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17-18 December

Long reads shortened

How we lost “the most peaceful era in history”

When Vladimir Putin sent his troops into Ukraine, says Yuval Noah Harari in The Atlantic, he ended “the most peaceful era in human history”. Until the late 20th century, the word “peace” meant merely “the temporary absence of war” – conflict was always just round the corner. Military spending dominated the budget of “every empire, sultanate, kingdom and republic”: for the Romans, it accounted for up to 75% of the total; for the British Empire, it never fell below 55%. But in the long peace that began after the Second World War, governments have been able to stop splurging on weapons. In recent years, they have devoted an average of just 6.5% of spending to defence. That has enabled them to invest far more in things that make life better, such as healthcare, welfare and education.


The strangest members of the animal kingdom

A million years ago, “beavers the size of bears roamed North America”, says Leila Philip in LitHub. The “deep weirdness” of their modern descendants poses an evolutionary puzzle. Swimming, they seem more like seals than big rodents, but then their “dexterous forepaws” look startlingly human with “five nimble fingers and naked palms”. They groom their lustrous fur with “catlike fastidiousness”, standing on “gooselike hind feet”, each as wide as the beaver’s head. Then there’s the “reptilian tail”, which looks like it’s been “run over by a tractor tire, the treads leaving a pattern of indentations that resemble scales”.


On 1 November 1969, Paul McCartney spotted two reporters at his secluded farm in Scotland, says LitHub. They had been sent there by Life magazine to disprove a long-running rumour that the reclusive Beatle had died in a car accident. Enraged, McCartney threw a bucket of “kitchen slop” over the pair – an act they gleefully caught on camera. As they made their escape, the musician realised these pictures wouldn’t show him in his best light: “Unshaven. Unkempt. Angry. Hungover. Maybe even a bit unhinged.” So he drove after them, apologised, and suggested a deal: a brief interview and some new, slop-free photos, in exchange for them handing over their negatives. They quickly agreed – and the myth of McCartney’s death was debunked.

Quirk of history

How the vaccine was invented

May 14, 1796 was a “golden day in the history of science”, says Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, “but a terrifying one for a certain eight-year-old boy”. Determined to prove that humans could be inoculated against smallpox by infecting them with cowpox, the British physician Edward Jenner slashed the arm of his gardener’s “brave and healthy son”, with a knife dipped in the ooze from a cowpox blister. After the boy recovered from a brief chill, Jenner stabbed him with a lancet infected with smallpox. “Nothing happened.” Jenner had invented a cure for “one of the deadliest viruses in world history”. The name he gave to this revolutionary new treatment, from the Latin for cow, was: “vaccine”.


The rich liberals betraying Biden

Joe Biden’s clean energy bill was rightly trumpeted when it was passed in August, says Edward Luce in the FT. But it looks like many of its green projects will never materialise – and Democrats only have themselves to blame. Last week, an accompanying bill that would have cut through the “Kafkaesque” red tape blocking new solar plants, wind farms and so on was torpedoed by lawmakers. Republicans opposed it for the usual reason: it had the name “Biden” on it. But they were joined by lefty Democrats like Bernie Sanders, because the bill would have enabled a new gas pipeline in West Virginia. It will now be “all but impossible” for Biden to hit his target of cutting 50% of US emissions by the end of the decade.


Quoted 17.12.22

“Give me chastity and self-restraint, but not yet.”

St Augustine of Hippo


Ukrainian opera’s Blitz spirit

“Why should a country at war waste time bothering about opera?” says Gerald Malone in Engelsberg Ideas. Because it’s a struggle to “assert its national identity, that’s why”. Within days of the Russian invasion, Vasil Vokun, director of Lviv Opera House, decided his venue was “a dog in this fight”. Unperturbed by air strikes, he has continued to stage performances as usual, albeit with a few adjustments – the audience is limited to 300 people, as that’s the capacity of the “hastily constructed” underground air-raid shelter. “London’s West End grit in the Second World War Blitz springs to mind.”

Gone viral

TikToker @TannerLeatherstein purchases designer bags “specifically for dissecting”, says Alina Dizik in The Cut: he measures the leather and burns scraps to estimate the items’ true cost. In one video, he deconstructs a $1,200 Chanel wallet, the actual value of which he reckons is around $130. In another, he finds that the Saffiano leather in a $2,100 Prada clutch is coated in a thick, plasticky layer that will quickly break and crack. Real value: $120. The brand he would be happy to splurge on? Bottega, he says, because they use “minimally processed and naturally clean leathers… They really are playing the top game.”


The apartment

This one-bedroom flat in Forest Hill, southeast London is in a converted church originally built by Ewan Christian, who later designed the National Portrait Gallery. The open-plan living spaces are filled with light, and a mezzanine level that can be used for guest accommodation. The neighbourhood is full of bars and restaurants, and Forest Hill Overground station is a 10-minute walk. £595,000.

The country house

This six-bedroom family home in rural Wiltshire has high ceilings, large windows and an impressive hall that extends the full depth of the house. Its two dual-aspect reception rooms have grand stone fireplaces, and the spacious kitchen/breakfast room is fitted with an Aga. Regular trains from nearby Kemble to London Paddington take 1hr 20mins. £1,500,000.



quoted 18.12.22

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

Economist Ernst F Schumacher