Top menu

It’s Tax Day – that’ll be two Botticellis, please

I noticed something odd about the Holbein Henry VIII portrait today.

Henry VIII portrait

(No, not just his weirdly huge calves. Calves were considered very attractive on men, this is the 16th century equivalent of Photoshopped boobs.)

So the National Portrait Gallery has just started an exhibition on The Real Tudors (Action-Packed! Like You’ve Never Seen Them Before!), which is showing objects personally owned by the monarchs and all the famous portraits: Elizabeth with her hair down holding the sceptre and orb, Henry VII giving the side-eye out of the frame, Mary looking strained and unwell. Most of the paintings are from the gallery’s own collection, but some paintings (and all the objects) are on loan from other museums or private collections. I love reading where all the different pieces have come from, both so I can picture them in their usual homes and because it gives me a nice warm feeling to see museums collaborating to bring interesting art and history to the public. A large red wooden rosary that Henry VIII prayed with is now owned by the Duke of Devonshire; Mary’s devotional book is usually at Westminster Abbey; and a locket ring with Elizabeth’s picture inside is on loan from the prime minister’s country house, Chequers, which is not open to the public.

Then the label for the famous Holbein painting says this:

Acquired in lieu of tax by H.M. Treasury in 1957 and subsequently transferred to The National Trust.

Wait wait wait. Was this some chummy gentleman’s agreement between a duty-dodging lord and the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Or can you actually use art to pay your tax bill?

Yes, it turned out, that’s exactly what’s going on – I looked it up on my phone in the café and this wasn’t a one-off. The art-for-tax scheme, called Acceptance in Lieu, is still running and is managed by the Arts Council.

I mean, what a great idea!

The Acceptance in Lieu scheme was started in 1910 to allow posh people to pay inheritance taxes without having to sell off parts of their estates to raise the money. As you’ll remember from many PG Wodehouse novels, the British upper class is often actually fairly cash poor: they may own a £25m country house but that doesn’t mean they have money on hand to fix the pipes. Before 1910, people who inherited the family estate would be taxed on it, but because their wealth is in things rather than a bank account, they’d have to raise the money by selling some of those valuable objects to private collectors. The natural response to this is ‘oh, poor rich people, I hear your diamond shoes aren’t fitting too well either’, but the government was concerned that important collections were being broken up and great works of art were possibly being lost to the public forever. So instead of having people sell important art to get money to pay the Treasury, the Treasury started just accepting the art as payment instead, so the tax bill could be settled but the art would go to the public instead of being passed around private hands.

There are very stringent standards for art to be accepted as tax payment. There’s an annual limit of £30m total, and to be accepted, the art has to be ‘pre-eminent’ – “in other words, of particular historic, artistic, scientific or local significance, either individually or collectively” – and approved by the culture secretary and a panel of experts. Applicants must prove details of ownership between 1933-1945 (no stolen Nazi paintings). It has to be in “acceptable” condition and you must provide at least three high-quality colour photographs, both printed out in the application package and (and this is possibly the most onerous part of all) on a CD-ROM.

If the panel accepts your Holbein or your Ming vase, it also decides where it will go. Sometimes a piece is already on a long-term loan to a public museum – in the past two years, Acceptance in Lieu acquired a collection of Newcastle glass that has been in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle since 1981, and two Barbara Hepworth sculptures that are in the Edinburgh botanic gardens. They’re staying where they are; the only thing changing is the name on the ownership plaque. Collections from country houses and stately homes can stay in those houses, as long as they’re open to the public at least 100 days a year. Otherwise, pieces are sent to museums across the UK. (It must be so exciting to be a museum curator who wins a free piece of artwork! You’re just sitting there sifting through yet another pile of Roman coins when you get a call from the Arts Council saying, “Hello, would you like these Raphael doodles for no cost to you at all? Oh, and do you fancy a Rothko?”)

