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The Great British Reading List

Illustration by Carolyn Wells

By Carolyn Wells

As the plane dipped below the clouds, an endless patchwork quilt of green fields and russet hedges stretched out beneath me. It had been two years since I had seen that familiar vista, thanks to COVID-19. However, with travel restrictions lifted — and my arm triple-jabbed — I was finally returning from expat life in Canada to my home country of the United Kingdom, to spend three months with family.

Perhaps it is because it has been so long since my last visit, but the contrasts between North America and this gray, quirky little island seem more pronounced than ever. Everything is so much smaller, the tendencies for reservation and self-deprecation so much clearer, and even more cups of tea are offered (I clutch one as I write).

I live in British Columbia — a British colony back in the days of Queen Victoria, with her government’s dubious penchant for claiming large chunks of the world. Yet, despite these origins, the differences between this Canadian province and the British Isles are as vast as the murky ocean separating them. Perhaps this island’s very particular culture comes from the hodgepodge of its ancestry: From the Romans to the Vikings, people always loved a good ol’ invasion of this land. Or maybe it’s simply the sense of history: Everywhere I turn there seems to be an ancient stone church, sitting awkwardly among new neighbors —  swanky bars and flats. Nip to a pub and there will be a plaque above your head, casually informing you that people have been getting drunk in that establishment since 1552.

Whatever the reason, Great Britain is an obscure place — and one that has inspired some interesting writing — with people grappling to understand the different elements that make up the rather bizarre whole. And so, whilst I am embracing stoicism, marmite, rain, and real ales, I decided it was time for the Great British Reading List.

Tea, Biscuits, and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness (Laurie Penny, Longreads, June 2020)

Laurie Penny has also experienced the differences between North America and Great Britain, after spending six months writing TV shows in Los Angeles. However, her understanding of the two cultures by far transcends my own. In this essay, Penny observes the Great British myth cheerfully portrayed abroad, full of “Queens, detectives, spies, castles, and young wizards,” versus the reality of a little island, “whose power on the world stage is declining, where poverty, inequality, and disaster nationalism are rising.” The imaginary version, although “fascinatingly dishonest,” is a hypnotic one, and people around the world cozy up with a cup of tea to watch the reassuringly gentle Downton Abbey, or “The Great British Worried-People-Making-Cakes-in-a-Tent Show.

Penny carefully picks apart why Brits are happy to let this grand deception continue. From the loss of the Empire to the reality of life in Britain under COVID-19 lockdowns, Brexit, and Boris Johnson, we prefer the fantasy version. Have a read — her take on this phenomenon is jolly good. 

I do try to resist the temptation to make fun of other people who take uncomplicated joy in their thing. The British do this a lot, and it’s one of the least edifying parts of the national character. Fandom is fine. Escapism is allowed. No semi-sensitive soul can be expected to live in the real world at all times. But watching the whitewashed, revisionist history of your own country adopted as someone else’s fantasy of choice is actively uncomfortable. It’s like sitting by while a decrepit relative gibbers some antediluvian nonsense about the good old days and watching in horror as everyone applauds and says how charming.

A Joyless Trudge? No, Thanks: Why I am Utterly Sick of ‘Going for a Walk’ (Monica Heisey, The Guardian, February 2021)

During my first week back in the U.K. I went to the great British seaside. It was beautiful. It was also freezing. Nevertheless, families were picnicking on the beach, sitting in their North Face jackets under huge umbrellas, stoically munching on cheese and pickle sandwiches while the wind beat a dance on their striped windbreakers. We were one of them. And as the wind turned up a notch into gale force, blowing the ice cream off my Mr. Whippy cone, I recalled Monica Heisey’s article for The Guardian detailing a holiday she went on with three Brits. As a Canadian, this was her first experience of a British holiday, and I very much enjoyed her shock at the pragmatism involved in holidaying “in a country where the ground is soggy and the sky grey at least 60% of the year.”

On Heisey’s holiday they “went on long, aimless walks every single day,” from “a half-hour jaunt on a public footpath across a gated, excrement-riddled field” to “an off-piste ramble through the tall, dry grasses surrounding a stately home.” This is completely normal. My family had begun muttering about “lovely coastal walks” months before we left for our seaside break, and sure enough every day we donned knee-high wellies and marched off to check on what those wind levels were up to on more exposed coastal paths. (On a couple of occasions treating ourselves to a cup of tea halfway round the trudge.)

Heisey nails her critique of British culture, and I found myself chuckling more than once reading this article. So take a look, and remember to always just carry on, “the forecast of heavy thunderstorms be damned.”

I am, it seems, comfortably in the minority. After the Great Walking Holiday of 2020, I encountered pro-walking sentiment everywhere. Friends tracked steps with competitive rigor, fighting to be the first to reach 10k a day, or announcing grand Sunday schemes to cross London on foot. Planning a weekend in Herefordshire, I was inundated with recommendations for the county’s excellent walks. In fact, Airbnb reviews in the UK tend to focus on two things: whether or not the property provides an adequate electric kettle, and the quality and abundance of nearby walking routes. Recently, watching The Crown on Netflix, I had the disorienting and novel experience of feeling sympathy for Margaret Thatcher who, in an episode set at Balmoral, is dragged out on the royal family’s favourite pastime, “walking around in terrible weather wearing the thickest socks imaginable”.

Marmalade: A Very British Obsession (Olivia Potts, Longreads, July 2020)

Great Britain is not particularly renowned for splendid cuisine, but there are some classics: the full English breakfast, a roast dinner, a ploughman’s lunch, bangers and mash, a jar of Branston pickle … and marmalade. Full disclosure: I have picked this essay before, for Longreads Best of 2020: Food. However, I still love it, and last week it came to mind when I had the pleasure of going to a shop that was purely dedicated to the wonder of marmalade: Rows upon rows of glinting orange and yellow jars, winking promises of citrus delights at me. Olivia Potts’ piece, all about this condiment of squashed oranges and sugar, is magical — and very British. Only in English does marmalade “connote a citrus-based preserve containing peel,” and Potts takes a deep dive into “why the British love marmalade so much.” The result is a lovely piece full of warmth, humor … and the rather wonderful characters who frequent the World’s Original Marmalade Awards.

I stand back and admire my five-and-a-half jars and… I get it. Of course I do. How could I not? My jelly isn’t quite crystal clear, but it is basketball orange, bright and glowing. I dropped saffron strands into a couple of the jars, stirring last minute, and they hang, suspended in the jelly, perfect threads. It may not be award-winning, but it is the best I have ever made. It really does feel like I’ve potted sunshine, a moment in time.

