American folk veteran Steve Forbert: “I don’t care to sit down”

8076490199_c3317b708a_b-2-2.jpgIt was sometime at the dawn of my teen years that my dad first handed me a copy of Jackrabbit Slim, the 1979 second album from American folk singer Steve Forbert, gifted him by a friend. There began the longest unbroken period I, now 24, have yet spent listening to any artist, a habit that survived untroubled through an adolescence otherwise dominated by heavy metal.

It is an education to discover a musician who becomes one’s ‘own’. It allows space to explore their back catalogue at one’s own pace, to think about their songs for oneself, to feel that humorous lyrics are a private joke, insightful ones part of an ongoing conversation.

I meet Forbert outside Nell’s Jazz and Blues, Hammersmith, where he will play the London leg of his most recent European tour. I don’t notice him approaching, and it is an odd sensation to be so immediately face-to-face with a man who has only ever gazed out from successive CD covers, ageing 35 years as I aged 12.

We sit down in the green room, and Forbert sits pulling casually on the strings of a large, weathered acoustic guitar. “It’s a warhorse”, I say. He smiles and tells me that this is the guitar he is pictured playing on the back cover of Alive on Arrival, his 1978 debut, a fact that thrills me more than I risk letting on. The way his left hand jumps about the fretboard reminds me of improvisational guitarists like Derek Bailey and John Russell, but the sound produced speaks of years spent studying and writing carefully crafted melodies infused with folk, country, and pop.

I ask whether nearly 40 years after the release of his debut he still finds new aspects of old songs to keep him interested. “Absolutely”, he says in a soft Mississippi accent, “Even a song like ‘You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play’ [Alive’s closing track], which I’ve probably played 3,000 times, I’m still finding new ways to play the guitar on it, especially when I play solo. It’s a three chord song but it’s still interesting to me, the ways that it gets a little more sophisticated through the years.”

Many of those early songs are lively ensembles–‘Cellophane City’ is a masterclass in how to build a song evenly over five minutes, opening with a quiet, pseudo-reggae beat and crescendoing with a ringing saxophone solo–but Forbert now tours with only his voice box and a guitar. I ask whether it is easy to reproduce the energy of those tracks in a solo performance.

“No, it’s real hard. But if the audience is really going with it then it’s okay. The other night someone kept on requesting ‘When You Walk In The Room’, and I hadn’t worked out how to do the melody, but then these guys on the front row sang that. If the spirit is there in the room you can go with something like that. With the audiences, each night is a different animal. And when they’re really involved in a good way you can do anything you want pretty much, and that’s what I love most of all about this thing, because I like it to be pretty spontaneous.

“Even playing with a band live clips my wings some. I won’t stick to a setlist, and they know it, but you can’t play something that the band doesn’t know. But I often play songs that I don’t know [while playing solo] if the spirit is right, because I know that if I make a mistake the audience is going to be okay, and that’s really fun. It’s a little like jazz, that you’re just taking those chances.

“I would hate to be in a show that’s so big. I could never do a broadway play. But even a bigger arena show, the bigger they get, the more constructed they have to be, the less room there is for risk-taking.”

I’ve spent much of the last few weeks thinking about why I was so taken by Forbert’s music as a teenager. Certainly one mark of a good songwriter is an ability to write about love with sincerity, simply because there are too many love songs around for most to have lyrics worth listening to. John Martyn and Joni Mitchell, for example, both wrote about love using language that would never have been used had they never picked up a pen. Forbert has written some enviably beautiful romantic lyrics–You’re too much for me/ I’m a worn out sail/ On a sidewalk sea–and a devastating song, ‘Sadly Sorta Like a Soap Opera’, addressed lovingly to a victim of domestic violence.

He can write politically as well. His epic The Oil Song chronicles the world’s mass oil spills, and he will often pen and perform additional verses in response to the most recent disaster. He wrote The Baghdad Dream questioning the wisdom of the Iraq War, and in the wake of the 2008 financial crash told unrepentant financiers: You’ve set the world ablaze/ Now give yourself a raise.

“It’s when something really fires me up,” he says when I ask what motivates his forays into politics, “It’s when something gnaws at me until I think I might have something to say, or at least some way to put into a song what’s gnawing at me. It’s just sometimes there are things that you find you want to write a song about”.