The stated aim is to prevent art works being sold abroad – the 2004 consultation report on it was somewhat melodramatically titled “Saving Art for the Nation” – and while there’s a bit of irony in British “Anything we can carry” museums trying to keep art works in the country, I do think public ownership of art is preferable to private ownership, no matter where it is. It’s not as if works sold to foreign private collectors are somehow more likely to be made available to the public.

I’m just so happy I found out this scheme exists. It seems to me to be a government policy working exactly like it should, for the public benefit in an efficient, good and non-obvious way. Since the Treasury doesn’t “give change”, the value of the art is usually more than the tax bill: in 2003, £16m of tax bills were paid with £40m worth of art, which is a great bargain for the British public. Cash can come from anywhere, but art is unique, and I think it’s wonderful that so much of it is being quietly nationalised, as it should be.

 

2

August reading

Here are some books I read last month! I reread a few too (Emma, The Pillow-book of Sei Shonagon – both still very fun, both recommended) but these are the new-to-me ones.

Augustus: From Revolutionary To Emperor, Adrian Goldsworthy: On the plane to San Francisco I polished off this new biography of Augustus/Caesar/Octavian/first hottie of the Roman republic, which was released to time with the 2,000th anniversary of his death on August 19. He’s one of my favourite historical figures: my birth month is named after him and I love his characterisation in eg Rome and Antony and Cleopatra as a placidly ambitious weedy sociopathic teenage politician (so hot). Goldsworthy sets out to break down the boundary history has created between the young ‘Octavian’ (above-mentioned teenie sociopath) and the older ‘Augustus’ (wise emperor who created aqueducts, firefighters, decades of pax Romana, etc.), and create a picture of one man, and he does it clearly and thoughtfully.

Goldsworthy is I believe a military historian and he focuses a lot more on Caesar’s campaigns than on the questions I really want answered about his life, such as: How accurate do we think was that scene on Rome where he talks to Livia about spanking her? Because personally in that relationship I see him as more the spankee. Do you think that Agrippa and Julia went to orgies together, or was that more something she did on her own? Tiberius: probably terrible in bed, right? That said, Goldsworthy does get into some comedy anecdotes, like when Mark Antony was taking petitions in the Forum and he was so hung over he had to grab a friend’s cloak to throw up in, or when a provincial governor decided that the best way to get into Antony and Cleopatra’s good graces was to strip nude, paint himself blue, affix a fishtail (…where?) and dance in front of the Egyptian court on a festival day. (It worked, apparently, the guy had a very successful career.) For his part, teenage Octavian was reportedly much sought after by the adulterous matrons of Rome and very, very understandably so.

After the gossip, I was most interested in Goldsworthy’s look at the way Caesar developed his iconography, the way he chose to present himself to Rome and the world. Despite being effectively a military dictator, Caesar never called himself emperor: he was princeps, the first citizen of the republic, and carried out this odd contradiction of amassing power and squashing enemies while apparently genuinely believing in the republican ideal. Possibly, and this is the really surprising part, not because he was lying or self-delusional like a lot of dictators, but because Rome, which had been going through a civil war every 10-20 years for nearly a century, actually did just need one guy working hard for a few decades to make sure aqueducts were laid and firefighters were paid for and grain routes were secure. Caesar delegated to competent friends and colleagues, and brought up his extended family to be committed public servants. After using his famous uncle Julius’s name to boost his teenage power smash-and-grab, he didn’t take on anything that resembled hereditary power or titles; only ones that were specific to his accomplishments and would die with him. He apparently tried very hard to ensure there wouldn’t be just one guy in charge after his death. It was apparently just extremely bad luck that his carefully brought up network of young civic-minded future co-leaders nearly all died young, leaving his former son-in-law Tiberius as the last one standing and creating the position of One Guy In Charge almost by default.

Anyway it turns out ancient Roman teenage sociopaths = hot, ancient Roman teenage sociopaths who grow up to become dedicated public servants = hotter, Julia remains my favourite, this was among the clearer and wittier works of classical history I’ve read. Recommend.

