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Which Way to Westeros?

Artist Jaro Hess created a fantasy map to encorporate all the fairy tales of one's youth. (Photo by Pierce Archive LLC/Buyenlarge via Getty Images)

As fall crept up and sofas beckoned, two streaming giants went head-to-head with fantasy offerings: Amazon Prime with the laboriously titled The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, a prequel to (you guessed it) The Lord of the Rings; and HBO with House of the Dragon, a prequel to Game of Thrones. Similar as these offerings may initially seem, they are at different ends of the fantasy spectrum. Where Rings of Power is high-end — think elven Kings and noble quests across vast lands — House of the Dragon, with its street brawls and brothels, is more a pint of lager than fine wine. Delighted to delve into any fantasy world, I was happy to bounce between the two. Both eschew streaming’s all-at-once cadence for weekly episodes, leaving me plenty of time in between to do some light background reading on Middle Earth and Westeros. That reading led me back to Adrian Daub’s 2017 Longreads essay “Here at the End of All Things.” 

In his piece Daub focuses on the role of maps in building fantasy lands (particularly the two lands that birthed these series, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and George R.R. Martin’s Westeros), and recounts with pride how much he relished such maps as a child. I remember the same thing: poring over deliciously unfamiliar names, elaborately penned on an inky map under a book cover, constantly looking back as quests reached new lands. For a reader, a map brings a new world to life; for a writer, it can help them craft it in the first place. Tolkien was one of the first to use such maps, and Daub details how crucial this was to the writer’s storytelling: “Through map design, Tolkien could telegraph some of the complicated culture he had dreamed up for Middle Earth: the maps for The Hobbit were full of Runic inscriptions and historical notes, to the point that several scholarly books have devoted chapters to a detailed reading of these maps alone.” 

Even as those worlds leapt from the page to the screen, their cartography remained crucial. The Rings of Power uses maps between scenes to track location in the huge world portrayed, which this time reaches far beyond Middle Earth. Daub explains that Tolkien based Middle Earth on medieval Europe, with the land beyond deemed something more “exotic.” Westeros, too, has been compared to Europe, despite its American creator, and Daub reminds me of Game of Thrones’s glorious opening credit swoop over its inverted-UK terrain. Sadly, in House of the Dragon, the map has been replaced by what seems to be some very viscous blood seeping over stone. (With less travel in this series, it’s not as crucial for story-building.) 

Revisiting this essay was a treat, filled as it is with both nostalgia and fascinating information. Daub refers to himself as a “geek,” but I will dub him an expert. We are roughly at the halfway point of both House of the Dragon and Rings of Power; read this lovely essay before the second act, and remind yourself of how such elaborate fantasy worlds come into existence.

For every moment when we take in glumly how far our heroes still have to travel, there are ten moments of the opposite: of luxuriating in how much world is yet out there for our heroes to traverse, a burning desire to see the lines and shadings filled in with people and story. This, too, is part of Tolkien’s maps. Between the world wars, the British Isles were seized by a hiking craze. Maps, organized tours, and walking guides proliferated during the years Tolkien began charting Bilbo’s great hike towards the Lonely Mountain. Thror’s Map, which Tolkien himself drew and which his characters use as a guide to get into the Mountain, may look like the map of Treasure Island that Robert Louis Stevenson included as a frontispiece in his 1883 novel. But the paths and pointers, the famous sight at the center, and the reams of text and historic markers make it feel like a hiking map.

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Selling Mayfair: The Very Different World of Prime Central London Realtors

London town houses
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A guilty pleasure of mine is a show called Selling Sunset, where impossibly glamorous women realtors strut about equally impossible giant houses, trying to sell them to incredibly rich people. It is set in Los Angeles — and it is all youth, beauty, high heels, and infinity pools. 

The London real estate market is quite the contrast, but as Sophie Elmhirst explains in this glorious piece for The Guardian, no less fascinating. Instead of beautiful blondes, the top end of the London market is dominated by middle-aged white men who have been selling homes since the 1960s, and who mistakenly call WhatsApp, “WhatsUp.” They mutter darkly about the new generation of realtors, who fill Instagram with videos of themselves giving tours of London mansions, but for now, it is still the old guys who are leading the charge. Elmhirst vividly illuminates their larger-than-life characters, admittedly in a slight tongue-in-cheek fashion, incredulously documenting Gary Hersham of Beauchamp Estates, her main subject matter, as he “shuttles between representatives of New York financiers, Middle Eastern royal families, the now-almost-quaint Russian oligarchs,” swerving from conversation to conversation, “from soothing compliments to bawling out an underlying.” Made possible, as he proclaims, with the help of “Emily, his fantastic secretary.” (After reading this I couldn’t help feel fantastic Emily must deserve some kind of damehood.) 