My Life as a Cleaner in London (Michele Kirsch, The Independent, October 2015)

Great Britain may be the home of quaint villages with marmalade shops, but you are also never too far away from a cosmopolitan city. London is a little world all of its own — encircled by the M25, a road known to crush even the most buoyant of souls with its traffic — it is a heady mix of every culture and nationality. There are nine million people squashed into its bustling streets, or rammed into metal tubes down below: Where underground trains rumble through old Victorian tunnels and people remain ever so careful to mind the gap. Michele Kirsch’s article details an engrossing cross-section of this society. As a cleaner, Kirsch has a key into the lives of everyone from students to jazz singers, and though it might look like cleaning, exploring people’s homes “feels a bit Miss Marple-ish.” Her eloquent writing evokes the chaos, loneliness, sadness, and joy of the people to whom she is “East London’s good wife.”

Kirsch’s musings also brought back memories of my own time living in London, from Shoreditch being the “unofficial home of the high-maintenance beard,” to the darker side — the casual racism that can sadly still prevail in a multicultural country. Kirsch notes it when a friend’s 9-year-old son asks her what she does, and to her response that she cleans houses, “he said, ‘I thought you had to be Eastern European to do that. No offense.’”

So take a read for a glimpse into London life — the unique viewpoint and beautiful prose of this essay are worth spending some time with.

As well as working for long-term clients, I do one-off jobs, often frantic pleas to clean up before a move, or before the tidy person gets home. One was a flat off Brick Lane. This was a biohazard job: matted, badly stained carpets, never-been-cleaned fridge and cooker, loo out of Trainspotting. But the guy himself was ebullient, friends with all the neighbours. He just exuded a joie de vivre and genuinely did not see or care that he had been living in a shithole for years. Facing a big, brown dubious stain on his carpet, I asked, “Is this poo, vomit, or curry?” “Possibly all three,” he said, honestly, gleefully. A life well lived. Messily, but happily.

Fences: A Brexit Diary (Zadie Smith, The New York Review, August 2016)

Sadly, the racism touched upon in Kirsch’s essay came crashing to the fore in 2016. I was living in Canada during Brexit, and, absorbed in the echo chamber of friends and family, I considered the referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union a mere political blip. As Zadie Smith writes in her incredibly astute and of-the-moment piece, Nigel Farage, one of the main forces behind the Leave campaign, “seemed in the grip of a genuine racial obsession, combined with a determination to fence off Britain from the European mainstream.” It didn’t seem possible to me that this was a sentiment that could win the day. I was wrong.

In truth, the reasons behind Brexit are varied, but the process of the vote did peel back a thin veneer to reveal an ugliness beneath. The week before the referendum, Smith’s Jamaican-born mother had someone run up to her in London and shout “Über Alles Deutschland!” The day after the vote, Smith noted “a lady shopping for linens and towels on the Kilburn High Road stood near my mother and the half-dozen other people originally from other places and announced to no one in particular: ‘Well, you’ll all have to go home now!’”

It was not only racial divides that were uncovered: Britain has long been a society dominated by class, with nuanced differences between many invisible, but powerful, lines. From the working class to the neoliberal middle and upper-middle class — reveal where you shop, go to school, or who you socialize with and you can be exposed. In this essay, Smith recognizes both her own middle-class liberal attitude, and the understanding of other viewpoints that this can preclude her from. 

Read this essay and understand that the power of this referendum was to magnify “the worst aspects of an already imperfect system—democracy—channeling a dazzlingly wide variety of issues through a very narrow gate.” 

Wealthy London, whether red or blue, has always been able to pick and choose the nature of its multicultural and cross-class relations, to lecture the rest of the country on its narrow-mindedness while simultaneously fencing off its own discreet advantages. We may walk past “them” very often in the street and get into their cabs and eat their food in their ethnic restaurants, but the truth is that more often than not they are not in our schools, or in our social circles, and they very rarely enter our houses—unless they’ve come to work on our endlessly remodeled kitchens.

Cat and Mouse (Phil Hoad, The Atavist Magazine, February 2021)

Britain is a nation of animal lovers: It was the first country in the world to start a welfare charity for animals, and almost one in two households has a pet — 20 million of them being cats and dogs. In the area I am in at the moment it seems this 20 million quota has been filled just with cockapoo dogs named Barney (yes, we have one too). Fifteen percent of Brits even say they love their pet more than they love their partner (a statistic I am not shocked by after my mother informed me she wished to be buried with the cremated remains of her pet duck).

Therefore, it is also of no surprise that Phil Hoad’s fascinating article delving into the world of two pet detectives searching for a cat murderer is set in Britain. In this country, such things as a memorial service for the cat victims, complete with a harpist and a rendition of “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” are acceptable — people understand the passion of the detectives, Tony Jenkins and Boudicca Rising. Their organization, SNARL, has even been supported by British celebrities, including Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, who wrote in The Sun: “I’m not a cat fan by any means—they give me asthma—and I can’t think of anything worse than spending time in the company of an animal-rights person called Boudicca Rising. The case makes my blood boil because I am a dog fan. And if someone poisoned mine, I’d capture him and force him to live for a year with Boudicca Rising.”

This whodunnit at times made me both sad and angry — after all, I too am a British animal lover — but it is a rollercoaster ride and a beautiful read.

Jenkins worried that, too often, the media furor minimized the impact of the killings on pet owners. “I had one police officer who went, ‘Waste of my time—it’s only a cat.’ I said, ‘Excuse me? It’s only a cat?’” Jenkins told me. “Imagine you get married, and your wife gets a cat. You then have a child, and your child at the age of six has grown up with it, adores it, sleeps with it. And one morning your wife gets up, opens the curtains, and there’s your cat with no head, and no fucking tail, and your daughter’s about to go out and play. And you tell me it’s just a fucking cat.”

The Many Decades of Bond

Sean Connery and Honor Blackman in 'Goldfinger', 1964. (Photo by Express/Getty Images)

By Carolyn Wells 

It had been so long since I had walked down those steps into a poorly lit foyer with low-hanging ceiling tiles, where the scent of buttery popcorn filled the stagnant air, and posters hung limply off the walls. That’s right, I went to my local cinema: I actually saw a film with other people, on a big screen, and wore proper outdoor clothes. After nearly two years of viewings from my sofa, largely in pajamas, this felt unnerving — and exciting. Granted, the seats were still uncomfortable, the chocolate was still overpriced, and a large family walked in late, discussed loudly where to sit, and then chose the seats right in front of me. But there was also surround sound, laughter, and Daniel Craig. 