But he is at his most potent when thinking aloud about the everyday, and does so with clarity and humour: ‘You gotta have insurance, boy, to drive your car to work/ And wind up down in court with some bad actor neck brace jerk’, or ‘It’s often said that life is strange, oh yes/ But compared to what?’

It strikes me that, perhaps as a direct result, someone reading a set of Forbert’s lyrics would often be able to guess the age of the person writing them. Try it with ‘All we do is talk about the dreams we share/ Talkin while they vanish in the thin hot air/ Hey listen, mountains move/ Ain’t there a time frame here?’ or ‘The male of this here species lives for eighty years or so/ Starts to see the mess he’s made and then it’s time to go’.

I ask whether over his long career he has consciously documented the passage of time. “You just work with inspiration,” he says, “If you get some inspiration you want to go with it. You make observations. It’s not an overall theme to chronicle the ageing process but it is happening to me.”

There isn’t much sign of it later that evening. He plays an energetic setlist, and moves onstage with the same youthful malleability as in any of the live footage from his four decades performing. At the close of the interview I had asked how long he plans to keep touring. “As long as I can,” he replied, “I’m not looking forward to sitting down and playing. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, but I don’t care to sit down.”


Review: Professor Lawrence Krauss on Space, Time, and Gravitational Waves @ Conway Hall, London

unnamed-3-2Lawrence Krauss is Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and director of its Origins Project, as well as a prolific author and communicator of science. In his first public lecture since last month’s announcement from the LIGO detector, Krauss spoke last night in London for the howto: academy on the topic of ‘Space, Time, and Gravitational Waves’. Christy Cooney went along. 

Hold your hand at arms length above your head. Think of the patch of sky captured by the nail of your little finger (happily enough, roughly one square degree), and divide the area into 84 equal sections. Now get yourself some time on the Hubble Space Telescope and point it at one of those tiny sections for some few million seconds, gathering all the light that comes your way. You will get something like the image above.

Spend some time staring at this picture, reflecting on the fact that it contains a few thousand galaxies, maybe even a civilisation or two, and try to convince yourself anew that the cold, rational world of science has nothing to offer those in search of the numinous.

The beauty of images like this, or so says Lawrence Krauss, lies not the in the awesome power of the technology used to capture them (though there is that), but in how they inform our view of what our place in the universe might or might not be.

Speaking last night at Bloomsbury’s Conway Hall, whose humanist library and advocation of secular humanism made it as fitting a setting as any university theatre, one of the world’s leading cosmologists expounded our current understanding of the cosmos, up to and including the recent observation of gravitational waves.

The observation was hard won, Krauss explained, and the technology that made it possible has not existed for more than a decade or so. Gravitational waves are ripples generated by the movement of mass through space-time, ripples that squeeze and stretch space-time as they move through it. The LIGO detectors comprise of laser beams bouncing back and forth between mirrors at opposite ends of a tunnel 4km long, a distance that would be measurably distorted were a gravitational wave to pass through.

The waves recently detected were generated by the merger, 1.3billion years ago, of two black holes, one of 29 solar masses, the other of 35. But the resultant black hole was of mass 62 times that of the sun, not 65. That means that in the 0.02 seconds required for the merger, three solar masses were emitted in the form of energy – that’s more than all the stars in the universe emitted in the same period.

Yet detecting the resultant waves still required measuring a change in the distance travelled by those laser beams of 1/1000 the width of a proton. That’s so small the scientists had to account for the most infinitesimal sources of noise, from continental drift, to lorries hitting potholes a few miles away, to quantum mechanical movement in the surface of the mirrors. Two detectors were used – one in Washington, one in Louisiana – on the basis that if they detected the same signal amid all the noise, it was very likely a gravitational wave passing through the Earth.

Krauss’s attraction as a communicator lies not just in his ability to explain his subject in plain English, but also in his enthusiasm for the links between the physical and the metaphysical. This talk might be considered an addendum to his wonderful 2012 book A Universe from Nothing. Gravitational waves interact extremely weakly with matter, so provide an opportunity to see past a thus-far impermeable wall of radiation generated by the Big Bang known as the Cosmic Microwave Background, and to observe the first nano-, pico-, and femtoseconds of our universe’s existence.

As Krauss says, while much of the news making its way out of the United States at the moment might not show humanity at its most inquisitive, discoveries of this sort certainly do – these detectors are the gothic cathedrals of the 21st century, built to celebrate not God, but the natural universe, its origins, and the wonder that man knows.

Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali in conversation at the JW3 community centre

DBTV_org-2Maajid Nawaz is a British-born muslim and former Islamist who spent four years in an Egyptian jail. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born atheist and former Muslim who fled to America from the Netherlands when her collaborator on a film critical of Islam was murdered. Their views on Islam differ, but both campaign for reforms within the religion itself and to its relationship with the wider world. They met in London last night to discuss their work, points of agreement, and how progress might be achieved. Christy Cooney went along.  

Readers of London’s Independent might have noted the following sentence when it appeared in the paper’s editorial in the days before last year’s general election: “…we belong to no party or faction, act without fear or favour, and know our readers are wise enough to make up their own minds.” Note that middle clause, and recall that the paper’s editor had admitted just four months earlier to having declined to reproduce the Charlie Hebdo cartoons for fear of violent reprisal. Who was the paper now claiming not to fear? David Cameron? Ed Miliband?

I wouldn’t single out the Indy for declining to act unilaterally but for its self-satisfaction, both in this example and at the time of the attacks, when it patted itself on the back for putting a middle finger on its front page. If on these occasions the press is going to leave the actual defenders of free expression to act as lighting rods for Islamist vengeance it might at least not pretend to have done otherwise.

I thought about the editors of our national newspapers, and how they spoke of the weight of the decision that faced them last year, and how they go on taking their editor’s salaries, last night as I identified JW3, Finchley Road’s beautiful Jewish community centre, by the police uniforms stood at its gate. They were there to ensure the right of I and the rest of the sold-out crowd to hear converse two people whose work really does endanger them, but who decline any refuge in cowardice: Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The two have differing views on Islam – Nawaz advocates alternatives to extremist narratives and reform within Islam, while Ali excoriates the doctrine of Islam itself – so the conversation began on the topic of how the dialogue came about. Nawaz has recently published a written collaboration with prominent non-believer Sam Harris and points out that, for those of us interested in conversations of this sort, the dividing line is no longer between the religious and the so-called New Atheists – that debate is to some extent academic. The divide is now between those who are willing to defend secular, liberal democracy and condemn its enemies in absolute terms, and those who are not.

They touched on the lesser absurdities of the latter group – Nawaz sips on a coffee in honour of the Guardian interviewer who used his choice of a skinny flat white to question his credentials – and on the greater ones – Ali has been told that she cannot speak about the problems within Islam because her view has been skewed by a difficult childhood, never mind the impact Islam had on that childhood.

She laments those who will not mention the name of Muhammad while discussing the problem of Islamism, saying the habit is comparable to talking about communism without mentioning Marx or national socialism without mentioning Hitler. It is amazing how many on the left will not concede this point, not least because, as the evening demonstrated, what one says about Muhammad once it has been conceded is an entirely different question.

There were some positive takeaways from the conversation: education and dialogue must be the priority; institutions will be slow to change but they will change in response to grassroots movements; outlawing non-violent extremism won’t solve the problem of Islamism. Incidentally, can anyone think of a problem that education and free expression couldn’t solve? Or one that ignorance and censorship could?

I would love to speculate that it was in this spirit of pluralism that the venue was chosen, and I’m sure that was part of it. But the sad fact is that synagogues and Jewish centres often come with high railings (and in this case a dry moat) already installed. For all its positives, the evening was a reminder that we live under a de facto blasphemy law, and that Nawaz and Ali are rare in their willingness to risk their lives to live outside it.

There is, however, one single positive aspect of that law: it evaporates the moment it is broken. It could not survive a show of solidarity like #JeSuisCharlie if the sentiment were sincere and lasted more than a few days. Ali in particular has long been the hostage of our cowardice, and productive dialogue like last night’s between brave, intelligent people will help bring about her release and that of all those like her.

Exhibition review: Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution at the National Maritime Museum

rmg-pepys-home-1224x800-01_0For anyone trying to make their way from Central to South East London, particularly on a crisp February morning like yesterday’s, a Thames boat ride is a civilised alternative to the DLR. While making the most of the winter sun, one can look northward between Temple and Tower Hill and get perhaps the most complete view of the area razed by the Great Fire of London.