The houses are somewhat different as well: not an infinity pool in sight. Instead, foreign buyers are trying to claim a piece of something more intangible — history. Elmhirst explains how London realtors play up a fictional image of England, “a fractional way of life that required a townhouse, acreage, staff — and died between the wars.” They know that “[e]xtremely rich people from other places adore it, and want to recreate it,” and they are happy to oblige. The estate agent Foxtons even picked their name “because it sounds posh.” This brought to mind a Longreads essay on this phenomenon, “Tea, Biscuits, and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness,” and it is a subject matter I find endlessly fascinating. If there was ever a show about these British realtors, I would definitely binge-watch it, but for now, we will have to make do with this wonderful article.

They all have their particular styles. Langton is frank and humorous – he was “drunk for about a week” after his first sale of a house in Fulham for £4,000 in 1968 – with a telephone patter that spans the problems with Barnes Bridge (“no one wants to repair the bloody thing”) and the woes of the job (“it’s not all beer and skittles, I can tell you”). Forbes, an ex-Gurkha, who started out in Knightsbridge with an A to Z and a battered old car, is gracefully self-deprecating: “I think people bought from me out of sympathy, I didn’t know a thing.” Wetherell is more stately, with the air of an old English hymn. (“I like selling history,” he told me.) Abrahmsohn, meanwhile, is more of a talk-your-head-off kind of guy, “a big Brexiteer”, full of stories of negotiating deals through a limo window, proud of his “vines and networks” that spread across the world. “I work on psychology, and a lot of chutzpah.”

And then there’s Hersham, the character-in-chief, famous in the industry for his hair (flamboyant), his company’s impressive sales record (“100 units a year”) and his personality (so dominant and capricious that it can make the inside of a Volkswagen Golf feel like it’s laced with explosives). One fellow agent characterised Hersham’s selling style as, “lock them in the car and don’t let them out until they’ve bought something”. “Shout at someone and play hard until you get the price you want,” suggested another. Hersham does not trade in self-effacement. “Can I have an offer now, please,” I once heard him brusquely instruct a buyer on the phone, as if purchasing a multimillion-pound house was no longer the buyer’s choice. “As I’ve said to his face many times,” said Payne, who used to work with Hersham, “he’s a lunatic, but he’s a phenomenal operator.” (Hersham’s self-assessment of his industry reputation was less kind. “Some hate me, some think I’m not straightforward. Abrasive. Difficult to work with.”)

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The Ticking Clock of an Avalanche Rescue

Two skiers on a windswept ski slope
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Back in 2011, during an avalanche awareness course, I watched an avalanche filmed from a skier’s helmet GoPro. I remember it vividly: The skier whoops with joy as he swoops down a field of fresh snow before crying out in terror as that snow starts to crumble before him. He falls, white whirling round and round until it’s replaced with black, as he lies entombed under the snow. His cries become a whimper as he struggles to breathe, then, after an agonizing couple of minutes, a light appears, and his friend starts to dig him out.

In this article for GQ, Joshua Hammer explains that the increased popularity of backcountry skiing — combined with climate change causing more variable winters — has made avalanche rescue teams more valuable than ever. Hammer encapsulates the fear of an avalanche as he describes skier Joel Jaccar’s experience: the “immense weight of the wave as it plowed into his back, tearing off his skis, fracturing one of his vertebrae, and pummeling him down in the direction of the ground.” His rescue is one of several Hammer describes after witnessing the Air-Glaciers avalanche rescue team hone the skills that help them save lives with minutes to spare.

While the Air-Glaciers squads might train to face all manner of alpine calamity, it’s the threat of avalanche that haunts the high slopes of Valais with special significance. Every recreational skier and rescuer who has ever swooshed through Swiss backcountry lives in dread of them. “You hear that crack and the silence while nature holds its breath, waiting for the mountain to go,” one expert alpinist, who has lost several friends in avalanches and narrowly avoided being killed herself, told me. “Even the birds go quiet. You can feel your breath thundering in your ears.” 

