At the end of the first chapter of Émile Zola’s 1887 novel La Terre, a sower looks on encouragingly as an adolescent girl helps a thrusting bull to mount and ejaculate into the enormous cow she has walked over from a nearby town. The book is full of sex, violence and sexual violence; its first English publisher was prosecuted for obscenity. A few years earlier the Daily Telegraph had denounced Zola’s writing for its ‘unnecessary and offensive grossness’. The BBC’s striking new miniseries, I May Destroy You, written by and starring Michaela Coel, neatly observes Zola’s three principles of naturalism: faire vrai, faire grand and faire simple. The plot follows Coel’s character, Arabella Essiedu, and her friends as she pieces together the events of a night out that ended with someone spiking her drink and raping her.
On hot weekends when I was child we’d go to the paddling pool in Burnley’s Thompson Park. We’d drive over from our house in Accrington and leave the car near Burnley College, where my father taught photography. On the way home I’d beg for a detour past Turf Moor, the home of Burnley Football Club.
‘The readiness of the English to apologise for something they haven’t done is remarkable,’ Henry Hitchings writes in Sorry! The English and their Manners (2013), ‘and it is matched by an unwillingness to apologise for what they have done.’ Boris Johnson presents a classic case. He’s the sort who’ll gabble apologies on entering a room or sitting in a chair, an upper-class tic that gives the impression of excessively good manners. By mumbling vague apologies and failing to individuate his words, Johnson creates an aura of harmless stupidity that makes him seem like a friendly, slovenly underdog to a nation with a soft spot for incompetence.
Perhaps the oldest bronze statue in the world is the Dancing Girl, a 4000-year-old, 10 cm figure found in 1926 at the Mohenjo-daro archaeological site in Sindh, in what is now Pakistan. In Sindhi, Mohenjo-daro means ‘mound of the dead men’. The statue – now in the National Museum in New Delhi – depicts a gangly teenage girl whose body language looks remarkably modern: insolent and unimpressed.
When I studied in Oxford a decade ago, I often passed under the stone statue of Cecil Rhodes on the front of Oriel College before I turned down Logic Lane to the philosophy department. Rhodes meant nothing to me in those days. My eighteen years of education had not once mentioned colonialism, and my head was often down as I trudged through the streets, falling into the common error, noted by Alan Bennett, of ‘confusing learning with the smell of cold stone’.
Cummings’s disregard for the new social contract is another data point in support of the hypothesis that the repudiation of protective measures is gendered. As with other risky behaviours, men are more likely to break lockdown rules. A study published this month shows they are also less likely to wear face masks. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many men believe they are less vulnerable to contracting or dying from the virus; others worry that masks are shameful or will be interpreted as a sign of weakness or subjugation.
One of the central motifs of Orientalist painting is the Eastern market, with sunbeams cutting through dusty air onto opulent fabrics, bright piles of fruit, pyramids of spices, and enigmatic stall-holders (the genre has its own subsection on Wikipedia). The modern analogue is the holiday photograph of the exotic bazaar or mercado. There’s one of me in a souk in Palestine, feigning shock in front of a shark impaled on a giant fishhook, reminiscent of a scene from Jaws. As with other Orientalist representations, these images have a dual effect: they express desire and fascination, on the one hand, and repulsion and condescension on the other. Foreign markets are both alluring and horrifying.
Laurel and Hardy reruns often played on Iranian television when I visited as a child. Wholesome, black-and-white slapstick didn’t need to be censored. In the Kurdish version, Oliver Hardy’s voice was dubbed by my uncle, Hashim Shahvisi, who was for decades a popular radio presenter. A year ago, he was in hospital in Tehran with an unspecified illness. My father spoke to relatives every day without getting any closer to finding out what was wrong.
On the glass of a bedroom window, one of the students across the road tallies ‘days inside’ in red lipstick, the letters oriented to be read from the street. My desk faces this window and its cheery running total that, with no release date in sight, lacks the sense of scratchings on the walls of a prison cell. An uncertain, unwelcome freedom awaits, with promises of economic collapse, unemployment, austerity and, for many, the long, potholed road of grief. Still, it is a comfort to see signs of life in another household, and to know someone is counting as though these were normal, individuated days and not a continuum of lost, fretful time.
Even if the BBC’s decision is taken to apply only to the constraints on Naga Munchetty’s professional role as a journalist, it sends a message that people of colour working in television must approach racism in public discourse as a matter of abstract interest, to be handled neutrally.