COVID-19 had kept No Time To Die, the latest James Bond film, out of the cinemas for as long as it had me; it was supposed to be released in April 2020, but when cinemas shut down around the world, 007 (or at least Universal Pictures) refused to stoop so low as a streaming platform. And so we waited. It was worth it, it’s a good film, and improbable car chases across dramatic snowy landscapes do lose something outside of the big screen. (I found myself wondering what brand of winter tire he uses, very grippy.)  

Although I don’t proclaim to be a particularly ardent James Bond fan, watching an aging Daniel Craig strut his stuff did make me start to ponder the incredible longevity of this franchise. We had waited a year and a half for this film, but that’s nothing to a spy who has been in the field since 1952.


James Bond has always been in my subconscious. Growing up in the UK, there were four TV channels, and I remember the films on all of them around Christmas — the broadcasters having decided we deserved a treat at that time of year. First, it was Roger Moore, arching his eyebrow at me, then he gave way to a smooth Pierce Brosnan, who my mum excitedly ordained “rather dishy.” Moore and Brosnan were my Bonds. I had missed the very start, the era of Sean Connery — and so, my curiosity piqued after my cinema trip, I decided to dig deep into my streaming platforms and watch a Sean Connery classic: Goldfinger

It’s from 1964, so I was not expecting the production values to be particularly high, and I was duly rewarded in the first scene when Connery appeared with a bedraggled stuffed seagull on his head as a disguise. We quickly move on to him kissing a woman (sans seagull), when he sees someone with a hammer sneaking up on them reflected in her eye — impressive at such close range — and in an incredibly unchivalrous move, he swings the woman round so that the man whacks her on the head rather than him. And this was all before the opening credits. 

It gets worse. In one scene 007 is getting a massage by the pool, and, just as he creepily asks the masseuse to “go a bit lower,” a guy comes up to speak to him. Connery, I kid you not, tells the masseuse to shove off, it’s “man talk,” and proceeds to slap her bottom as she exits. He then pulls on a hot pants onesie apparently made out of a used towel — a look he deserves at this point. It gets more troubling later when he pushes Pussy Galore into a hay pile and forcibly kisses her as she tries to fight him off. By the time Goldfinger has him tied to a table with a laser beam tracking toward his penis, I’m rooting for the laser beam. 

In contrast, No Time To Die does not even open with Bond, but with a little girl who, when chased by a villain, pulls a gun out and shoots right back. A retired James has also been replaced by a new 007 — a Black woman. While it is impossible to apply today’s values to a film from the early ’60s, I am pretty happy that being dismissed with a quick bum slap is no longer acceptable, and the stark differences between the two films made me again appreciate just how long Bond has been around. When he first pulled out his gun on-screen it was a very different world, and that license to kill still hasn’t expired. How has someone who is a borderline rapist, a murderer, and a potential sociopath endured through all these decades? 

We could consider the fact that all the films share the same enjoyable elements — it’s always fun to hang out in an exotic beach location, drive beautiful mountain roads, and then pop home to share some quips in a British government office. Villains with metal teeth, white cats, or dubious accents have a certain timeless appeal; and submarine cars, magnetic watches, or X-ray sunglasses are always cool. And then there is the music — the iconic theme songs have an attraction all of their own. I particularly remember Madonna’s Die Another Day, due mostly to my younger self crashing my dad’s car while trying to dance along to the bizarre techno part. (Do not dance and drive, however fun the song may be.) There are many other classics: One of the few times in Goldfinger where a woman is actually allowed to shine is Shirley Bassey singing the theme song. It’s magnificent. However, the locations, the gadgets, and even the songs cannot be enough to keep this unwieldy franchise going. 

So let’s look at how it started — with a rather posh English chap called Ian Fleming. He penned the first 007 novel, Casino Royale, in 1952, and proceeded to write another 11 Bond novels and two short story collections. The timeline in these books is rather vague, but Bond’s penchant for cars, drinking, and women remains consistent. It was a successful formula, and Fleming sold 30 million books in his lifetime — although it wasn’t until after his death that Bond entered a whole new medium, with an American film producer named Albert “Cubby” Broccoli first bringing the character to screen in 1962, under his production company Eon Productions. Unbelievably, Bond never left the tight grip of the Broccoli clan: 58 years after Bond’s first outing the producers of No Time To Die are Albert’s daughter Barbara Broccoli and stepson, Michael G. Wilson. Albert having handed the Aston Martin keys over to them back in 1995. This is a family dynasty that likes control — No Time to Die was originally supposed to be directed by Danny Boyle, who brought along his regular writer, John Hodge. This didn’t work out so well. Hodge’s script was rejected, and Boyle quit, stating “The producers wanted to go in a different direction.” The Broccolis weren’t happy, there was no way he could stay.

I think it is this iron control that is the key to Bond’s success. The Broccolis know what they are doing — after all, the family has been doing it for nearly 60 years. They have been the ones to choose the lead, the director, the locations, and now they have finished Ian Fleming’s material, the stories. A 2015 New York Times interview revealed that the creative process begins with Barbara and Michael trying to decide on a premise and a villain that can embody some topical issue or prevalent fear. This is critical: Their Bond films change to reflect the world they are going to be viewed in. It was a strategy first started by Albert Broccoli: When Star Wars turned space into a trend, 007 also reached for the stars in 1979’s Moonraker. And as Dr. Jaap Verheul, editor of The Cultural Life of James Bond, has said, “Each time a new actor becomes Bond, the series takes the opportunity to recalibrate itself to the ideology of the audience it’s trying to talk to.”

Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli did just that after brutally dismissing my mum’s crush, Pierce Brosnan. In 1997, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery rather wonderfully satirized the movies, making things groovier, but much harder for Brosnan’s rather tongue-in-cheek style to continue working. Then 9/11 happened, and the Broccolis felt the world needed a rougher, darker, Bond: A thug with hidden complexities. Brosnan had to go. They wanted Daniel Craig. With this reinvention, some of the more unpalatable elements of Bond were also tackled — for example, in Casino Royale, Bond’s drinking is portrayed for the first time as a coping mechanism for his internalized guilt. 

