How a small town in Ukraine stopped the Russians in their tracks

The other day, John Simpson, He Who Cannot Be Removed From The BBC, tweeted something purportedly about Volodymyr Zelensky. What it was really about, though, was John Simpson – how many world leaders he had interviewed (200), over how long (more than 50 years), and who he most admired (Zelensky, Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel). It is difficult to imagine Andrew Harding, a veteran BBC foreign correspondent, tweeting something like that. He is a much more understated reporter, and less prone to foreground himself at the expense of his interviewees. He is just as likely to be on receive as transmit and understands that he is not the story. The

The agony and frustration of reporting from the Middle East

For 25 years, Abed Takkoush assisted foreign reporters like Jeremy Bowen when they arrived to cover the chaos and conflicts in Lebanon. He drove them around in his battered Mercedes, pointing out with grim relish the places where dark deeds had taken place: the assassinations, atrocities, kidnappings and slaughter of civilians that scar this mesmerising nation. During one Israeli onslaught in 1996, Abed sped past a gunship firing at cars on the highway between Sidon and Tyre, laughing with relief when shells exploded on the road rather than the car. ‘We laughed with him,’ writes the veteran BBC reporter. ‘It was a calculated risk. The alternative was turning back to

Is Christianity about to end in the place it began?

Janine di Giovanni’s book begins in a Paris apartment during the first lockdown. She’s at a friend’s home, which she leaves for the odd shopping trip wearing a homemade mask and rubber kitchen gloves. Covid has made her anxious and she worries that we may lose things about our way of life forever. They need to be written down so we don’t forget. As she thinks about how her faith has comforted her during the pandemic she decides to tell the story of Christians in the Middle East who have experienced troubles of a different kind. She feels that Christianity is vanishing there, and if we don’t make a record

Heroes and villains of the pandemic in America

The most alarming aspect of living in America is the recurring sensation that no one is in charge. This is much more disconcerting than recognising that the people in charge are incompetent and corrupt: that is merely a sorry fact of everyday life. Three times in two decades the world’s most powerful state has failed its people: on 9/11, in the crash of 2007-8 and in the Covid-19 pandemic. Once is unfortunate, twice is carelessness, thrice is recklessness, and after that you’re on your own. My basement now resembles a nuclear bunker: food, water, medical supplies, a gym, a lifetime supply of lavatory paper. I live in an affluent, blue-state

Playing with fire — did QAnon start as a cynical game?

On Easter Monday 2018, Donald and Melania Trump stood on the balcony of the White House next to a giant bunny. It’s part of the job: since 1878, presidents have hosted a children’s Easter egg hunt on the south lawn. Usually they rhapsodise abut what fun the kids are going to have. Trump, true to form, told his young guests to ‘just think of 700 billion dollars, because that’s all going into our military this year’. And he also said that the White House was an amazing place, in ‘tip-top shape’. The liberal media rolled their eyes about Trump boasting to children about military spending but quickly moved on. The

The US tech companies behind China’s mass surveillance

In January, the United States declared that China’s brutal treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang amounted to genocide. ‘I believe this genocide is ongoing, and we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy the Uighurs by the Chinese party-state,’ said Mike Pompeo, the former US secretary of state. British MPs made a similar declaration in April. Beijing fervently denies the accusation, and some experts maintain that ‘cultural genocide’ is a more appropriate label. But whatever we call it, the systematic attempt to erase Uighur identity, culture and history is a heinous crime against humanity. In The Perfect Police State the American journalist Geoffrey Cain shows how Xinjiang, China’s remote

The scandal of OxyContin, the painkiller that caused untold pain

Last week I was staying in a cool hotel in the middle of San Francisco. When I walked out to find coffee in the morning, I came across a man with his trousers lowered as he injected himself in the groin. An older fellow nearby used the street as a toilet, adding to the human excrement on the pavement. A woman lay crashed out, hair matted over her face in the heat. Returning later in the day, passing the clusters of tents and people chasing dragons from foil, I was asked: ‘Do you want anything?’ These disturbing scenes of human despair were beside a smart shopping mall in the city