The Turk Who Loved Apples, Matt Gross: You know, I really wish that middle-class American white guys who go overseas, have sex with ‘foreign prostitutes’ and then publish a book in which they spend twenty pages waffling on about their [the middle-class American white guy's, not the prostitute's] feelings about said sex would put this fact on their book jacket so I can know that ahead of time and not buy it. This was actually a great book to read as a writer, because it reminded me that your work can be sharp, lyrical and funny (all of which this book sometimes is) but that still doesn’t mean anyone will care about you picking over the endless, tedious details of your emotional journey. Yes, some internal reflection is necessary so it isn’t and then I went here and did this and then I went there and did that, but jeeeeesus dude stop talking about yourself. And especially stop talking about how deeply sad you were about turning down a Cambodian sex worker who was so into you that she wanted to pay you for sex (yes, Matt Gross, you are truly the most desirable man in Phnom Penh!) and how you wish you “could have honored [her] humanity by accepting her offer” (JESUS, DUDE). THESE ARE NOT THINGS THE WORLD NEEDS TO KNOW.

A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain: Look! A self-indulgent middle-class American white guy who makes it work! Bourdain’s very funny, self-effacing but not insincerely humble, and writes well about good food without being samey (you know, ‘the oysters tasted like the sea, briny, snotty and wet. the other oysters tasted the same. basically, that’s what oysters taste like, sputumy ocean’), which can be difficult. I was ready to roll my eyes at all the macho Graham Greene cigarettes shots spliffs and Kalashnikovs narration but he’s so cheerful and goofy about it that I totally bought into it. I got some good writing advice at Book Passage along the lines of, “Make the reader to want to hang out with you”, which Bourdain absolutely does. He and Gross both sound like assholes, but Bourdain is the asshole who steals a bottle of vodka and splits it with you while he tells hilarious stories about accidentally giving food poisoning to Kofi Annan and then throws up on your bathmat. Gross is the asshole who spends all night making sad eyes at your breasts and then overexplains about his fiancé when you just asked if he wanted to split cab fare back to the hotel. Like, be an asshole writer, just don’t be a whiny asshole writer. Recommend Bourdain even though it made me constantly hungry.

2

Will internet journalism become fully automated?

I went to the excellent Book Passage travel writing conference two weeks ago, and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about Good Writing and What’s Happening With It.

I left my last job in news because it was becoming more and more thoughtless: skim copy for obvious mistakes, optimise for SEO, push publish button, repeat. Not only was it numbingly tedious, but upper management were always looking to ‘cut editorial costs’ – by which they meant get rid of editorial jobs by automating editorial work as much as possible.

Yesterday in the Colombia Journalism Review I read about a similar move from Gannett, a newspaper group in the south-east of the US, who are eliminating editorial jobs and basing editorial decisions on metrics:

“As the reporters become more attuned to their metrics and what readers are telling them, and become more expert at analyzing that data,” [Gannett's vice president for news, Kate] Marymont says, “the link between reporter and conventional assignment editor isn’t as necessary. Readers become the assignment editor instead of the more conventional assignment editor of the past.”
“Gannett cribs from Advance Publications playbook”, August 18, 2014

Actually, Marymont is wrong when she says “readers become the assignment editor”. The readers don’t become the assignment editor, the algorithm does. No human editorial judgment is involved – it’s all based on data. Readers being assignment editors would look something more like the Guardian’s daily Comment is Free suggestion posts, where readers suggest columns they’d like to see and the editors choose from those ideas to commission pieces from their staff writers.

The idea of journalists writing stories completely based on metrics reminds me of the hilarious mishap a few years ago, when two algorithms aimed at gaming Amazon Marketplace pricing unintentionally led to a book on developmental biology in flies being priced at nearly $24m. Two booksellers separately set their pricing mechanisms in such a way that they both kept adjusting up in response to the other. Eventually one of them hit $23,698,655.93, at which point some agent (possibly a human manager) stepped in and reset the price to a more reasonable $106.23.