During this dive into the world of 007, I discovered that one of my favorite writers, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the star of Fleabag, had worked on the script of No Time to Die. She has said of Craig’s portrayal of Bond that he “let us in a bit, which makes the moments he shuts us out even more arresting … Overall he grounded a fantasy character in real emotion, which is what I think we hadn’t realized we’d missed amongst the action and the bravado. So basically, with Daniel Craig, Bond isn’t all about the arse-slapping. In fact, this Bond actually falls in love, actually cries. What I didn’t realize at first, as I sat in the cinema somewhat confused having missed the preceding film, Spectre, is that the Craig films also follow on from each other in a series — so for the first time Bond even ages as well.  But even as James Bond gets older, he is still never diluted — the Broccolis don’t allow any spin-off shows where M is venturing out to run a start-up spy business. It’s always all about 007.

These producers are smart. They know how to handle their baby. No Time To Die is Craig’s last film as 007, and the rumor mill of who will be next has started, with some speculation that it could even be a woman next time round. I don’t think it will be. The Broccolis have a good thing going. Bond is invariably going to be a white guy — there was enough backlash when he went blonde — but they will make sure to always keep shifting him just enough to make sure he is palatable to the audience, whatever decade we are in. And with the next generation of Broccolis already in the business, I suspect there will be many more. 


Further Reading

During my research for this post, I came across three particular long-form articles that I enjoyed — so if you feel you would like to dwell a little longer in 007’s company, keep on reading. 

What the Future of Bond Movies Could Look Like (Al Horner, BBC, September 2021)

“The world has moved on, Commander Bond. So stay in your lane. Or I will put a bullet in your knee.” — Nomi, No Time To Die.

This article is a fascinating look into how Bond has changed over the eras.

Heart of An Assassin: How Daniel Craig Changed James Bond Forever (Sam Knight, GQ, March 2020)

A thoughtful insight into the franchise through the eyes of Daniel Craig. 

The Broken Pop of James Bond Songs (Adrian Daub & Charles Kronengold, Longreads, October 2015)

A look at the messy and glorious world of the Bond Pop song. 


The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

(Photo of Kurt Cobain by Michel Linssen/Redferns via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Michael Azerrad, Matthew Shen Goodman, Lisa Wells, Daniel Wells, and Mary Kay McBrayer.

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1. My Time with Kurt Cobain 

Michael Azerrad | The New Yorker| September 22, 2021| (7,102 words)

Music journalist Michael Azerrad’s piece about his friendship with Kurt Cobain is honest and lucid. Azerrad recounts a number of moments with the late Nirvana singer, starting with the first time they met in 1992, when he visits the small Los Angeles apartment Cobain shared with Courtney Love to interview him for Rolling Stone. As a journalist, Azerrad gains Cobain’s trust, and eventually goes on to write a book about the band, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, which was published in September 1993, the same month their third and final album, In Utero, was released. Azerrad remembers encounters over the next few years — an epic show at the Reading Festival, a business dinner with executives (“the grownups,” as Cobain referred to them), tense moments between band members while on tour, flashes of Cobain’s heroin addiction. My favorite bits, though, are Azerrad’s quiet, beautiful descriptions of Cobain away from the spotlight: the intimate hours the two spent in a Seattle hotel room as Cobain read Azerrad’s manuscript, and the time they wandered around an eerily empty downtown Dallas with daughter Frances, who was just 15 months old at the time. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

2. It’s Triller Night, Marv!

Matthew Shen Goodman | n+1| September 18, 2021 | (4,386 words)

Look, just because I had zero interest in watching a card of fights between retired ex-champions on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 while Donald Trump and his namesake son commentated doesn’t mean I have zero interest in reading a gimlet-eyed, absolutely bonkers polemic about it. And that’s exactly what Matthew Shen Goodman delivers in his slightly drunken, extremely lurid critical essay, which also marks his first inclusion as a Longreads Pick. The horrors on display are many, whether Snoop Dogg “performing” with the late Marvin Gaye (the essay’s headline details Snoop’s literal answer to Marvin’s titular question during a rendition of “What’s Goin’ On”) or onetime mixed martial-arts great Tito Ortiz’s plodding defeat to other onetime MMA great Anderson Silva (“veterans of one sport playing at another, their takedowns and elbows and kicks and joint breaks pared down to only punches, four-ounce semi-articulated gloves replaced with the bulbous curve of twelve-ounce boxing mitts”). The piece is half exhausted sigh, half feverish deconstruction, and entirely memorable. Punching down may be easier than the alternative, but sometimes it’s just what you need. —Peter Rubin

3. To Be a Field of Poppies

Lisa Wells | Harper’s Magazine | September 20, 2021 | (6,064 words)

This is a story about a company that is pioneering natural organic reduction (NOR), or the composting of dead bodies. Readers get all the dirt—sorry, sorry—on the science and business behind the venture, but writer Lisa Wells offers so much more than that. Her piece is a meditation on intention and guilt; grief and fear; life and loss. Perhaps above all, it is about our species’ fraught relationship with the natural world. I will be thinking about it for a long time. —Seyward Darby

4. The Secrets of The World’s Greatest Freediver

Daniel Riley| GQ | September 21, 2021 | (7,369 words)

Daniel Riley clearly relished reporting on the freediving competition Vertical Blue — a chance to be around 42 divers who feel they are doing something “sublime.” This event at Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas is a mecca for all serious divers, but Riley focuses on Alexey Molchanov, who, as the world’s best freediver, is tremendously skilled at staying present in a dive, with nothing “beyond the body, the breathing, the intense focus of the next meter,” until he reaches a depth where there is no light, no sound, just sensory oblivion. Riley pulls you into the water with Molchanov, to such a degree that I went from feeling the serenity of the stillness to intense claustrophobia, as we go down and down — a rather impressive gamut of emotions to feel while in fact sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea. Riley’s respect for Molchanov is evident throughout the piece — he is, after all, a man who has dedicated his life to a sport that killed his mother, and has the potential to kill him too. —Carolyn Wells

5. Dollhouse of Horrors

Mary Kay McBrayer | Oxford American | August 31, 2021 | (4,784 words)

Come for an introduction to the uncanny work of miniature construction and collecting, stay for a rumination about what it means to cope with chaos and cruelty. “I cannot control any of the horrors that happen at me,” Mary Kay McBrayer writes. “But in my dollhouse, I own everything. I make the horrors happen. I am the one.” This is a piece for fans of Hereditary and Shirley Jackson, and for anyone struggling to make sense of our world gone mad. —SD

A Tall Tree Reading List

Image by Carolyn Wells

“I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK/ I sleep all night and I work all day.” This is what was playing in my head, in an incessant loop, as I worked on this reading list. It’s a song from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a British comedy show, and includes the line: “Leaping from tree to tree/ As they float down the mighty rivers of British Columbia.” This is accurate. British Columbia is where I now live, and I have seen for myself the vast swathes of felled logs clogging up rivers around the province — just without the leaping lumberjack (aka Michael Palin).  Logging is a huge industry here, a business that comes with its share of controversy — which in turn has inspired some thought-provoking writing.