The difficulty of building heaven on Earth: why utopias usually fail

The years after the first world war were a boom time for utopian communities. As the survivors of the conflict began to recover, many were drawn towards experimental ways of living. Anna Neima looks at six of these communities, asking what brought them together, what kept them going and what legacy, if any, they left behind. In doing so, she offers an original perspective on the entire period and a new way of navigating its artistic and ideological upheaval. She begins with Santiniketan Sriniketan, the community founded by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore in West Bengal. Part ashram, part school, part agricultural college, it promoted the twin causes of

Sacrificing to the false god of gold

Deep in Peru’s Amazon rainforest sits a desolate zone, stretching for miles and pockmarked with chemical-tainted water that glistens orange and blue. This was the centre of the country’s illegal gold-mining operations, where tens of thousands of desperate people dug into the soil in search of a precious mineral that could make the difference between destitution and wealth. For every ounce found in the crime-infested badlands, nine tonnes of toxic waste are thought to be left behind in an environmental catastrophe that will contaminate the region for decades. No wonder Pope Francis, on a visit to the impoverished area, called gold ‘a false god’ when so much wreckage is left

New Yorkers talk the talk

New York in a nutshell? No way. New York in a New York minute? Forget about it. The city contains multitudes: it contradicts itself, wantonly. Any attempt to summarise will fail. Not even Craig Taylor’s delightful cacophony of voices, dozens and dozens of them spilling their New York stories, can compass its vastness and variety. But what a tasty slice Taylor serves up! Until you can fly into JFK and see, hear and smell for yourself, savour the grit, sweat in the choking humidity and shiver in the canyoned midtown winds — until then, his New Yorkers is just the ticket. This is Taylor’s second anthology of urban voices. It

Life on Earth is too tame for eccentric American billionaires

For many of us, Elon Musk is a hard man to like. He’s the richest man in the world (or second richest, as he and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos whirr back and forth in top spot), but acts online like a bratty teenager astonished by his own intelligence. He proposes underground tunnel networks as a transport solution for Miami (which is a swamp less than 10ft above sea level), moots takeovers of his companies with 420-themed weed jokes and hypes cryptocurrencies. Yet as you read Liftoff you can see what so many people find to admire in the man — at least for a while. The story of SpaceX’s early

Not just a trolley dolly: the demanding life of an air hostess

Come Fly the World is not the book I thought I was getting. The slightly (surely deliberately) pulpy cover — a glamazonian stewardess, her mirrored cat-eye sunglasses reflecting a runway — promised a Mad Men-era history of silver service and highballs at 30,000 feet, glamour, frocks and sexual shenanigans. Admittedly, deprived of the quixotic delights of a Ryanair snack pack shared with a fractious toddler on a delayed 5 a.m. flight to Alicante at the moment, I ignored the subtitle: ‘The Women of Pan Am at War and Peace.’ That sets the tone more accurately. This is a fairly serious-minded social and geopolitical history of Pan Am, 1966-1975, which takes

Cashing in on Covid: the traders who thrive on a crisis

When we think of those lurching moments last spring when it became clear that much of the world, not just one or two regions, would grind to a halt, for most of us it is anything but a fond memory. But the traders of Glencore probably remember the time differently: they saw it as an unprecedented opportunity to cash in. Anticipating a global slowdown, they bought up all the space they could to store oil, including tankers capable of holding 3.2 million barrels. When the markets caught up with the scale of the pandemic, the price of oil dropped to zero and below, and in they swooped. They took the

Walls went up after the Berlin Wall came down

In her 2017 travelogue Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, the writer and poet Kapka Kassabova meets Emel, a loquacious Turkish civil servant who tells her that ‘the only good thing about a border is that you can cross it’. These words speak to an inherent contradiction. Borders stand as overt manifestations of national power. They represent what seems most fixed and immutable about the state. But in reality, what they do more than anything else is invite transgression. This idea that borders are not quite what we perceive them to be is the thematic ballast for Klaus Dodds’s impressive and timely Border Wars. And it is a

