Letterhole Diary – October 2018

Letterhole Diary. October. This month we consider Jair Bolsonaro's election, starting a new job, and Fiddler on the Roof, our film of the month.

IT’S NOT hysterical to call Jair Bolsonaro a fascist. By any objective definition, he is one: he supports military dictatorship, curbs on freedom of speech and expression, the use of torture, and discrimination against minority groups including black people, LGBT+ people and indigenous Brazilians. He also rejects environmentalism and supports a free market economy, which, while not a signature of fascism, has made it easy for Brazil’s business community to fall in behind him.

Brazil is in a mess: 13 years of left-wing government has resulted in a serious economic downturn and an unprecedented legacy of corruption. The last three presidents are all implicated in criminal activity. Bolsonaro has promised an end to corruption and an end to failed social policies; the problem is, his record suggests he’ll put an end to democracy to do so. Now it’s time for Brazil’s institutions to prove their resilience against a man so utterly opposed to democracy, freedom, and the rule of law.

Good luck, Brazil.

This month, Jodie Whittaker stepped into the shoes of Britain’s favourite alien. Lots of people (read: massive sexists) baulked at the idea of a female Doctor in Doctor Who, but Jodie Whittaker’s performance has been good enough to assuage the fears of all but the most awful misogynists. And that’s the thing: Whittaker has slipped so seamlessly into the role, with all the madness and energy and wisdom and kindness of any other Doctor, that it’s very difficult to find anything to criticise her for at all.

It’s not perfect, though. Although the stories have a ‘back-to-basics’ feel to them which has been very effective – particularly in the opener and in the rather fantastic Rosa – the dialogue is often clunky and some of the plots seems a bit thin. Arachnids in the UK, for instance, was good fun and made good use of horrible giant spiders, but suffered from B-Movie dialogue and a plot worthy of Sharknado. Nonetheless, the series shows a lot of promise, and once new showrunner Chris Chibnall irons out the kinks, it could be very good indeed. 

Tweet of the month

I’ve started a new job this month. Although I’ve felt like the new boy at school, it’s been fun exploring a new part of London during my lunch hour. This time it’s Bankside, near the Tate Modern on the wrong side of Blackfriars Bridge. It’s a world away from Soho, where I used to work: quieter, less hectic, and far from the filth and pollution of Oxford Street – the walk along the River Thames is almost pleasant, particularly given my mixed opinion of the capital.

One thing that strikes me about the area is the lack of decent coffee shops. The homogeneity of the ‘hipster coffee shop’ draws a lot of criticism, but I find something reassuring in the international template of shabby chic, reclaimed furniture, exposed fixtures and fitting and flat whites served by bearded Australians. You find them all over the world, in Bucharest, in Tokyo, in Copenhagen and in Soho – but apparently not in Bankside. The quest for good coffee continues.

Film of the month

Fiddler on the Roof
Norman Jewison, 1971

Letterhole rating: 8/10

Fiddler on the Roof almost seems as if it should be antisemitic. It plays on so many modern stereotypes of Jewish people that it’s easy to forget that the world depicted by the film is grounded in historical reality. Although a song like the iconic If I Were a Rich Man, removed from its context, sounds almost like a stereotype of the ‘money-grabbing Jew’, it’s in fact an ironic, wistful song about escaping from poverty – and in fact, Tevye, our main character, tells us he’d devote his days to studying his faith, if he didn’t have to spend so much time working.

In fact, far from being antisemitic, the film is about Tevye’s – played by Chaim Topol – desire to stay true to his family, faith and his traditions in spite of his poverty, looming modernity, his strong-willed daughters breaking from those traditions, and a violent, prejudiced society that wants to see him and his family gone. These are things that Jewish people have been grappling with themselves for centuries, which makes Fiddler on the Roof so much more potent – and in many ways, so timeless.

And ultimately it’s a generous portrait of a difficult man doing his best under difficult circumstances, one that never reduces his decisions or the traditions he holds dear to comedy. In the end, that’s quite an achievement. The music’s a lot of fun, too.

Essential reading

2 Oct Ian Dunt writes for politics.co.uk about Theresa May’s dangerous and saddening plan to end freedom of movement, and how it’s ultimately entirely self-defeating.

9 Oct Brian Winter looks at how bad a Bolsonaro presidency might be ahead of the Brazilian presidential election in Americas Quarterly.

17 Oct In the Independent, Jack Pitt-Brooke explains how the bad behaviour of England fans in Seville after a match against Spain better represents our country than we like to admit.

17 Oct In his last column for the Washington Post before his murder by Saudi Arabia, Jamal Khashoggi argues that the Arab world can only progress if its people are given the right to free expression.

17 Oct In the wake of the consultant on the Gender Recognition Act, three feminist writers deconstruct the typically flawed feminist case against trans rights for Verso Books.

18 Oct For CityMetric, James Cooray Smith suggests that the end of ITN’s regional television franchises in the 1990s significantly damaged regional identity, and national cultural life.

30 Oct Alex Barker and Arthur Beesley explain in the Financial Times why the Irish border has become so critical to Brexit – and what the UK is getting so wrong about it.

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