And it isn’t just logging that writers have chosen as a subject matter — the beauty of trees, their communication, their struggles, and their many mysteries have all been tackled. It’s not hard to see the inspiration. On many a hike, I have stood in awe before a towering tree, tried to wrap my arms around a huge trunk to no avail, or breathed in the heady scents of the distinct species as they drift across a trail. Trees are magnificent, and so it came as no surprise that some of the words written about them are as well.

1) The Wolf Tree and the World Wide Web (Suzanne Simard, Wired, May 2021)

This essay from Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard is a wonderful way to start our journey into the woods. Simard conjures a forest scene for us with great reference, almost affection. Here she is in among some Canadian trees, researching the fascinating connections that link a forest together. Fungus plays a huge role for Team Tree, linking old trees and young seedlings by delivering nutrients and messages between them. She beautifully describes this underground network: “This courageous root was as vulnerable as a growing bone, and it survived by emitting biochemical signals to the fungal network hidden in the earth’s mineral grains, its long threads joined to the talons of the giant trees.” This interconnected, familial system leads Simard to ponder on her own family — her children, and a failing marriage.

The roots of these little seedlings had been laid down well before I’d plucked them from their foundation. The old trees, rich in living, had shipped the germinants waterborne parcels of carbon and nitrogen, subsidizing the emerging radicals and cotyledons—primordial leaves—with energy and nitrogen and water. The cost of supplying the germinants was imperceptible to the elders because of their wealth—they had plenty. The trees spoke of patience, of the slow but continuous way old and young share and endure and keep on. Just as the steadiness of my girls steadied me, and I told myself I was strong enough to endure this season of separation. Besides, I’d have a sabbatical in a year, and I could make their lunches again, drumsticks and sliced cucumber and oranges cut into smiles, and I could show them how to build go-carts and plant flowers, and Nava and I could read together more, alternating turns through pages of Mercy Watson to the Rescue. But until that magical year, I’d spirit across the mountains each weekend to reabsorb their lives, my motherhood like time-lapse photography.

2) Do Trees Talk to Each Other? (Richard Grant, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2018)

Others have also been inspired by the intimacy of forest networks, and in this article for Smithsonian, Richard Grant takes a walk into the woods with Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, and author, who has developed a unique way of talking about trees — one that has earned him some scorn among the scientific community. Wohleben takes anthropomorphism to a new level, discussing mother trees who “feed their saplings … and warn the neighbors of danger,” compared to fickle young trees who take “foolhardy risks with leaf-shedding, light chasing, and excessive drinking.”

While trees may not have “will or intention,” it can still be argued that they are more social and sophisticated than people once thought. This is what Wohleben wants his audience to realize, and it seems his imaginative descriptions deliberately slip into the world of fairytales. People love a story, and this wordsmith uses his narrative skill to engage people with the forests he adores. In the slow-moving world of trees, adding a little drama to the “Crown princes” who “wait for the old monarchs to fall” is a clever tactic, and Wohleben does not seem too phased by the criticism: “they call me a ‘tree-hugger,’ which is not true. I don’t believe that trees respond to hugs.” A dive into Wohlleben’s world certainly isn’t boring — his language, after all, is rather delightful.

Trees can detect scents through their leaves, which, for Wohlleben, qualifies as a sense of smell. They also have a sense of taste. When elms and pines come under attack by leaf-eating caterpillars, for example, they detect the caterpillar saliva, and release pheromones that attract parasitic wasps. The wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillars, and the wasp larvae eat the caterpillars from the inside out. “Very unpleasant for the caterpillars,” says Wohlleben. “Very clever of the trees.”

A recent study from Leipzig University and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research shows that trees know the taste of deer saliva. “When a deer is biting a branch, the tree brings defending chemicals to make the leaves taste bad,” he says. “When a human breaks the branch with his hands, the tree knows the difference, and brings in substances to heal the wound.”

Our boots crunch on through the glittering snow. From time to time, I think of objections to Wohlleben’s anthropomorphic metaphors, but more often I sense my ignorance and blindness falling away. I had never really looked at trees before, or thought about life from their perspective. I had taken trees for granted, in a way that would never be possible again.

3) Illuminating Kirinyaga (Tristan McConnell, Emergence Magazine, October 2020)

In this essay for Emergence Magazine, we go on another forest walk, this time alongside Tristan McConnell, who is documenting a “stubbly, hollow-cheeked sixty-four-year-old” named Joseph Mbaya. Walking in the mountain forests that surround Mount Kenya, Mbaya finds a portal to a “slower and more meaningful world,” and also treatments for ear infections and “pungent wind.” His knowledge of herbal cures makes walking the forest tracks with Mbaya, “like walking the aisles of CVS with a taciturn pharmacist.”

It is lovely to share an insight into the mystical remedies a forest can offer, but this essay quickly takes a darker turn, detailing how these magical forests are shrinking. Fire-clearing for farming, timber plantations, and climate change are all taking their toll — but so is simply the poverty of this region. For many here, “conservation is an unaffordable luxury” — with the forest offering a resource they need to exploit, rather than protect, in order to survive.

DEEP INSIDE THE fractured forests that still ring the mountain, a hallowed sense of wonder persists. One morning, soon after the sun burns mist from the mountainsides and clouds shroud the peaks, I visit part of the mountain’s few remaining areas of old-growth woodland with a pair of young Kenyan foresters from the Mount Kenya Trust. Marania Forest, on the mountain’s northern fringe, is a revelation: thickly towering trunks of eight-hundred-year-old rosewood reach overhead, the trees’ crowns held up to the light of the canopy, pencil-straight cedar and craggy-barked olive are draped with lichen, and moss carpets the earth, muffling sound to a church-like silence. It is dark, crowded, and otherworldly—the ground soft underfoot, the trunks damp to the touch, the trees centuries old, the sunlight breaking through in narrow shafts. At our feet, fallen trunks breach the understory like shipwrecks, gradually decaying and returning to the soil—to its subterranean fungal networks and the spreading roots of neighboring trees—as food for the rest of the forest. We all smile, the foresters and I. It is a routine venture out for them, and my first to these old forests, and yet our reactions are the same: joy and reverential wonder. We instinctively drop our voices to a whisper. We walk and talk, feet sinking into the damp, spongey soil as the foresters teach me about the trees.