Fluctuations in weather and wind influence how the fresh powder interacts with old snowpack. In 2019, the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research reported that approximately two to three times more snow than normal had fallen in the Swiss Alps that January. As the weather grows more erratic, and as the popularity of winter sports nudges skiers and snowboarders further from the crammed routes and into the backcountry, the risks are mounting. Over a four-day period in January 2021, off-piste skiers and snowboarders set off eight avalanches that left eight free-riders dead. “Valais is the center of it all,” Pierre Féraud told me.

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The Big, Bonkers, British, Christmas Pantomime

A man dressed as an ugly sister from the show Cinderella
Ugly Sister from a performance of Cinderella. Courtesy of Getty Images

Carolyn Wells | Longreads | December 2021 | 11 minutes (3,198 words)

Do you want to come to the Christmas pantomime? I am visiting family in England, and people keep earnestly asking me this question. It is not an invite I ever receive in Canada, where I now live, and upon questioning my American colleagues, I discover none of them are trotting off to see a pantomime this year either. It’s a uniquely British festive tradition. Jane Moody, Professor of Humanities Research at York University, has even proclaimed the pantomime “quintessentially British: as British as Earl Grey tea.” Yes — even on par with tea. 

It is hard to explain a pantomime: middle-aged men prancing about dressed as flamboyant washerwomen, humans playing animals, princesses, dastardly villains, and lots of bawdy jokes. Growing up, I would go and see a panto every Christmas, so this is all normal, but from an outside perspective, I can see it could raise the odd eyebrow. In the words of Sir Ian McKellen, “You can’t start to explain what a pantomime is — it’s like explaining the rules of cricket.” So I turned to a dictionary definition for help: Pantomimes are theatrical entertainment, mainly for children, involving music, topical jokes, and slapstick comedy, based on a fairy tale or nursery story. 

The range of fables is extensive, with productions at every town theater. This year, I was offered Dick Whittington (a real mayor of London who died in 1423), Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Puss in Boots, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. This is probably where I should admit I have never been a big fan of pantomimes, at least partially because they require a level of audience participation that makes my eyes twitch. When someone on stage shouts, “Oh, no he isn’t!” you are dutifully required to shout back, “Oh, yes he is!”— a frustrating back and forth that goes on for some time without satisfactory resolution. You are also encouraged to aid the hapless hero by shouting “He’s behind you!” when a villain sneaks onto the stage. Personally, my annoyance at the hero’s lack of spatial awareness has always made me reluctant to offer this assistance. 

And then there is the worst part: the constant fear of being brought onto the stage. This prospect makes my nieces and nephews squeal excitedly, while I slide further down into my seat, wishing for better camouflage than red velvet. One year my niece did receive this ultimate pantomime honor — chosen to go on stage to dance — and she still gleefully talks about it. I, on the other hand, cracked at my last panto, leaving halfway through and muttering to myself about the dreadful jokes as I walked home. Very Scrooge of me. However, this year I was determined to be jolly and embrace the Christmas tradition, bravely agreeing to a weekend of back-to-back pantomimes, with an evening performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and a matinee of Dick Whittington.

It is hard to explain a pantomime: middle-aged men prancing about dressed as flamboyant washerwomen, humans playing animals, princesses, dastardly villains, and lots of bawdy jokes.

Ahead of the performances, the auditoriums buzz with excitement. Tiny girls twirl in fairy costumes before turning to whack their brothers with their wands. Mothers bounce wide-eyed toddlers with one arm, clutching paper cups full of wine in the other, and elderly grandparents adorned with Christmas hats stand stoically in rings of lightsaber brandishing 10-year-olds. It is a reminder that pantomimes are an event for the whole family — and the whole community — with both shows opening with a nod to their local town. “Hello, Woking town!” Snow White yells from her castle as delighted kids scream greetings in return. And in a theater one town over, Dick Whittington greets his audience with, “Hello Guildford! Bet you’re glad you’re not in Woking!” 