It seems to me that the logical endpoint of automated editorial decisions is that the whole process of content production (what Gannett calls “journalism”) will become completely automated. As computers get better at sounding like people, the same algorithms that are currently being used to figure out what to write will also be able to generate that content and publish it. Basically, a parallel news world will be created, filled with computer-generated content that doesn’t involve humans at all: an online publishing industry populated by algorithms, for algorithms.

I do think algorithms have a place in people-driven online journalism: things like Twitter trending are useful and important. Ferguson became a story because thousands of people were talking about it, and might not have become one if it had been left up to editorial judgment. Media institutions have biases too, and in the case of Ferguson, algorithms were a corrective to those biases.

Fully automated content production would also obviously mean a large loss of writing jobs. According to that CJR article above, after currently planned layoffs, staffing at Gannett papers will have dropped 62% since 2001. If I were one of their employees left standing, I wouldn’t have high expectations for my five-year job security. At content farms, a lot of people are being paid to write articles aimed at search engines; if those sites begin completely automating content production, those jobs will go.

But I think the increased automation of mindless content will mean the people who are being paid for writing will be paid for good writing. Buzzfeed uses its clickbait to generate income to pay for longform investigative journalism, as does eg the Daily Mail (yes I know). Fewer people will be able to make a living as full-time writers, but actually I think there was an unusually high number of full-time writing jobs in the past 70 years in US journalism. So maybe we’ll be moving away from there being a lot of bad writing jobs to there being fewer, but better ones. Yay?

4

Drunk Theatre: “Hamlet” by Hiraeth Productions, Riverside Studios

Photo by Adam Trigg.

Adam Lawrence as Hamlet. Photo by Adam Trigg

 

I went to see Hiraeth ProductionsHamlet thanks to what is unquestionably the best email I have ever gotten, which began, “Hi Kerry, We at Hiraeth Artistic Productions loved your drunk review of our Richard III so much that we wanted to invite you along to review our next production”.

LIFE SUCCESS, GUYS! Truly I have forged an excellent future for myself in this important line of drunk arts criticism and it’s all G&Ts and midweek press nights from here on out: life sorted! Now however I went to the show in early June and it closed in late June, and if you’ve spotted the flaw in the fact that this post is going up at the end of July then congratulations you and well done on self-sabotaging your glorious would-have-been future me, and I deeply apologise to Tabitha, Hiraeth’s very kind press officer.

Nevertheless: The second Saturday in June was the first warm weekend day of the summer, and in the afternoon I went to Hammersmith to eat tacos and drink pitchers of margaritas, followed by prosecco followed by cider followed by gin, in the park by the river with Ewan and two single friends who I was idly hoping would hit it off. It was a very warm day and we got through A Fair Bit Of Booze before two of us peeled off to the Riverside Studios, where it remained very warm inside the theatre. This caused the actors to get a bit sweaty (helloooooo) and also resulted in me doing something I am very not proud of.

(Did I order another drink for the first half? I think so? Why did I do that?)

Director/HAP artistic director Zoe Ford picked out the concept from one of Hamlet’s more melodramatic lines, and set the story in a literal prison. Hamlet (Adam Lawrence) came on in a funeral suit and changed (onstage, helloooooooo) into grey sweats; the guard bringing him back inside murmured, “I’m sorry for your loss”. First question: why is Hamlet in prison? It’s presumably not for his father’s murder if he’s just been let out to go to the funeral; has Claudius framed him for something? Has young Hamlet actually killed a man, like Moses? Are they a mob family and has Hamlet been charged with something that stuck? Is he a fall guy?

The lack of explanation isn’t a fault with the concept, it’s excellent. Shakespeare has no problem throwing unexplained setups at us (Why is Lear splitting up his kingdom? Why did Duke Frederick depose Duke Senior? What war are the Dons coming back from?) and the imprisonment of the crown prince was the same thing, a fact that told us a lot about the rules of the world were dealing with – one in which it is acceptable to jail the queen’s son – and the character of this Hamlet – violent and very capable of decisive action.