4) Inside the Pacheedaht Nation’s Stand on Fairy Creek Logging Blockades (Sarah Cox, The Narwhal, July 2021)

The forests around Mount Kenya are not unique — forest exploitation is a controversial issue around the world. Within my own community in British Columbia, the debate has recently been focused around the logging of old-growth trees in an area called Fairy Creek. For many months now, protesters have been blocking access to the logging cut block — and more than 300 people have been arrested, making it one of the largest civil disobedience actions in recent Canadian history.

A few pieces have been written about Fairy Creek, but I was particularly struck by the insight Sarah Cox provided in her article for The Narwhal. Cox not only looks at the perspective of the protestors and the police, but at the viewpoint of the people on whose territory Fairy Creek lies — the Pacheedaht First Nation. It’s complicated. The Pacheedaht co-manages the annual cut on its territory, and forestry has helped them to provide revenue and jobs — even allowing them to buy back some of their ancestral lands. The Pacheedaht First Nation’s elected leadership has asked the protestors to leave, but an elder, Bill Jones, has welcomed the protestors and garnered extensive media coverage. Cox deftly peels back the layers to look at the tensions within a community that has often been overlooked in this debate.

We scramble onto the boggy shore of an island where four Pacheedaht members in hip waders are planting sedges and grasses to repair damage to fish habitat caused by decades of industrial logging — logging in which the nation played no part and from which it received no benefit. An eagle lets out a high-pitched whistle. Our boots squelch in the mud. Then, slicing through the stillness, comes the throaty chuckachuka-chuckachuka of a RCMP helicopter.

For the Chief, “everything that’s been happening,” refers to the blockades taking place in and around the Fairy Creek watershed on Pacheedaht territory and in the neighbouring territory of the Ditidaht First Nation. From the estuary, we can almost see the green spirals of the Fairy Creek valley, only a few kilometres distant, that has become the epicentre of a flourishing movement to save the last of B.C.’s unprotected old-growth forests. At this very moment, RCMP are arresting protesters wedged into tall tripods hammered together with discarded logs or lying under tarps with their arms chained inside “sleeping dragons” — metal tubes dug into the ground. When the RCMP leave each day, more protesters (or land defenders, tree protectors, tree-huggers or intruders, depending on whom you talk to) drive their cars, camper vans, trucks and SUVs up the inclines of logging roads that provide access to planned logging in the Fairy Creek watershed.

5) When The Toughest Trees Met the Hottest Fires (David Ferris, Greenwire, August 2021)

The past few months have brought home to me that logging is not the only threat to our forests — climate change is increasing the impact of fires year on year. This summer the area where I live reached an unprecedented 46 degrees, a whole town burned to the ground, and I witnessed for myself flames licking up a forested mountain, gleefully jumping from tree to tree with ease.

Old-growth forest is more fire-resistant — and in fact, this is one of the arguments for saving old growth from the saws — but as David Ferris points out in his poignant essay for Greenwire, even the very oldest are now being wrecked by blazes. Ferris tells the story of last August, when the CZU Lightning Complex Fire “climbed the ladder of lesser trees and into the crowns of the giants,” ruining redwoods that had formed “an unbroken living line from today’s Silicon Valley to the times of the Bible.” Ferris peppers his stories with these jaw-dropping facts — the trees in question are up to 2,500 years old, 350 feet tall, and have six chromosomes compared to a mere two in us humans — they are simply incredible. He also paints a vivid picture of their home, a “cloud forest, dripping and primeval,” steeped in time. In contrast, the story of the fire is tense and fast, the drama played out through the eyes of Cal Fire’s Dan Bonfante, who almost lost his life.

As the forest burns every year, the humans who live near the redwoods will experience heat waves, and evacuations, and blackouts, and droughts, and mudslides, and smoke hanging in the air. Creatures that don’t measure their lives in millennia could find their life spans nastier and shorter.

The shaggy, patient trees that form an unbroken living line from today’s Silicon Valley to the times of the Bible are in ruins. The sprouts bursting from their trunks suggest that the shaded cathedrals could return, though the healing may take so long that no one now alive will see them. Today’s adults will take their children to Big Basin, and to landscapes across the West where once-verdant forests have been withered by fire. They will point and talk, not of the desolation that is, but of the Eden that used to be — and could be again, one distant day.

“In my lifetime, yeah, it’s not going to look like it used to look,” said Kerbavaz with a shrug. “But in the next lifetime, probably.”

Bringing Species Back … From the Brink


I don’t often get to use the term gobsmacked, but that is how I was rendered when I saw the film Jurassic Park. I remember the 1993 cinema trip vividly: clutching my popcorn, wide-eyed, as the first dinosaur, a brachiosaurus, ambled across the screen. Walking out with my parents, I jabbered with excitement: “Could we really make dinosaurs real again, Dad? Could we? Could we?”

These memories came flooding back as I read Natasha Bernal’s piece in Wired UK, exploring the world of biobanking animal cells. Bernal answers the question of whether extinct animals could be brought back with a tentative yes — science has long proved that “frozen cells from extinct animals could potentially be used to revive species” — but that is not what biobanking is about. The intention is to increase the diversity of living species, cloning to prevent further loss, rather than to bring back what is already gone. As a species dwindles, so does its genetic pool, and frozen cells from extinct animals could potentially be used to help prevent extreme inbreeding. 

Bernal’s case study is Tullis Mason, a chap who sports “three-quarter length shorts” even in a lab coat. Matson runs an artificial insemination company for racehorses from his family’s farm in Shropshire, England. However, on the side, he is also planning to save the animal kingdom by building the biggest biobank of animal cells in Europe. It’s not always a dignified business, with Bernal describing Mason hooking an elephant penis into a device that looks like “a huge condom,” but the science and the ethics her article explores are fascinating. We may not be about to bring dinosaurs back to life, but with help from biobanking, life already on this planet might still find a way.

This is why, back at Matson’s farm, there is a tiny, black, felt-like ear and two bat testicles the size of olive pits on a lab bench. The Seba’s short-tailed bats at Chester Zoo are usually housed in the Fruit Bat Forest, where visitors can feed them as part of a £56 “experience”. Though not currently listed as endangered, with global biodiversity at a tipping point, it’s likely that no species is entirely safe. This bat died of natural causes, but its genetic material will live on.

The first thing that Lucy Morgan, a scientific advisor at Nature’s SAFE, does is shave the ear. “Ears grow to a certain extent throughout our lifetime, so they’re a cell type that’s already wanting to grow and regenerate itself,” she says. “So when choosing a sample that you’re trying to pick to culture in the future, it’s a good one.”