Woking gets off comparatively lightly compared to Croydon: “I knew I’d reached Croydon because I saw a banner up saying, ‘Happy 30th Birthday Grandma!’” Nods like this to adult humor and sexual innuendo are a big part of the British panto — in Snow White, the Evil Queen invites two henchmen backstage with her, with a knowing wink to the audience, “I’m a cougar!” Meanwhile, her jester bemoans about the size of his privates when “It’s Cold Outside.” In Dick Whittington, his love interest proclaims, “I’m missing Dick!” to knowing chuckles from mothers now grasping their second wine. 

The British are more renowned for being prim and proper than guffawing loudly at the mention of a small penis. So how did these raucous shows become so beloved in this country? Jeff Thompson, a local theater critic and pantomime lover, informed me we can probably blame the Italians: “In the 16th century, Italy had a brand of entertainment known as Commedia dell’arte (comedy of the artists)…a cast of mischievous characters including the Harlequin, Columbine, and Pantaloon, occasionally masked, some with juggling and acrobatic skills, others as musicians…it was rehearsed chaos of knock-about humor, with the players appearing in colorful, outrageous costumes.” 

Different companies toured the Italian states and Principalities, appearing on street corners and market squares, and it is likely that they also came to London. Thompson explains that “an Italian influence was evident in London during the 1500s, hardly surprising because London was a major trading port, and Shakespeare himself…wasn’t slow to exploit this popularity when choosing Italian locations — The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, etc.”

By the 1700s, the Georgians — who loved to make things fancy — had adapted the Commedia dell’arte into the Harlequinade. According to Thompson, “the same characters were there — Harlequin, Columbine, and Pantaloon, but the Harlequinade productions could now be seen on stage with music…the storylines were classical tales and familiar fables. Progressively, domestic stories and political satire were also introduced, and the late 1700s and 1800s saw the introduction of elaborate state scenery and ‘phantasmagorical effects’, which echo into contemporary productions.”

The master of the Harlequinade was a man named John Rich, who managed Lincoln Fields theater in the 1720s. I was rather pleased to learn that Rich introduced the term slapstick into the English language — his harlequin used a wooden bat to knock things down — but he would probably rather be remembered for his incredible shows. His pantomimes fused comedy, music, ballet, and myth into tremendous spectacles, provoking us Brits to have a moan about the death of serious theater. 

Jane Moody notes that although actor/manager David Garrick initially joined in on the whining, he was sensible enough to realize there was money to be had in this tomfoolery — after all, by 1732, John Rich was able to build Covent Garden Theater with his profits. So, presumably after wrestling with his artistic conscience, Garrick decided that “If they won’t come to Lear and Hamlet, I must give them Harlequin.” He compromised by only producing his pantomimes for the Christmas season, associating pantos with the fun of Christmas rather than “proper” theater. The Christmas panto tradition survives to this day. 

Things developed further as Britain entered the Victorian era. The Industrial Revolution made life increasingly difficult for the working class, and the local Music Hall became a means of escape. As Thompson points out, “Beer and laughter went well together…in a time of malnutrition, epidemics, and a cruel penal code. Performers added to their living by moving away from the Harlequinades to the Music Halls and developing new acts, the pantomime as we might now recognize it was emerging.”

Although the issues have changed since the Industrial Revolution, the panto is still a place of release — somewhere to laugh at your problems — with both pantomimes I attended making fun of British politics and COVID-19. Dick Whittington adapted the song “12 Days of Christmas” into “12 Days of Lockdown”: “On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, six lateral flow tests, five toilet rolls, four booster jabs, three hand sanitizers…” Meanwhile, the villain, King Rat, said that he needed a wife “so she could spend inordinate amounts of tax-payer money on renovating his house,” a joke referencing a recent scandal involving Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s wife, Carrie Symonds. Jeff Bezos doesn’t escape either: King Rat’s Ratazon exploits its workers and destroys local businesses, and over in Snow White, her engagement to Harry provokes quips that “Prince Harry marrying an actress will never work.”

In Dick Whittington, his love interest proclaims, “I’m missing Dick!” to knowing chuckles from mothers now grasping their second wine.

The key to these jokes is being able to speak freely — not always a given in a traditional monarchy. However, the Theaters Act of 1843 indirectly boosted pantomime by lifting restrictions on the use of the spoken word in performances and limiting the powers of the Lord Chamberlain to only prohibiting plays when “fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace so to do.” Wordplay and audience participation were added to shows shortly thereafter, and the Victorians did not stop there: elaborate sets and live animals added to the theatrical gimmicks. 