Claudius (Russell Barnett) and Gertrude (Joyce Greenaway) were like George and Lucille Bluth played straight. Gertrude was naturally concerned for her son but I think slightly relieved that she didn’t have to deal with him at home any more. When she spoke with him after The Mousetrap, it was during contained visiting hours, and was broken up by a guard. When she drank from a poisoned water bottle, Claudius stepped back and watched her fall.

Ophelia (Jessica White) was a therapist who led group sessions among the prisoners (a lot of rejigging of lines here: The Mousetrap was awesomely staged as a therapeutic work that Hamlet’s parents were grudgingly coming to see, like parents to an awful primary school play). Her affair with Hamlet was a transgression in the opposite direction than it usually is, since inside the prison she had more social power than he did. Administrator Laertes (Darcy Vanhinsbergh) and warden Polonius (Antony Kernan) warning her off him was shaded by that implication that she was taking advantage of him, as well as potentially getting in over her head with a convicted felon.

The setting also brought out how much in the play Hamlet prefers the company of outsiders. He wants to leave Denmark for Germany; he blows off the royal family and the aristocracy to hang out with non-courtier Horatio and the palace guards; he overidentifies with Norwegian prince Fortinbras, and bonds with pirates and gravediggers. The grey prison sweats and the physical separation of bars and visiting hours really underlined that solidarity with Horatio, Bernardo and Marcellus, and distance from Ophelia, Laertes and the royals.

I can’t remember what they did with the gravedigger scene but I really liked it. Ditto the line reading of “Well, well, well”. These are scrawled in my notebook with big tick marks next to them, which is how I know they were good. I do remember the excellent lighting design when Ophelia killed herself; I can practically still smell the chlorine of the institution’s swimming pool.

The only bit I didn’t feel quite came together in the prison setting was Laertes’ part in the second half. In the play it’s really Laertes, not Hamlet, who leaks the outside world into the palace, when he opens the doors to the commons and threatens to lead a popular insurgency against the royals. In Hiraeth’s production the ‘court’ world was (intentionally) much more vague than the prison, so it wasn’t clear what a crowd calling “Laertes shall be king!” meant. His fight with Hamlet was heart-in-mouth – boxing with concealed shivs – but it didn’t have the weight and feeling of tragic balance that it can have when Laertes is grounded politically as well as emotionally.

To be honest I’m not sure if that could have been brought in while keeping the prison setting, and anyway I don’t need all Shakespeare productions to nail every part of a play; I expect in a few years there will be a fringe production that’s All About Laertes and leaves the audience going ‘wait, who’s that Horatio guy?’ or something. (And I will be there every night because Laertes is the besssst.)

Anyway, now that I’ve seen two Hiraeth productions I’m a definite, committed fan, not only because they don’t seem to mind when I turn up plastered and enthusiastic. They do Shakespeare energetically and really seem to enjoy cracking apart the plays and working them over to see what happens. They’ve also got over the slightly hand-wringy hesitance some fringe companies have, of feeling like they have to justify Doing Shakespeare, King of the Dead White European Men, and so treat him distantly, gingerly or ironically. Hiraeth is more like, because he’s a genius that’s why (and he is a genius), now everybody sit down and let’s theatre.

Characters in Hiraeth productions also take their shirts off and say “Fuck” a lot, choices I strongly approve of. So I’m planning to keep going to see them. And you should too! Only you can’t see their Hamlet because it closed last month. Sorry.

0

Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross Road

Foyles Charing Cross Road
Foyles Charing Cross Road
Foyles Charing Cross Road
Foyles Charing Cross Road

Aren’t bookshops great? Apparently when I was a wee Portlander of six or seven, I asked my parents if Powell’s did birthday parties (it doesn’t, which in retrospect is probably one of the main reasons I fled America for the land of my ancestors). Powell’s is an excellent bookshop and probably one of the world’s best, although like most of Portland it suffers from overexposure these days among the twee bourgeoisie (I include myself in this group). It has very high shelves of medium brown wood, big crowded rooms organised by topic, and my favourite ever sign in a bookshop or any shop: Nautical Fiction / Erotica.