Cruelty and chaos in Karachi

Karachi, Pakistan’s troubled heart, is known to cast a seductive spell over residents and visitors alike. In Karachi Vice, the award-winning journalist Samira Shackle writes that the city’s penchant for extremity and eccentricity kept luring her back from London for almost a decade. During these visits, made between 2012 and 2019, she navigates the darkest corners of the metropolis’s maze and documents some of the lives that exist on the peripheries of society. In a city where violence is constantly simmering beneath the surface and lines between law enforcement and crime are blurred, locals develop their own mechanisms for coping with trauma. For instance, Safdar, an ambulance driver who survived

Paradise regained: how the world’s wastelands are regenerating

Ignoring the padlocked gate, my six-year-old son Nicholas and I climbed through a break in the metal fence and pushed into the mesh of undergrowth. This was the site of Ducker, the open-air swimming pool that once belonged to Harrow School. Here the young Winston Churchill romped (naked, since trunks were for prefects), as, in his day, did my dad. When I arrived at Harrow in the 1980s, the pool — far bigger than Tooting Bec Lido, which is now the UK’s largest — had just been abandoned. It was covered with graffiti, the haunt of skateboarders. Returning in 2021, I looked for changes wrought by three decades of neglect.

Exotic and endangered: Madagascar in peril

Madagascar. There are so many delightful incongruities about the island. Despite being off the coast of Africa, because of the way the ocean currents work it was mainly settled by people from Borneo, 3,700 miles away — what Jared Diamond has described as ‘the single most astonishing fact of human geography’. For similar reasons, it is a biodiversity hotspot; more than 90 per cent of the wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth. And as one of the world’s largest islands, the sheer size can make it hard to assimilate. If ‘the Republic of Madagascar’, its formal title, were stretched out across Europe, the country would reach from London to

The Tibetans’ fight for freedom continues — but only just

‘Free Tibet!’ used to be a rallying cry for Hollywood A-listers and rock stars. Richard Gere hung out with the Dalai Lama; the Beastie Boys organised a series of giant benefit concerts. Global attention has shifted to other regions suffocating under the jackboot of the Chinese Communist party (CCP), notably Xinjiang and Hong Kong. But the Tibetans’ fight for freedom continues — though only just. Since 2009, 156 Tibetans have set themselves alight in protest at China’s repressive policies. Nearly a third of them are from Ngaba, a small county on the south-eastern edge of the vast Tibetan plateau. Ngaba (pronounced Nabba and known as Aba in Chinese) is home

The story of Sealand – a most improbable sovereign state

In 2012, the editors of Vice ran an article aimed at would-be contributors to their self-avowedly edgy magazine headed ‘Never Pitch Any of These Things to Us Again’. Among a list of no-nos that included burlesque dancing and art made of bodily fluids was the principality of Sealand. They wrote: OK, so an independent sovereign state floating just outside the UK sounds great, right? Except, well it’s not really, is it? I mean, it’s not an independent sovereign state like, say, France. It’s more like a big, floating turd of mental illness in the North Sea. Unsurprisingly, Dylan Taylor-Lehman, the American author of this doggedly respectful account of how an

She just keeps rollin’ along: Colombia’s Magdalena River

As Colombia comes out of 50 years of civil war and into a still precarious peace, with some 220,000 dead, this timely book explores one of the few dividends to emerge from such a terrible conflict. Large areas of the country were isolated by the war, and so spared the ravages of modern development. Unlike neighbouring Ecuador, where oil and gas exploration has done its worst, Colombia still has an essentially roadless expanse of pristine forest nearly the size of France. When I travelled in the mountains near Cali last year, I was struck by how depopulated the rural areas were. The peasant farmers, the campesinos, were only slowly returning