And as explained by the Victoria and Albert Museum, if animals were not available, people would do; some actors made careers of dressing in elaborate animal costumes known as skins. One of the most famous Victorian animal impersonators was the actor and acrobat Charles Lauri Jr. He had quite the extensive range, from a poodle to a kangaroo, and a quote attributed to him demonstrates the true method actor he was: “I need hardly say that I am an entire believer in studying from life. When getting my poodle part, I had one always with me at home, and it was from that I learned nearly all my tricks.”

By the end of the century, productions had reached an epic level and could last up to five hours. FIVE HOURS. You could walk across the whole of London, and Lauri Jr would still be dressed as that poodle. The 1900 Drury Lane production of Sleeping Beauty and the Beast was a particularly long, lavish show, as, apparently unable to pick a story, it was a mash-up of both Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty. A critic for the newspaper The Star was not sure what to make of it, even after five hours of consideration: 

The Drury Lane pantomime…is a symbol of our nation. It is the biggest thing of its kind in the world, it is a prodigal of money, of invention, of splendor, of men and women, but it is without the sense of beauty or the restraining influence of taste. It is impossible to sit in the theater for five hours without being filled with weary admiration. Only a great nation could have done such a thing; only an undisciplined nation would have done it. The monstrous, glittering thing of pomp and humor is without order or design; it is a hotch-potch of everything that has been seen on any stage.

Hotch-potch is a good description of pantomime — a bizarre blend of continental and British traditions. Professor Jane Moody describes it as “The raw energy of Music Hall, the sauciness of Burlesque, the acrobatic power of John Rich, and the archetypal plots of Commedia…The story of pantomime is a story of transformation and endless adaptation.” It still is. The pantomimes I saw included singing, dancing, improvisation, impersonation, and acting. At one point, the Evil Queen in Snow White rode a pterodactyl over the audience — an impressive theatrical feat, but not a point I remember the Brothers Grimm dwelling on. A sense of joy radiates off the stage as the cast gets to showcase their talents and tricks, led by the star of the show, the Pantomime Dame. 

Men have played women throughout theater history, with female performers banned from the stage until after the Restoration in 1660. Pantomimes stuck with that convention, and one of the stars is still a man dressed as a careworn mother — the Dame. Dan Leno shaped the Dame in the 1880s, playing roles like the Queen in Humpty Dumpty or Widow Twankey in Aladdin. As Jane Moody tells it, “he began to domesticate the Dame, and to imagine her as a mother, facing problems which he and his audiences knew all too well: poverty, unemployment, and abandonment.” 

Nowadays, Moody considers the Dame to “embody the collective ties which bind us together as families, as neighbors, and as citizens of a particular town or city.” The Dame is often played by a big star: Sir Ian McKellen, Les Dawson, and Christopher Biggins have all taken a turn. In Snow White, the traditional Dame was replaced by Gok Wan as the Mirror, who at one point lost it and just started laughing: “I have an MBE! Two weeks ago I was at Windsor Palace and now I’m on my hands and knees in Woking! Leave it!”

After the performance of Dick Whittington, a Christmas miracle happened (with a little help from the press relations officer), and my sister, niece, and I got to meet both the Dame, Sally the Cook (Peter Gordon), and the baddie, King Rat (Kit Hesketh-Harvey). They arrived still in full makeup and sat with us in the stalls while cleaners vacuumed up the remnants of popcorn and tinsel around us. I felt a little starstruck, but nothing compared to my 14-year-old niece. She has been coming to this pantomime since she was 3 years old — when King Rat scared her so much she was carried out of the theater in floods of tears. Now they were sitting next to each other. 

“Oh, I have warped the minds of a whole generation,” Hesketh-Harvey said with relish. “My record is nine children screaming with fear in the first 45 minutes.” He has been in pantomime for 12 years, Gordon something similar. They are both local and even remember the theater being built. “The theater is a real community hub,” says Gordon, “and panto is its lifeblood. The regional theater would go under without panto — it’s so dependent on the income.” Hesketh-Harvey agrees, “Panto is just so important. It’s a huge tradition — huge. You get these baffled Canadians and Americans coming and they just don’t get it. But it’s the last great variety show… a time to come together and celebrate the joy of community and create family memories. Besides, if it wasn’t for panto we would just be two old farts sitting on a sofa.” 