Foyles is the exciting big bookshop where you want to have your birthday party of London. It’s the best in the country (Blackwells is better organised, therefore less interesting), mostly because it’s trying to be a Bookshop in the way I think a bookshop morally should be, getting people excited about books as well as putting on really good events for people who are already excited about books and want to share that with other excited people. It puts on international literary tours and live-action Where’s Wally? hunts for kids and says lovely earnest things like, “Wherever possible we make our events at all of our branches free of charge so that everyone can experience the joy of hearing an author talk about or read from their work.”

In June the main branch moved a few doors down Charing Cross Road to a bigger space, in the building that used to house Central Saint Martin’s art college. In an Age of Dying Print and the Rise of the E-Book I find it very pleasing that Foyles is confident enough to move from its Grand Flagship to a Grander Flagship. Chris Foyle, the current majority owner (and grand-nephew of the Founding Foyles, William and Gilbert) said in the Guardian before the opening that he intended people to come to the new shop like they do Harrods or Hamleys, for the experience of being in an attractive place selling interesting things.

It’s light and airy inside, which I’m not sure a bookstore should be, but it is very pleasant. On the opening weekend they had displays showing off how much of an Institution Foyles is: a table of proper published books that mention the bookstore, by eg VS Naipaul, Mary Wesley, MC Beaton, John le Carre, and a “literary beginnings” table of (I think) books originally published or championed by Foyles.

The displays in the front room and the entrance to each floor are well spaced out, so you can stop in front of the staff recommendation shelves to look through them without feeling like you’re about to be in someone’s way. Walking up the stairs takes you past a recommendation shelf on each floor, an architectural choice hilariously patterned on Yo Sushi conveyor belts that was very successful for me, at least, as I was trying to speedwalk up to the café but kept going “ooh, that looks interesting!” and pivoting around to flip through books on the history of the drinking horn or the Year of Four Emperors.

The shop’s free wifi sends you to a book search page that shows you the exact location in the shop of the book you want, which is delightful.

Café
Cafe bar at Foyles
Cafe at Foyles

The Jazz Café at old Foyles was a famously great place to park yourself and read, write and generally Do Literary Café Things all afternoon, if you could get a seat. The new one is less cosy wooden coffeeshop and more minimalist warehouse loft. There are exposed pipes, the lights are bare bulbs in mason jars (seriously) and a large stained glass partition blocks off the back corner, which has some faux-Kabbalah designs and the phrase, AN IMAGE OF TRUTH, in block white letters; this is The Gallery and is apparently an installation by a former Central St Martins student. The font in the toilets is Helvetica.

Double espresso (£2.25) was good and it was easier to find a table than it was at the old one, at least at 11am on a Thursday. It’s light and exactly noisy enough that you can eavesdrop if you want to or pay attention to your book if you want to. I wavered about having lunch there or one of Soho’s many very good restaurants, and decided to stay put as the food seemed good value; this was the wrong choice. “Free range chicken pomegranate salad with giant couscous” (£8.50) sounded peppy but was commitedly tasteless; the chicken was pale, soggy and flaccid, the pomegranate was unripe and the couscous was like eating soft clumps of white noise. It was a completely joyless dish and I felt sad and embarrassed that an animal had died for it.

That said, I partially blame myself since bookshop cafés (like National Heritage sites) are traditionally not great for meals but usually good for cakes. I tested this and it was borne out at Foyles too. Orange lavender slice (£3.50) was lovely, thick, ideally iced and exactly the right place on the dry-moist spectrum to be beautiful with tea. I ate it and watched some builders wandering around the next level up, where there is a piano and a mic stand, implying there will be a dedicated music space like the old café had (hooray!).

