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14-15 May

Long reads shortened

Farewell to the Hong Kong I loved

“Hong Kong isn’t what it was,” says Matthew Brooker in Bloomberg. The “exuberantly free and pluralist” society I’ve lived in for thirty years has vanished. Colourful activists fighting for a “kaleidoscope of political and social causes” no longer line the road outside Causeway Bay station. People who were part of the fabric of public life for decades are in prison. “Walls have been scrubbed clean of graffiti.” More than 100,000 people have taken steps to move from Hong Kong to the UK in the past year. Sometime in the next two months, I will join them.


The return of a dictator’s son

The election this week of “Bongbong” Marcos as the president of the Philippines “completes one of the most extraordinary political comebacks of all time”, says Richard Kay in the Daily Mail. Bongbong, 64, is the son of the “ruthless dictator” Ferdinand Marcos, who “plundered billions from his country while brutally suppressing dissent”. His mother Imelda infamously owned a whopping 3,000 pairs of shoes, and on one overseas shopping trip spent $9m in 90 days.

Heroes and villains

Lionfish | Meghan Markle | Greg Norman

Lionfish are keeping Florida in seafood. The spiny fish species has been running rampant since the 1980s, says InsideHook, “due to its insatiable appetite and lack of predators”. In response, local biologists and fishermen are ruthlessly slaughtering and eating them. “We have everything,” says marine scientist Alex Fogg. “Coconut crusted lionfish, lionfish sushi, ceviche, fajitas, burritos, pretty much every presentation you can think of.”


quoted twain 14.5.22

“Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired.”

Mark Twain


Britney is “a woman reborn”

Britney Spears’s so-called “comeback” on The X Factor back in 2008 was “one of the saddest celebrity spectacles I’ve ever witnessed”, says Piers Morgan in The Sun. Awkwardly gyrating and shamelessly lip-syncing, she appeared a “tragic train wreck”. “The only way she’s ever going to ‘hit me baby one more time’ is if I’m lying manacled to a torture-chamber bed,” I wrote at the time. But now “I shudder at how I mocked her so mercilessly”. I didn’t know Britney was trapped in a real-life torture-chamber: the conservatorship of her father. She was forced to take birth control, kept on a strict 1,200-calorie-a-day diet, and her telephone calls were monitored. “Even when you go to jail you know there’s the time when you’re gonna get out,” Britney said at the time. “In this situation it’s never-ending.”


quoted Sykes 14.5.22

“Be nice to nerds. You may end up working for them.”

American commentator Charles J Sykes

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Tomorrow’s world

What if the Russians turned off our tractors?

“Here’s a delicious story,” says Cory Doctorow in Medium. Russian looters in Ukraine stole $5m worth of John Deere farm equipment – but when they shipped the kit home, the company remotely activated an “inbuilt kill switch” that rendered the machinery totally inoperable. Ha! Take that, bad guys! Alas, scratch at the surface of this tale of glorious comeuppance, and you find a “far scarier parable”. Bizarre as it may sound, Deere’s kill switches “put the entire food supply chain at risk”.

Desert Island Discs

My dinner with Putin

Fiona Hill has, in her own words, gone “from the coal house to the White house”. The 56-year-old foreign affairs specialist, who has advised George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump about Russia, was born in the former mining town of Bishop Auckland in northern England. Her mother was an NHS midwife, and her father was a coal miner turned hospital porter who advised her to leave their town, saying: “There’s nothing for you here, pet.” The family were too poor to have a television, Hill tells Lauren Laverne on Desert Island Discs, and she had to turn down a scholarship to a local private school because they couldn’t afford the uniform and books. Instead, she would take refuge in the quietest part of their small house and look things up in their complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Inside politics

Don’t write off the Tories after their drubbing in the local elections, says Matthew Goodwin in UnHerd. The main opposition party usually does better than the government in local votes: even “under the radical left-winger Michael Foot”, Labour consistently outperformed Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party, but it was beaten by a landslide in the general election. It takes a very high lead in the locals – 14 points for Tony Blair’s Labour before 1997, and 15 points for David Cameron’s Tories before 2010 – for it to translate to a general election victory. In fact, at no point between 1979 and 2022 has an opposition party managed to overturn a government after attracting a local election vote share of less than 40%. Keir Starmer only managed 35% to Boris Johnson’s 30% last week. Labour “is still a long way from winning the next general election”.

Great escape

When Europe was still “a big adventure”

The sixties was “the best decade for travel”, says Hilary Bradt in The Daily Telegraph – but it was not for the faint of heart. After World War Two, in a bid to protect the pound, the government limited the amount of cash you could take abroad to just £25. In the early 1960s restrictions were relaxed, but in 1966 Harold Wilson tightened them again, bringing in a £50 limit. There were ways around it, of course. A friend’s mother used to send £5 notes, hidden inside Knorr soup packets, to a prearranged foreign address. The tin foil of the soup packet bamboozled Post Office X-rays.

Quirk of history

Moscow’s war on words

Ukraine is a country “dreamed into existence by a poet”, says Askold Melnyczuk in LitHub. In the 18th century, Taras Shevchenko’s nationalist poetry had the effect of “solidifying and fortifying the indigenous people’s sense of themselves”, and ever since poets have held a “singular importance” culturally. That’s why Russia has long been waging war on the Ukrainian language. In 1863, Moscow introduced a ban on Ukrainian poetry. In 1876, Emperor Alexander II outlawed all publications in Ukrainian, including imported books, theatre productions and songs. In 1930, Ukraine had 260 active writers; by 1938, only 36 remained – the rest had mostly been shot, arrested, or disappeared without a trace.


The hideaway

Despite its grandeur, this 13th-century chateau in the south of France is a “manageable size”, says Country Life. There are five bedrooms, terracotta floors, and a library in the north-eastern tower. Within the 17 acres of gardens there’s also an orangery, a two-storey gatehouse and a dovecote. Agen airport is a 35-minute drive. £1.6m.

The cottage

This one-bedroom cottage in Devon was built in the 16th century and is one of the oldest homes in its village. It has a courtyard garden and a typically Devonian slate chimney. A sandy and secluded beach, Arymer Cove, is a 20-minute walk away. £300,000.