The stretch is almost a mile long and the fire spread as far as half a mile back from the river, destroying 13,500 homes, 87 parish churches, the Royal Exchange, and who knows what other treasures and works. But among those who was able to save his possessions, and so continue his account of an intensely eventful period in English history, was Samuel Pepys, a naval administrator and member of parliament, whose diaries are currently being celebrated at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, where I, my father, and my grandfather disembarked.

The wealth of history in the small gallery housing the exhibition is testament to Pepys’s involvement in the life of mid-17th century London. You will find a well-worn pair of embroidered leather gloves, purportedly removed from the hands of Charles I a few minutes before a 15-year-old Pepys watched, approvingly, as the King’s head was removed from his shoulders.

Pepys would later attend the coronation of Charles II in 1660, five months after commencing his diaries, and the exhibition includes a magnificent 2.8m x 2.4m oil-on-canvas portrait of the restored monarch, dressed in parliamentary robes and holding the Sovereign’s Orb, painted by John Michael Wright in 1675. Nearby can be found the letter sent to The Hague by seven MPs in June 1688 inviting William of Orange to invade England and depose Charles’s catholic successor, James II, an invitation William accepted four months later.

A digitised map plays out the spread of the Great Fire (news of which Pepys was the first to deliver to the king), accompanied by audio commentary from Pepys’s account. The graphics enable one to understand not just the pace of spread of the fire, but the great portion of the then-smaller London consumed by it (a note on one of the walls says that in later life Pepys ‘left London and retired to Clapham’).

Elsewhere is a small reflecting telescope made by Isaac Newton in 1671. Pepys was president of the Royal Society when, in 1686, Newton’s Principia laid the foundations of classical mechanics, and his name appears on the title page of the work, though he would probably have understood little of its contents. Newton would later follow in Pepys’s footsteps, becoming the society’s president in 1703.

While we were there a free talk took place delineating how Pepys’s political alignments evolved throughout his life (conclusion: so varied were his allegiances that one can argue he was neither a Royalist nor a Republican, but an opportunist). The talk was given informally in one corner of the gallery and was clearly not audible to many of the 30 or so people stood around us, but this is a problem easily rectified, and the discussion was an engaging exploration of a topic perhaps too speculative to commit to section labels.

Anxious about the failure of his eyesight, Pepys stopped writing his diaries in 1669, but had them bound in six volumes and stored in his library. Despite the measures he took to save and preserve the diaries, it is doubted Pepys ever intended them to be published – he left them in shorthand form. In 1819, a Reverend John Smith set about transcribing them, and would work for two years before realising which shorthand system had been used – Thomas Shelton’s Tachygraphy – or that the code to decipher it had been in Pepys’s library the whole time. Smith’s original transcription can be seen opened to the final page, on which Pepys prays: “All the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me!”

We are fortunate that Pepys wrote and recorded while he did and that Smith laboured, however unnecessarily (though I should admit that our party of three had only one member, your unfit correspondent, yet to take advantage of the fact). Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution provides a rich introduction to the subject, and is a service not just to the history of the diaries themselves, but to that of the events that bore them.

Corbyn is more electable than the Right seems to think.


For all the faults of the British Right, it does possess, more so than the Left, an attachment to seriousness. It is less self-righteous, often has more regard for due process, and is less inclined to use literalism to its own political ends. Asked a few months ago to predict which of Britain’s two major parties would soon set out to sabotage the leadership election of the other, most of us would have predicted wrong. What’s more, any attempt by Labour members to sabotage a Tory leadership election would rightly have been denounced by Toby Young and Louise Mensch as typically sophomoric.

Had the Tories for Corbyn campaign simply been an attempt by the Right to satirise Labour’s registration policy, it would have been a good point well made. And who could have denied them the indulgence? Labour’s attempt to woo voters by inviting them to care who leads a party they had so recently rejected was pathetic from the off. (This weathervane attitude has been made more explicit elsewhere. Yvette Cooper has taken to saying that she wants people to vote for her not so that she can ‘be’ something but so that she can ‘do’ something. In other words: “I have no beliefs of my own. Tell me what pledges you want to hear and i’ll repeat them back to you.”)

But Tories for Corbyn was more than satire. It was still unclear whether Corbyn would win the vote among actual Labour supporters when the Telegraph urged its readers to sign up and vote, believing that by doing so they would secure a Tory majority for the foreseeable future. They didn’t care if Labour got a leader it hadn’t voted for because they didn’t think the electorate would vote for him either.