I like a little bit of nook and cranny in my bookshop and the new Foyles does have a few among the straight clean lines and natural light. Half the third floor is foreign-language books, since in 2011 Foyles bought Grant and Cutler, then the biggest foreign-language bookseller in the UK. Crime and Sci-Fi are right next to each other, as are Film and Philosophy. It’s easy to accidentally go up or down a floor, which is fun. It’s a good building to wander around in. And yes, it does birthday parties.

4

“It’s a bad country for Jews”: Anti-semitism in Europe when Israel and Palestine fight

Statue of Alfred Dreyfus at the Jewish Art and History Museum in Paris

 

To hear some of my friends tell it, moving to Paris meant plunging into a roiling pit of anti-Semitism, Vichy, Le Pen and the Dreyfus affair all rolled up and ready to attack.

“You know France is really anti-Semitic.”

“It’s the largest Jewish community in Europe,” I said.

“It’s because of their history.”

“Actually, France was the first European country to make Jews full citizens.”

“The leftist movement there is really anti-Semitic.”

“Oh, the leftist movement everywhere is a bit anti-Semitic.”

“The number of people making aliyah from France is massively increasing.”

“That’s just scaremongering.”

“It’s a bad country for Jews.”

On Friday, the day after I left Paris, someone firebombed a synagogue in Belleville. In my last week, a 17-year-old Jewish girl filed a police report saying she was pepper-sprayed and called a ‘dirty Jew’ near Canal St-Martin. On Sunday, protesters attacked synagogues off Place de la Bastille, about ten minutes’ walk from my flat, trapping people inside for hours until the police used tear gas on the crowd outside.

Ewan came down to see me the first weekend of July, and we visited the Jewish museum. “I really hope there isn’t an attack!” I said. “I hope so too!” Ewan said cheerfully. There had been a shooting at the Jewish museum in Brussels a few weeks before. I didn’t really doubt there would be something similar in Paris soon; I was just hoping it missed us.

I am of course much safer than people in Israel and certainly than people in Palestine. Friends in Israel have been watching the Iron Dome destroy rockets aimed at them a few hundred feet above their heads, and making black jokes about waiting for ‘the boom'; friends in Palestine, who don’t have the same access to social media, have still been able to share stories and pictures of the rubble of their homes and communities.

(I’ve never been to Israel or Palestine, despite the gentle pressure, which I suspect comes both from the religious community and Israel’s tourism board, to visit Israel as some kind of Jewish duty; my opinion of what’s happening there is a fairly basic “HEY GUYS MAYBE STOP TRYING TO KILL PEOPLE?” But then again I am not a specialist in the region.)

Still, safer doesn’t mean safe: when ‘tensions’ (bombings and deaths) rise in Israel and Palestine, people start attacking Jews in Europe.

On Sunday night I was at a pub in north London watching the World Cup final. When an early Argentina goal was declared offside, a drunk Germany fan whooped and gestured at the screen with his right hand, palm down, arm stiff. “…I think that guy just did a Nazi salute?” I said. My friends looked up. He was waving both arms around. “Mm, I think he’s just drunk.” Twenty minutes later when Germany came close to scoring he did it again, then faced the room and did it to us. “Oh. No, okay. Yeah.”

In case you’ve never experienced it yourself, I can tell you that it’s very difficult to sit in a room and enjoy a football match when someone is gesturing, “I think exterminating you and all people like you is a good idea or at least an amusing one” ten feet away. I’m slightly embarrassed to say I felt personally unsafe, even though in the end he didn’t do anything more aggressive than blocking the view and expanding his repertoire to the quenelle (très international!).

The worst part is you really have no idea when something is going to kick off. Jewish museums and synagogues are obvious targets, but it could happen anywhere. Aside from avoiding synagogues and Jew-y places like museums (which I’m not going to do) and not looking obviously Jewish (which I’m not ethnically; I’ve also stopped wearing my chai necklace in public for now), I don’t think I can really do anything but reiterate my main opinion on the whole mess: HEY GUYS MAYBE STOP TRYING TO KILL PEOPLE?

0

Header art by Tod Wills.