It was a delight to sit and chat with these two gentlemen — the villain and the Dame — as they highlighted some of the things I had experienced for myself with the panto: the history, the sense of family, the community, and the joy in laughing at life. But after a two-year hiatus, I had forgotten how risqué pantomime jokes could be. The humor is reminiscent of the British Carry On films, but this was a series that ended in 1992. Is it still okay for Snow White to be, “Off cottaging with seven men? We’ve all been there!” Or to joke: “I’m dyslexic, but I’ve read ten out of two people are!” Hesketh-Harvey admits that “Pantomime and woke don’t sit well together. Pantomime gives the finger to the woke generation, but the joy of it outweighs everything else.”

But it does not outweigh everything. In 2017, Irene Ng expressed serious concerns in a panel event hosted by The Stage: “Pantomime makes the dominant culture, or color, feel better about themselves. All the humor was taking the mick out of people in a derogatory way, whether someone is blind, handicapped, ‘ugly’, or of a different race.” Dongshin Chang, an academic who has written on the portrayal of Chinese characters on the London stage, has criticized Aladdin, saying “the character names in Aladdin are rooted in dated attitudes towards Chinese people. Wishee Washee is a clear reference to Chinese business interests…Underneath the fun and entertainment, the association with laundry may also be considered a manifestation of prejudice.” In 2017, a mother named Natalie Wood made an official complaint about Dick Whittington at Manchester Opera House, saying it was too smutty for children. There were also several complaints after a pantomime advertised for a “Chow Mein Slave of the Ring” for a production of Aladdin

She has been coming to this pantomime since she was 3 years old — when King Rat scared her so much she was carried out of the theater in floods of tears. Now they were sitting next to each other.

Pantomime is in a bubble, but it still needs to adapt. Hesketh-Harvey may grumble that “It’s amazing what I can’t say this year,” but I was impressed with some of the changes I noticed. In Snow White, the Prince and Snow White share several kisses, instigated by her, before he finally wakes her from her slumber with an unsolicited kiss. Then, in the end, it is Snow White who proposes to him. (Spoiler: He says yes.) The dwarves have traditionally been played by little people, but in this production, they were a hybrid of puppets and people on their knees (which still felt a little uncomfortable). And in Dick Whittington, the Black female lead was a business owner, who at the end of the production wins Business Woman of the Year. 

These adaptations, although small, are signs that pantomime is changing. “The genre continues to evolve,” Jeff Thompson says. “‘Once Upon a Time’ pantomimes were based around fairy stories such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk, but increasingly novels and films are being adapted for the stage. There is also a hint of Disneyfication emerging … and I suspect panto will continue to adapt as opinion influences it.” To survive pantomime needs to keep transforming, but it will — it has been adapting for the last 500 years. 

In a few weeks, the Christmas pantomime season will be drawing to a close. But my season isn’t over just yet — newly invigorated by my experiences, I have now agreed to both a stage performance of Cinderella, as well as a radio show my sister is performing in (playing an Ugly Sister, much to her chagrin). But, rather than begrudge giving yet more time over to panto, I am delighted. For like many a good panto plot, there is a twist — this is a redemption story. In Snow White, when the Queen declares herself the fairest in the land, I shouted, “Oh, no you’re not!” at the top of my lungs, when Prince Harry has a ghost behind him, I lent further lung capacity to yelling “He’s behind you!” In Dick Whittington, I got on my feet with the rest of the audience and sang and danced to “Don’t Stop Believing.” And I enjoyed it. I was Scrooge no longer. 

I now understand the point of a pantomime: It brings people together. Not only does the history of pantomime go back hundreds of years, but it goes back through the history of my family. I came to these shows as a child, and now I go with my nieces and nephews. We have created family memories and continue creating them. Panto provides a sense of belonging — not just to each other, but your local theater and your local town. And after a difficult two years, it is so lovely to laugh. My niece told me she will still want to go to pantos when “she is really old, like 25” (cringe) and I will be right there along with her. I promise I will never walk out of a pantomime again. Oh, no I won’t! 


Copy Editors: Peter Rubin / Cheri Lucas Rowlands 

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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