Egypt’s square route of revolution

When actor and political activist Khalid Abdalla was a young schoolboy, a teacher set his class the task of writing their own obituaries. It has become part of family lore that Abdalla wrote in his that he had been assassinated because he was doing important political work. If there are, as his wife jokes, delusions of grandeur in that anecdote, there is also an early sign of the onerous sense of responsibility that has since driven Abdalla in both his work and his life.  Continue reading . . .

Is Jeffrey MacDonald Innocent?

The Oscar-winning film-maker Errol Morris made his name in 1988 withThe Thin Blue Line, a bravura piece of documentary-making that gained the release from prison of an innocent man who had been on death row. But although he spent several years working on that investigation, it’s not this crime that has maintained the most insistent hold on his intellect and imagination. That prize goes to one committed on 17 February 1970 at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Gay Talese: the old man of new journalism

Tom Wolfe credited him as the founding father of the New Journalism. He wrote what has been called “the greatest men’s magazine article of all time”. He published a series of bestselling books, and the film rights for one of them sold for a then world-record $2.5m. Yet Gay Talese is a writer who leaves most British readers blank-faced. Gay? Is that a real name? (Yes.) And how do you pronounce that surname? (It’s Taleez.)

Unlike Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson, those renowned renegades of observational reportage, Talese never established a cult audience on this side of the Atlantic. But he played no less a central role in that golden era of journalism in the second half of the 20th century, in which writers went toe-to-toe with their subjects and radically expanded the possibilities of nonfiction prose.

Crime fiction in a cold climate: writing after Utøya

Oslo is not a city whose streets hum with urban tension and social decay. To the casual observer, the Norwegian capital is a study in frictionless living: clean, well-ordered, civic-minded, affluent yet essentially egalitarian in spirit. There are more paintings by Edvard Munch here than there are graffiti, and Saturday night in town can seem about as frenetic as a bank holiday in Sunningdale. The locals speak with metropolitan pride about the edginess of the “east side”, where most of the city’s non-European immigrants live, but from a British perspective even that neighbourhood seems like a model of residential tranquillity. Yet these placid streets have produced countless psychopaths, serial killers, political assassins and degenerates of every conceivable stripe.

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The tabloid Scarlett O’Hara

Joyce McKinney is one of those names that for people of a certain age opens a doorway into the past. To mention it is to be transported back to the 1970s, when there were only three TV channels, British food was awful, sex was naughty and Fleet Street was still the home of national newspapers. Back then computers were the preserve of boffins in white coats, but even if journalists had managed to lay their hands on some mainframe monster the size of a small house, and programmed it with all the ingredients of the perfect tabloid story, the results could never have matched the bizarre and compelling tale of a wannabe beauty queen’s obsessional love.

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Jeff Koons: is he for real?

The feeling I have before meeting Jeff Koons, the extravagantly successful American artist, is reminiscent of the sense of defeated curiosity I experienced some years ago on the way to interview Gilbert and George. It’s the strong suspicion that I’m going to be the recipient of a performance and that nothing I ask or say is likely to affect or alter that performance.

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Arsene Wenger: the blinkered visionary

Ten days ago, after his team had successfully negotiated the qualifying round of the Champions League, the tall, austerely angular Arsenalmanager, Arsène Wenger, complained about the public’s pretensions to expertise. “We live in a society where everybody has an opinion on everything,” he said. “I’m like somebody who flies a plane for 30 years and I have to accept that somebody can come into the cockpit and thinks he can fly the plane better than I do.”

It was a characteristic Wenger statement, containing a wry piece of social commentary, a plaintive yet acerbic defence of his position and a tasty image for the insatiable sports media. Of course the notoriously independent-minded manager had no intention of accepting advice from outsiders. He was merely deploying his rhetorical gifts to point out the absurdity of being guided by the whims of public opinion. In other words, Wenger, whose nickname in footballing circles is “the professor”, was being Wenger: sardonic, aloof, unapologetic and unquestionably the man in control.