She puts the ear to soak in chlorhexidine to clean it from bacteria and switches on a timer. After two minutes, she transfers it to a petri dish, and starts cutting it into small pieces the size of chocolate chips. Using tweezers, she puts them in cryovials filled with cryopreservant. The tiny testicles will be preserved whole. They couldn’t get any semen out of them – a common problem for animals that are too small to preserve in the traditional manner.

Safely pipetted into a cryovial or straw, an animal’s tissue, semen or ova are deposited into the cryogenic tank, ready to be unfrozen when they may be needed for repopulation programmes in zoos or, if feasible, the wild. In the case of some creatures, whose anatomical challenges do not currently permit artificial insemination using sperm or ova, the samples may stay there for decades. For now, all of Nature’s SAFE’s samples are in one location, but the charity aims to build a backup so that tissue can be split into different places and safeguarded for the future.

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Sniffing Out Love

Courtesy of Pexels

This piece by Sarah Everts will make you pause before you next shake hands (whenever this becomes the social norm again). Writing for The Walrus, Everts discusses the importance of smell — and quotes an experiment by Idan Frumin showing that a few seconds after a handshake “subjects would inevitably sniff their own hands to gain some odorous information about the new person.”

Often dismissed as the bottom of the pack when it comes to our senses — the one you would choose to do without — humans, in fact, have an excellent sense of smell, and are subconsciously using it all the time to collect information and recognize loved ones. Evert cleverly intertwines this fascinating science with taking part in a social experiment — a smell-dating event in Russia. The general concept of this event is for people to work up a sweat, wipe said sweat on a cotton pad, and put it in a jar. You then sniff anonymous BO jars and pick your favorite. For Evert, the jars ranged from “the odor of a hormonal teenager in the full throes of puberty—plus exercise,” to the holy grail — jar number fifteen — which smelt of “sex epitomized.” This article is both interesting and humorous … and you’ll come away much more aware of what you are sniffing. 

Sniffing the odours of our loved ones—whether consciously or unconsciously—continues throughout our lives. Siblings and married couples are able to correctly identify the smell of people with whom they cohabitate. Even adult siblings who haven’t seen (or smelled) each other for more than two years can still correctly recognize their brother’s or sister’s unique odour print, the signature mixture of chemicals floating off their bodies.

The importance of odour for social cohesion is perhaps best exemplified by the challenges of those who cannot smell. People with anosmia—the inability to smell—often face relationship challenges: men without a sense of smell have fewer sexual partners while nonsmelling women are insecure in their relationships. Both are more prone to getting depressed. Meanwhile, some research suggests that empathetic people are more likely to remember the odour of another person.

Our sniffing abilities and their role in establishing and maintaining social structures can be surprising to some, likely because the human sense of smell has long been belittled by scholars: the father of transcendental idealism, Immanuel Kant, thought life would be better if we all just held our noses so that they were shut off from the outside world. “Which organic sense is the most ungrateful and also seems the most dispensable? The sense of smell. It does not pay to cultivate it or refine it . . . for there are more disgusting objects than pleasant ones (especially in crowded places), and even when we come across something fragrant, the pleasure coming from the sense of smell is fleeting and transient.”

Throughout history, many thinkers have argued that vision is a much more civilized way of experiencing the world; using our noses seemed animalistic, vulgar, backward. If humans sniffed one another as dogs do, how could we consider ourselves above them? How could we consider ourselves enlightened?Instead of swiping, the strategy is wiping: namely, one’s perspiration onto a cotton pad. Instead of swiping, the strategy is wiping: namely, one’s perspiration onto a cotton pad.

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A Bike Race, Family, and Loss

Photo by Jan De Meuleneir/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

In this beautiful and emotional piece for Outside, Ian Dille manages to narrate the drama of the 2020 Tour de France, while also detailing the death of his father. The 2020 Tour was the last the pair watched together, after years of bonding through their love of the race. Dille deftly weaves the legs of the race with anecdotes about the ailing parent watching alongside him, demonstrating his love and appreciation for the man who gave him the freedom to pursue his own passion for biking as a career. When Dille is left to watch the final stages of the Tour without his father his devastation is palpable. This piece is expertly done, showing the shared interest that brought a whole family together, and the importance of taking time just to be together, even if it is while also watching a six-hour Tour stage.

Life’s metaphors, its various struggles and successes, seem to play out in a more dramatic fashion in a bike race. At least they did for me and my dad. Riders conquer mountains and succumb to crashes on the way back down. They surge ahead of the group with a violent effort called an attack, form temporary allegiances to share the draft and break the wind, and then try to dispatch each other in the closing kilometers. A rider will lead the race alone for a hundred-some-odd kilometers and then get gobbled up by the charging peloton just meters from the finish.

For my dad and me, watching the Tour became akin to an annual fishing trip or a multi-day hike. Growing up, I spent countless hours pedaling behind him on a shiny aluminum tandem, exploring rural North Texas roads, where we lived in the nineties, and tackling the rocky singletrack overlooking Lake Grapevine. When my dad moved to D.C. in the 2000s, he lost his tight-knit group of bike-club friends, and also his impetus to ride. I was too strong, or too cool, to get out with him then. We didn’t bond on our bikes anymore, but watching the Tour, we came to know each other as adults. 

My dad gave me his hearty laugh and his boyish eyes, but he could also be stoic, gruff, and comically reserved with his emotions. He’d ask how my car was running, and I understood that he loved me. Watching the Tour together, I cherished that, though my dad had never competed, he understood the sport, and through it, he seemed to understand me. Despite its impracticality, he supported my decision to pursue bike racing professionally. He was good at asking questions, and he didn’t fully fall for Lance’s fairy tale. Over the years, we watched heroic performances with a healthy amount of skepticism but also shared an appreciation for underdogs. An unlikely hero would emerge, and we’d root for him to beat the odds.

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Nelly the Elephant Packed Her Trunk … and Went on the Run

Photo by Vyacheslav ProkofyevTASS via Getty Images

Yvonne and George Kludsky grew up as part of circus royalty – fourth- and sixth-generation circus performers respectively. In the big top heyday of the ’50s and ’60s, circus animals were viewed as exciting and glamorous. Things are now very different. Reduced to one elephant named Dumba, keeping her has meant that animal rights activists have been “making the family’s life hell.” So much so that in September 2020 they packed up Dumba, and disappeared. 

In this article for The Guardian, Laura Spinney follows the Kludskys to Spain, where they ended up with their elephant. Spinney shows compassion for both the Kludskys, as they navigate a world where they are no longer welcome, and for Dumba, who has spent most of her life living in a pen the size of two tennis courts. Spinney finds no easy answers as she delves into the complicated issue of whether an animal the Kludskys consider “a daughter” needs, in fact, to be rescued.

