Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

British Tabloid Chickens, in Defense of Hometowns, and Misunderstanding Chaucer

Also: A story by John Steinbeck is published in English for the first time, and more.

A new biography of Chaucer grossly misunderstands and misrepresents the medieval life and work of the poet. A. M. Juster reviews: “Nothing in this book actually supports the thesis that the beginning of the breakdown of medieval economies—often due to broader trade—made life any worse for the unidentified ‘other people’; it is purely a declaration based on today’s socialist ideologies. It is not even clear which ‘bureaucracies’ were supposedly engaging ‘in a relentless homogenization of identity,’ but any plausible accusation conflicts with ample evidence in the book that Chaucer’s contemporaries often were flourishing just as the centralized social controls of King Richard II were collapsing. Perhaps most stunningly, this alleged ‘homogenization’ flies in the face of Chaucer’s celebrations of the idiosyncrasies of diverse individuals in The Canterbury Tales. A key part of Turner’s failure to understand the medieval era stems from her palpable distaste for the Church, which reveals itself in her loaded language (emphases added): ‘Catholics and Protestants competed to claim him as a fellow traveler . . . Chaucer now capitulates to a religious vision of life…’ Most of the time, however, Turner makes errors of omission rather than commission when it comes to religion; she simply ignores the complex and pervasive influence of the Church on the people of Chaucer’s era in favor of such slack assertions as ‘[l]ooking at Chaucer’s life, it is evident that the different areas of his life often overlapped: personal and professional, home and work.’”

Tom McTague: “I, too, have dressed up as a chicken to harass British politicians.” More: “Like Boris Johnson’s director of communications, Lee Cain, I, too, once dressed up in a giant, fluffy chicken costume to chase Conservative politicians around London. It wasn’t, I hasten to add, a private peccadillo—something I did in my own time, for my own kicks. No, like Cain, who was unmasked today as a former ‘Mirror chicken,’ I was a junior reporter at the Daily Mirror when the 2010 general election came around. Prime Minister Gordon Brown had run out of road and a young pup named David Cameron was bidding to overturn 13 years of Labour Party rule. I was a Mirror trainee trying to break in to the paper’s political-reporting team before the end of my three-year apprenticeship. My reward: donning a strange rubber chicken mask, sweaty plastic gloves, and an all-in-one feathered suit.”

In defense of hometowns: “Should residents of Greater Hazleton follow the dismissive advice of many observers and just let their region die?”

The optical illusion that “changes” black and white photographs to color: “Color assimilation, also known as the Von Bezold spreading effect, occurs when our brain transfers perceived colors to its neighbors. The effect can be enhanced when there are areas of high contrast and the brain fills in the colors that it perceives should be present.”

A story by John Steinbeck available previously only in French has been published in English for the first time.

Tim Parks gives up on teaching: “Is it possible to lose a foundation stone of one’s culture without even having identified it as such? This year will be my last year teaching at the university; I’ve decided to throw in the towel three years before retirement age.”

Essay of the Day:

“Last winter, Moroccan officials found two hikers dead on the trail to the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains. The international investigation that followed revealed the fragility of the adventure travel economy, as well as what happens when a small tourist hub is suddenly made strange by violence.” Rachel Monroe tells the story in Outside magazine:

“The narrow, rutted road leading into Imlil, the gateway town to Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains, usually rumbles with activity. On a typical day, sand-colored taxis bringing day-trippers up from Marrakech, 56 miles to the north, share the road with hulking tour buses and snub-nosed vans with Transport Touristique written in script across their hoods. Taxis crammed with budget-minded backpackers trundle behind luxury SUVs from the nearby Kasbah Tamadot, Richard Branson’s luxury retreat, where rooms cost more than $600 a night. In warm weather, German motorcyclists riding BMWs laden with gearboxes zoom past cyclists in bright helmets powering up the twisty mountain road.

“Imlil, the central town in a valley with around 10,000 inhabitants, was once a sleepy out-of-the-way place, little known even to Moroccans. In recent years, though, as more hikers attempt to summit 13,671-foot Mount Toubkal, northern Africa’s highest peak, Imlil has become something of an adventure travel hot spot. For residents, the regular hum of traffic is reassuring. It’s the sound of more people coming to spend money in a region where most locals now derive their income from tourism.

“The town has undergone an astonishing transformation since the first time I visited, in 2006, when I was living in Morocco as a Fulbright fellow. Back then, the valley was adjusting to electricity, which it had just acquired for the first time. Now it has well over 100 Airbnb listings. This spring, when I walked through Imlil with guide and guesthouse owner Mohammed Idhali, he pointed out the businesses that had opened since my last visit: the argan-oil cooperative, the orange-juice stand, the carpet shop, that guide outfitter, that other guide outfitter, the pizzeria-creperie. Outside a tea shop, a half-dozen local guides wearing North Face jackets and secondhand boots awaited their clients, shouting out greetings to passing friends: Ya, Rashid! Ya, Omar! Muleteers let their animals graze the stray roadside grass before loading them up for treks into the mountains. ‘Everyone works, so it’s better now,’ Hassan Azdour, another guide and guesthouse owner, told me. ‘And everyone works with tourists. Out of every 100 people in the village, only five don’t work with tourists.’

“But on a winter day last year, all that bustling energy came to a sudden halt. On the morning of December 17, vehicles with government insignias sped along the road leading into Imlil, while the center of town remained eerily devoid of action. By midmorning, word of something terrible had begun to spread through the community: hikers—two young women, one from Denmark and the other from Norway—had been found dead on the trail leading up to Mount Toubkal, less than ten miles south of Imlil. Phones buzzed with rumors and assumptions. Perhaps, some people thought, the women had lit their camp stove in their tent and died of carbon-monoxide poisoning. But as more information emerged, it became clear that the deaths were not accidental. The women had died violently.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Imlil

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