Unfortunately, the analogy backfired four days later when Arsenal crashed to an 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford against their fiercest Premier League rivals, Manchester United. If Wenger was the pilot, the thrashing was the equivalent of plotting a flight path through a mountain. Suddenly, the manager, who has been a study in certitude since his arrival in 1996 at Arsenal, looked dazed and confused, as though he was struggling to find his bearings amid the wreckage of the team’s heaviest defeat since 1896. Such was the pathos of Wenger’s plight that even Alex Ferguson, his most prickly adversary, was moved to offer consoling words of support. That must have hurt.

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The fight for peace in Chicago’s ganglands

On the stoop of a house on a dilapidated block in Englewood, the south side Chicago neighbourhood that tops the city’s statistics for murder, drug addiction, teen pregnancy and most of other indices of social dysfunction, are eight young African-American men and two or three women. It’s an oven-hot summer afternoon and the group is kicking back, drinking, shouting and laughing.

“I don’t like crowd scenes,” says Shango, a member of the city’s anti-violence project, CeaseFire, as we pull up outside. He explains that such gatherings increase the chances of becoming a victim of a drive-by shooting.

The street we’re in stands in the middle of a few blocks that have seen three murders in recent days, and countless more in the previous months and years. “Can’t no anybody park up on this block,” says Shango, who beneath his dreads wears an expression of mournful unflappability. His companion, TJ, a former prisoner and one of CeaseFire’s more seasoned outreach workers, tells me that summer is the “killing season” because there’s no refuge for grievances. In winter the freezing weather forces people inside, where tempers have time to cool.

One of the group on the stoop, a slim-built guy with a tattoo that crawls up out of the top of his vest like a weed, hobbles over to us on the sidewalk. His left foot is in plaster, the result of a high velocity encounter with a bullet.

This is Dee, a reformed veteran of the south side’s street wars. With his tattoos, gunshot wound and lively choice of company, he may not be Chicago’s answer to Mahatma Gandhi, but he is nonetheless a new recruit to the cause of peace.

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Chairman of the bored: how to find enlightenment in tedium

It may not be the most heart-pounding news of the moment, but boredom is coming back into fashion. Not boredom in the sense of lying around blank-faced in a brown study, a practice which in my experience has never really gone out of style, but boredom as a subject (rather than a product) of academic study. In recent years several scholarly books have reanimated a topic that had fallen into analytical torpor, the latest being Boredom: A Lively History by Peter Toohey, an Australian professor of classics who now lives and works in Canada – a country, alas, that bears an unfortunate reputation for being boring.

What is boredom? Is it a mood, an emotion, an affliction, a form of social protection, a gateway to the essence of the self, the human condition, or a modern affectation? These are questions that have concerned philosophers and thinkers dating back to the Enlightenment, not least because boredom occupies territory that overlaps with capital letter concepts like Being and Time.

I can’t pretend that my own interest in the matter has always been quite so elevated. Mostly when I think about boredom it is out of base self-interest, as a state that I’m very keen to avoid. Ever since I was a child, I have held an extreme aversion to situations that have the potential to be boring.

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Bobby Fischer: from prodigy to pariah

In 1999, I spent three days sitting in a variety of thermal baths dotted around Budapest. As grand and attractive as the Hungarian capital’s spas are, I wasn’t stewing myself for therapeutic or leisure purposes. Instead, I was waiting for someone I’d been told frequented the baths, someone who was said to be a genius and a paranoid obsessive, the greatest chess player who ever lived and an obnoxious crackpot. I was looking for Bobby Fischer.

For the last four decades of his life, that’s what people did with Fischer – they looked for him. Fans, journalists, biographers, friends, they all tried to find this mythical creature, either in person or in that fabulous abstract realm that he continued to haunt: chess. He had ventured deep into the alternate world of this most intellectually demanding of games, a daunting contest of infinite possibilities, and succeeded in becoming world champion. Like some chequerboard version of Conrad’s Kurtz, the experience seemed to leave him in a state of dread. Then he vanished.

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