassava is a woody shrub native to South America. For people living in drought-prone tropical regions, it is a godsend: delicious, calorie-dense, and highly productive. The indigenous peoples of the Americas who first cultivated cassava are reliant on it and have developed an arduous, days-long process of preparation that involves scraping, grating, washing, and boiling the plant before it is eaten. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Portuguese introduced cassava to the Old World. But they did not import the ancient methods of processing, assuming that indigenous people were wasting their time. Progress swats away benevolent traditions because the usefulness of traditions can be subtle and hard to

Art is eating itself

In his curious little book about Flying Saucers, Carl Jung took an interesting detour into the psychology of modern art.  His contemporaries, he said, had ‘taken as their subject the disintegration of forms’. Their pictures, ‘abstractly detached from meaning and feeling alike, are distinguished by their “meaninglessness” as much as their deliberate aloofness from the spectator’. Artists ‘have immersed themselves,’ wrote Jung, ‘in the destructive element and have created a new conception of beauty, one that delights in the alienation of meaning and of feeling. Everything consists of debris, unorganised fragments, holes, distortions, overlappings, infantilisms and crudities which outdo the clumsiest attempts of primitive art and belie the traditional idea of skill’. ‘It is the beauty of

The bodies keep the score in Lviv

Lviv, Ukraine At the Lychakiv cemetery in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv the bodies keep the score. Within its confines the more than 300,000 graves offer a tangled insight into the labyrinthine history of this eastern European city that even now goes by four different names. There are Polish generals, mathematicians and philosophers; Ukrainian composers, theologians and playwrights; Soviet and Russian aviators, inventors and academics. Most of the city’s Jews – in what was one of Jewry’s most important cities in eastern Europe – are buried in a different graveyard, but there are smattering of their number, as well as German and Czech notables. In some places the black

The rise and fall of bohemia

In the Kunsthalle Praha, a smart new gallery in Prague, a Scottish professor from UCLA called Russell Ferguson is trying to explain to me the meaning of bohemia. Like a lot of fashionable buzzwords, it’s surprisingly difficult to pin down. Is a bohemian an artistic rebel? Or merely a pretentious layabout? Ferguson is an expert on the subject, and even he can’t quite sum it up. However, unlike most academics (and most journalists, for that matter) Professor Ferguson isn’t content to just sit around and chat. As well as writing a book about bohemia, he’s mounted an exhibition about bohemians here at the Kunsthalle – and after he’s shown me

The Great Caucasian Game

Stroll around the elegant capitals of Georgia and Armenia and you could be almost anywhere in Europe. The grand boulevards, familiar luxury brands, fast-food outlets, smart restaurants and gridlocked traffic suggest that you might be in Hungary or the Czech Republic. Only the cruciform shape of the domed and ancient churches place you elsewhere; that, and in Georgia’s Tbilisi at least, the ubiquitous anti-Russian, anti-Putin graffiti. The Ukraine conflict has meant large numbers of Russians have arrived in Georgia – not to everyone’s delight. ‘What makes them so maddening is their arrogance,’ my hostess said one night. ‘A friend of mine lent a Russian refugee family her flat – for free. But when she went round with home baked bread to welcome

Make Sex Wild Again

The notorious Infowars host Alex Jones once opined that he didn’t like the government ‘putting chemicals in the water that turn the friggin’ frogs gay’. CNBC called this a ‘disturbing and ridiculous conspiracy theory’, and Jones is noted for wild and sometimes actionable claims. But if we read ‘gay’ in the colloquial sense, as offensive shorthand for ‘feminised male’, Jones’s assertion contains a glimmer of truth. Chemicals really are going into the water that so disrupt the endocrine systems of small aquatic creatures, including frogs, that males sometimes undergo sex reversal or adopt homosexual behaviour. It’s just that the synthetic estradiol that damages fish and amphibians isn’t being added to

How we forgot about Pol Pot

When I was a small boy, I had a favourite book: The Magic Faraway Tree, by Enid Blyton. Given that my own family life not was not untroubled, the story of how a bunch of regular kids travel, via this wonderful tree, to a sequence of fantastical places, where they meet lovable characters like the Saucepan Man, Moon-Face, and Silky the Fairy, seemed to embody a childish version of heaven. An escape, and a Utopia. Yesterday, many decades after reading Enid Blyton under the bedcovers, I encountered the opposite of the Magic Faraway Tree. A tree that is still faraway in time and conception (and growing evermore so), but a tree

Gareth Roberts

Is ‘woke’ dead?

If you don’t live online, you may have missed the controversy over Hogwarts Legacy, the latest computer game to have been spun out of the multi-billion Harry Potter franchise. A small but amazingly vocal band of activists launched a vicious campaign against the game because of its connection to ‘transphobe’ J.K. Rowling. Then the game came out and was instantly a phenomenal success – the most popular game ever on the streaming platform Twitch, physical sales of 12 million in its first two weeks of release, earning its makers $850 million (£709 million) in revenue. These cold, hard, commercial facts are like a glass of cold water in the face. The balance

Gavin Mortimer

Was Jean Raspail racist?

Fifty years ago, one of the most controversial books of the late 20th century was published. Camp of the Saints was written by Jean Raspail, a French travel writer, who explained decades later that the idea for the novel had come to him one day in 1972, as he looked out at the Mediterranean from the Côte d’Azur. ‘I don’t know what went through my mind,’ he said. ‘The immigration problem didn’t exist yet. The question suddenly arose: ‘What if they came?’ The book is the story of a million migrants from India, who landed on the south coast of France in an armada of boats. They were welcomed by

How to defend free markets in the 21st century

It wasn’t Liz Truss’s failure to make big changes we should worry about. It was her inability to deliver even the most modest pro-market reforms after a decade in high office that ought to alarm us. As Prime Minister for six weeks, Truss tried and failed reduce Britain’s tax burden to about the level it was under Gordon Brown. As a cabinet minister for ten years, Truss – a mother as well as a free marketeer – tried to reduce the costs of childcare by reducing red tape. Her efforts to change legally mandated child/carer ratios, despite mountains of evidence it could be done safely, were persistently thwarted. If even