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"My purpose is merely astonishing"

I've read this short story, 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote', three times this week. It's by Jorge Luis Borges, is four pages long - you can read it, like I have, at work, and you'll be done before anyone notices it's a strange-looking PDF - and presents itself as an obituary/review of Pierre Menard's effort to write, word-for-word, Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes.
I don't have anything very smart to say about the story: I came across it because I was looking up postmodernism on Wikipedia, which should tell you the extent of my literary knowledge. But it's a beautifully arresting idea and peppered with sentences like this: "Too impossible, rather!, teh reader will say. Quite so, but the undertaking was impossible from the outset, and of all the impossible ways of bringing it about, this was the least interesting." And it has the perfect, impossible to replicate quality that I think fiction this short needs, of leaving you a little t…

The ones who walk away

I have not read a lot of Ursula Le Guin: I read what was at the time the Earthsea Quartet, when I must have been too young to appreciate it, and yesterday I read 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas'. It's four pages, so you should just read it. (Spoilers follow, is what I'm saying.)

Some of my friends read this story in a high school class, so I already knew what it was about. From the way the story's structured you might think that'd mean I enjoyed it less, on actually reading it. But no! I've done too much philosophy to be very interested by a description of a case where utilitarianism seems to be horrible - even a well-written one - and knowing that's what was coming, I think, inured me to that first layer of moral from the story.

I had two other thoughts instead. One: the ones who walk away, who decide that Omelas isn't worth the cost, don't rescue the child. Nothing in the story suggests they couldn't, if they wanted to, drag them (it -…


Since I'm unemployed and a layabout, I've been reading, watching, listening a lot more. It's not really of a piece with anything else I've used this letter for, but I never made any promises, so here's some half-baked reviewing which maybe I will repeat. (Although I am starting a job in eight days!)

I read Incendiary, by Chris Cleave, a not-very-long book that it's hard to say anything about without spoiling. It's fantastically compelling in an oddly uncomplicated way: seventy pages of gripping set piece, and after that no artifice, just the momentum of the opening and a steady unfolding of what it promises.

Very different to Lisa Ko's The Leavers, which knows exactly what it's about but takes its time. I've been thinking a lotabout culture and nationality, recently, so I was never going to feel anything but love for this, a story about Polly, an illegal immigrant from China in New York, and her son, trying to be American or Chinese or anything in…

Is this the worst thing ever written about brunch?

It's a tough field, but maybe.

As anyone who's been unlucky enough to talk to me about the topic will know - particularly if it was in one of my intense, just-landed, let-me-tell-you-about-Australia phases - I have very strong opinions about brunch. The one opinion that rules them all is that people in the UK do not actually know what brunch is, and nothing I see makes me think otherwise.

Actually you kind of have to feel sorry for this Buzzfeed writer, whose take - "brunch is bad and it's about time we admit it" - is terrible in more or less exactly the ways that the brunch on offer in London is terrible. It's not that she's wrong about it being bad to queue 40 minutes for a lazy conjunction of breakfast and lunch menus plus a mimosa. It's that brunch... is so much more than that.

There's a good chance this blog section will just become a litany of brunch-based complaints, so it's probably best not to go on, but here is a short list either of…


This bit of the site was originally for photos with stories. Now I have photos on my Instagram, and stories on my TinyLetter, and this section has been fading gracefully. But since I am opposed to grace, I'm bringing it back for whatever doesn't belong anywhere else: maybe a set of photos here, a review there, a quiet cry for help. Who knows!


I made myself late to dinner to take these photos, since this time it wasn't hailing.

Sunset, St Kilda

Hail, and windsurfers.

Reviewing from the road

I’m on holiday, winding my way from Toronto down to New York, not thinking much about politics, and reading a lot. So, for something a bit different, here’s what I’ve been reading, listening to, watching, etc… If you want to read about the holiday, head to my TinyLetter. (If you just want to look at it, my hyperactive Instagram is here.)
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. Like a lot of these, this is shameless and quite late bandwagoning. I’d never heard of Elena Ferrante until the explosion of commentary and debate when her real name and identity were (against her will) revealed. My Brilliant Friend is the first in the quartet of novels she’s most celebrated for. It was not what I expected. The way Ferrante’s work has been reviewed and praised, as well as the general fact that it sparks a lot of discussion in more highbrow outlets, had me anticipating a quite literary work full of elegant prose. My experience of it was quite different, more like the way I read as a child than anythi…

The power of crayons: children's art, war, and politics

I have an article out this week in Lighthouse, an Oxford student magazine. You should grab a copy of the magazine, if you can; it's not available online yet. You can read my piece here. It's part of a symposium on the arts in international relations, and reflects on what children's art from zones of war and crisis can tell us about those disasters and about ourselves.

The there everywhere

"There's no there there" has become a popular phrase in the media just as a kind of offbeat way of saying 'nothing to see here'. The original meaning is honestly kind of unclear, but one suggestion is that it's saying a place has no sense of place - no identity, nothing distinct about it.

There are no places like that.

Here's Hamad International Airport, in Doha.

Airports really can feel the same: that orangey shade of yellow on all the signs, the giant Toblerones, the rows of uncomfortable seats. They are, of all places, the places most designed not to have any identity. And yet here is a giant bear, or mouse, or something, under a lamp. Is this very Qatari? Not in any obvious sense. (If you Google 'Qatari bear', you will find this beast, but nothing else.) But nobody anywhere else thought to invite an artist to put a giant soft toy in the middle of the terminal to remind people of their childhood.

Pavilion Mall, Kuala Lumpur:

You have to look pr…