While Arnal considers people who make their living from performing animals unfit to look after them, William Kerwich, president of the French union representing animal trainers, insists no one is better qualified to care for an animal than the trainer who has known it all its life. He is deeply suspicious of the do-gooders who set up animal retirement homes paid for by donations from a public who, he suggests, have been duped into thinking that all circus folk are animal torturers. “If there were to be a ban – and we’re not there yet – it is out of the question that our animals should go to a sanctuary where there is no one competent to look after them,” he said. The union, Kerwich told me, was standing squarely behind Yvonne Kruse.

What ageing elephants need, says Scott Blais, is space, autonomy and the company of other elephants. Blais, who set up a sanctuary in Tennessee in 1995 and another in Brazil in 2016, keeps elephants in a setting as close as possible to conditions in the wild, and says previous owners who have returned to visit their old elephants often marvel at their transformation. It was at the Tennessee sanctuary that workers witnessed the extraordinary reunion of two former circus elephants, Shirley and Jenny, in 1999. The two had spent one season together at a circus when Jenny was a calf. After a separation of more than 20 years, they recognised each other and bent the steel bars of an elephant fence in their eagerness to get close to each other. They became inseparable, and for seven years, until Jenny died in 2006, their relationship was like that of mother and daughter.

Elephants have shown they can retain a bond with humans, too. Joyce Poole recalled her reunion with a wild African elephant after 12 years. When she called out to him, he recognised her voice, walked up to her car window, and “allowed her to touch him”, she said. Elephants also kill humans, in captivity and in their ever-shrinking natural habitat, but these numbers are tiny compared to the numbers of elephants killed by humans each year.

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Zoom Towns — Where Tourists Never Leave

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For many, the pandemic has meant barely shuffling from the kitchen to the sofa — but for some people, it’s been an opportunity to move their sofa to a completely different town. With many jobs shifting online, working from home via Zoom has meant no longer being tied to a particular place, so now, as Rachel Levin explains in her article for Outside, “you can work for Pinterest and ski powder.” This chance to “live the dream” in a mountain town has come with a downside — a culture clash. Those looking to move generally have cash — and are drawn to tourist towns occupied by locals making their money in hospitality. It’s a shift that has happened around the world, but in this interesting piece, Levin explores the situation in Lake Tahoe, which has seen a particularly big influx of new residents due to its proximity to the tech industry of San Francisco. So what happens when those who have money and those who don’t live side by side? Levin explores that question with a level head — looking at both sides of the picture.

Nina, a director at a Silicon Valley–based AI company who asked that only her first name be used, moved to the area in October, when she bought her first home just five minutes from Heavenly Ski Resort. She and her husband, newly married thirtysomethings, say they may not be experts at mountain life, but they’re eager to learn. (YouTube has been helpful, she says—it’s where they learned how to rake pine needles.) When she’s not working, Nina is snowboarding with women she met on local Facebook groups. She’s in heaven.

But like other newcomers, she and her husband have sensed a little resentment. She recalls the time a check-out woman at a grocery store in Stateline, Nevada, gave her and her husband one look and said, “Oh, you’re not going to last a winter.” She admits to skirting around the fact that they moved during the pandemic in casual conversations with locals. “I’ll say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not the bad tech people,’” she says. Another source told me, “There’s a lot of negative feelings about people like us.” Most Bay Area transplants I spoke with similarly requested anonymity, and many more declined to be interviewed. (So did many longtime locals. “Sorry, it’s a touchy subject,” one told me.) The newcomers just want to quietly slip in and fit in. 

Not everyone has that option, though. If you’re not white, like 82 percent of people in Truckee, you stand out, says Grace (not her real name), who is Korean-American and moved into her longtime second home last spring before the boom. Being Asian American “is like a big ‘Bay Area’ sign pointing at my head,” she says. She was disgusted by the “Kung flu” comments and other casually racist quips she saw on Facebook and deeply disturbed by the time she was fake sneezed on at the Safeway. She and her family moved back to San Francisco full-time by the fall: “I needed to be with my people,” she says.

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The Lies Told to Speak to a Princess

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It was 26 years ago, but I vividly remember the night Princess Diana gave an interview to BBC journalist Martin Bashir. I was allowed to stay up late to watch it — after my parents deemed it a “historical moment.” So I, along with 23 million other Brits (probably not all in paw print pajamas), watched, aghast, as a wide-eyed Princess Diana gave her first-hand account of the soap opera that had been played out in the British tabloid press — the breakdown of her marriage. 

As a child, I never considered how Martin Bashir managed to obtain an interview with arguably the most famous woman in the world. Now the truth has come out, and it’s ugly. This article by John Ware candidly documents how Bashir gained access to Princess Diana through deception and false documents. It’s a disturbing story, and this particular account of it is written by a journalist with direct insight, with Ware also having worked at BBC Panorama — the program that aired the 1995 interview. Published by the BBC themselves, whether as an act of contrition or an attempt at redemption, the piece explores their failings —  ones that led to a “ticking time bomb about public trust” that has “now detonated.”

Asked by Gardam why he had compiled the graphics in the first place, Bashir said it was simply to record and file the information – an implausible reason for getting a graphic designer to work all night, paying him £250 of licence fee payers’ money and getting the documents couriered to Heathrow, when jotting down the details in his notebook would have sufficed.

Nonetheless, however improbable this may seem today, Diana’s letter appears to have reassured management. “All could now relax for Christmas,” said Suter at the time. “We had had a scare, but we had got through it.” But for Earl Spencer, the letter doesn’t exonerate the BBC. “Diana is dealing from a position of having been lied to. She didn’t know that the whole obtaining of the interview was based on a series of falsehoods that led to her being vulnerable to this,” he told me.

However, if management thought that was the end of it, they were mistaken. On 21 March, the Mail on Sunday told Spencer they were investigating how Martin Bashir had been introduced to his sister and secured his scoop interview. In order to convince Spencer of his credentials, the newspaper alleged that Bashir had shown him bogus security service documents about bugging phones at Kensington Palace. Clearly the Mail were on to something, but were wrong about the content of the documents.

Distrustful of the tabloid press, Spencer called the BBC to find out more. Spencer was put on to Hewlett and told him he had introduced Bashir to Diana “on 19 September on the back of extremely serious allegations he had made, against various newspapers, named journalists, named senior figures at St James’s Palace, and unnamed figures in the secret service.”

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