Arianne Shahvisi


22 June 2022

Orwell’s Teeth

‘The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth,’ George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air begins. Two paragraphs later, we learn that the narrator is forty-five years old. In 1984, Winston is surprised at Julia’s advances: ‘I’m thirty-nine years old. I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of. I’ve got varicose veins. I’ve got false teeth.’ And in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, an even younger Gordon Comstock glumly evaluates his life: ‘thirty years old, with twenty-six teeth left; with no money and no job; in borrowed pyjamas in a borrowed bed; with nothing before him except cadging and destitution, and nothing behind him except squalid fooleries.’ It’s not so much an oral fixation as a sign of the times. Teeth were hard to keep, especially if you were poor. In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell reads the teeth of working-class people in the industrial north.

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14 April 2022

The Vice of Vices

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have apologised, but the transgression is so layered that it’s unclear what exactly they claim to be sorry for. Some critics have focused on the importance of the ‘rule of law’, but the law is a poor proxy for morality. (Saving a drowning asylum seeker is, on any reasonable account, the right thing to do, but Johnson’s government recently made it illegal.) Breaking lockdown rules was immoral because there were real risks that doing so could spread the virus, causing illness, death and strain on the health service. High profile violations could undermine future public health measures whose efficacy hinges on widespread compliance. And Johnson has for months firmly and repeatedly denied any knowledge of the parties.  

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21 March 2022

Don’t call the police

Those of us who sometimes imagine the freedom of being fifteen again have forgotten that being fifteen means going around in a body you hate: a body that seems misshapen, that people might laugh at; a body that smells, sometimes; that sprouts unwanted hair. Even worse if it’s a body that menstruates, cramping and gushing and threatening to leave mortifying stains on upholstery. Worse still if it’s a racialised body, distant from white ideals of beauty, more vulnerable to slurs and violence, less liable to be protected from harm.

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18 February 2022

Heat Illusions

According to her daughter, Ève Curie, when the young Maria Skłodowska was a student in Paris in the 1890s she was often so cold in her garret room that she’d put her wooden chair on top of her blanket as she tried to sleep to give herself ‘some sort of illusion of weight and heat’. Reading of Marie Curie’s austere beginnings made me feel better about growing up in a house that was always cold.

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17 January 2022

Beautiful Handwriting

Those who wish to defend statues of dead white men on free speech grounds invariably undermine their case by failing to support that right for living people, especially those with marginal identities who say things they don’t like. Free speech isn’t just about who can speak, or whose statue stands or falls; it’s about who chooses not to speak because the consequences aren’t worth it, and who disappears from history without being heard at all.

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11 January 2022

Double Fault

Ever the opportunist, Nigel Farage has become Novak Djokovic’s most vocal advocate. On the face of it, this is a little peculiar. Farage is not only a professed devotee of Australia’s immigration policy, in particular ‘its points-based system’, but has built his political identity out of racialising and vilifying Eastern Europeans. Ahead of Farage’s meeting with the Djokovic family in Serbia (who either did no research on Novak’s ‘friend’ or liked what they found), Andy Murray tweeted: ‘Please record the awkward moment when you tell them you’ve spent most of your career campaigning to have people from Eastern Europe deported.’ But Farage’s worldview is one of hierarchies and exemptions. He cites the ‘rule of law’ when it comes to borders, but flouted the Covid lockdown in May 2020 – as it happens, on the same day as the Downing Street garden party – to strike out into the English Channel on a fishing boat and film dinghies of asylum seekers.

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9 December 2021

Deck the Halls

Boris Johnson has denied that the party took place, but hasn’t bothered to provide an alibi for the evening in question, so it looks likely that when firmer evidence emerges (as it surely will), he’ll frame it as a different kind of gathering. Probably not a ‘business meeting’, because Allegra Stratton has already chortled over that fib in the leaked clip, but some other euphemism. Like most antisocial behaviours, lying tends to be self-limiting: people who lie can’t cause harm for long because they lose credibility, and lying only works if people are inclined to believe you. But as with most things, Johnson is an exception to the rule. He lies effortlessly, without any apparent cognitive dissonance or regard for plausibility, and with little effect on his credibility or popularity.

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15 November 2021

Screwed Over

The screw, whose miniature steel variety is now among the most numerous fabricated objects on earth, is a combination of two other simple machines.

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29 October 2021

Foetid Runnels

In 2017, following a 140-year legal dispute between the government of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Māori people, the Whanganui River was granted personhood. Two years later, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh bestowed legal personhood on every one of its rivers. Earlier this year, the Magpie River in Quebec became a legal person following a campaign by the Indigenous Innu people. Enforcement is awkward, and rights must be realised through human guardians, but the symbolism of these recognitions is radical and far-reaching. They destabilise conceptions of nature as a store of commodities. Personified rivers are granted the right to flow, the right not to be polluted, and the right to sue. While rivers elsewhere are gaining moral recognition, England’s are full of shit.

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9 August 2021

The Lawn Problem

On hot days, a friend and I used to sneak away from school and dodge through a gap in the fence to the golf course next to the playing field. There, on the manicured grass, we would roll up our shirts and trouser legs and lie in the sun until we were weak with sunstroke. By the sixth form, I’d progressed to year-round bottled sunshine: golden cans of pungent foam that dyed my skin a glorious shade of bronze within minutes. At university, a baffled boy pointed out the streaks and I added my fake tan to the list of things that lost their currency outside Essex. Last summer, when my neighbours concreted over their lawn and unfurled lurid rolls of synthetic turf, I bit back my own aversion to fakeness. They passed us their unwanted compost bin over the fence, cheerily announcing they’d have no more garden waste.

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