Still, the architects of Labour’s voting policy eventually got what they asked for. Polling cards are out, and with only a few weeks to go Corbyn’s campaign has boosted the number of registered voters to 600,000, 53% of whom are expected to give him their first preference vote. The Right is rejoicing. The one thing that stops me finding their sneering elation as annoying as I might is that I’m not sure Corbyn is as unelectable as they think, and would be amazed if the same isn’t being said behind the closed doors of Conservative Party HQ.

Ed Miliband didn’t lose some ongoing ideological battle in which Corbyn’s losses are bound to be even greater. He lost because elections are never won by candidates who cannot convince the public they can handle the economy. Miliband was not simply incompetent when it fell to him to defend Labour’s economic record, he was absent. Rather than risk a battle of substance, he let the Tories lie about the impacts of Labour’s spending, rewrite the history of their own spending plans, and banked on the whole thing dying out before 2015. As a direct result, the Tories were able to plant a now-widely held misconception that good management equals austerity, and vice versa.

Cameron and Osborne wanted to face Miliband in public relations battles because he was awful at fighting them (and, worse, having lost them would claim to never have been fighting them in the first place). But how far will high-vis jackets and sloganised economics get them against a weathered sexagenarian whose style of communication was shaped on the back benches and public transport?

Liz Kendall thinks that to win back the public’s trust on the economy Labour must concede the Tories’ claims. In a sense she is right, because until now it has been they who have decided what is to be believed about the economy and what is not, what is true about the economy and what is not. Yet some of the world’s most respected economists—Amartya Sen, Joseph StiglitzThomas Piketty—are lining up to give the lie to the myths of the pro-austerity Right. Jeremy Corbyn is, depressingly, the only candidate not afraid to repeat that case and gather the low hanging fruit ignored by Miliband in his hesitancy.

The Left of the 1980s might have underestimated the progressive potential of capitalism. Jeremy Corbyn probably still does. But John Maynard Keynes, this country’s most prized economist, is remembered above all for arguing that high fiscal spending and the redistribution of wealth are the most effective ways to generate demand and economic growth. Economic thinking of this kind has not been discredited. In Greece and elsewhere its alternatives have.

Napoleon is supposed to have said that to understand a man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty. Like them or not, the populist Left is made up increasingly of people who have come of age since New Labour embraced capitalism. They are angry about the financial crash, the banks whose fortunes it failed to hinder, and the inequality that has survived it. They do not understand why Tony Blair so fears a resurgence of the far-Left, and it is for reasons Blair cannot understand that Corbyn really might win an election on the strength of, not despite, what he says about the economy.

I am as despondent at the prospect as any of my right-wing friends would be if they believed it likely to happen. Corbyn’s simplicity and sincerity might be able to mobilise people, but his intention to reopen coal mines, leave NATO, and go on calling Hezbollah his friends (why not ‘guests’, by the way?) are each regressive at best and dangerous at worst. Like so many of the faux-radicals in the Stop the War coalition, he can’t get one sentence into answering a question about Hamas without bringing up the crimes of Israel, and he can’t condemn anti-semitism on the far-Left without changing the subject to racism on the far-Right. But there are not enough people on the Left bothered by any of this for it to make any difference.

Corbyn’s tendency to flare and bristle when he is challenged and his self-satisfied insistence that any criticism of his politics constitutes a ‘personal attack’ might douse his appeal after a while. But as Boris Johnson or Donald Trump will tell you, the electability of a politician who can converse without resorting to the vapid language of press releases, and who uses their brain to lie and evade your questions, cannot be overestimated.

Everyone assumed Corbyn’s candidacy would be the last heaving sigh of a dying generation until he got onto the ballot paper and was given the oxygen of publicity. I find myself certain the same thing will happen among the wider electorate, and there will be very few on the Right still laughing if it does.

Might not an SNP-backed Labour government help preserve the Union?


Last week, realising that the SNP could lend a terminally apathetic British Left the last bit of energy required to hoist Ed Miliband aloft and into Downing Street, Tory spin doctors got spinning. Members of the government’s front bench became at once united in awe at Nicola Sturgeon’s powers, and concerned she might use them for evil given the opportunity.

And the tactic has worked. An Ipsos MORI poll published in the London Evening Standard last night gave the Conservatives a five-point lead over Labour, with 44 per cent of people saying they would be unhappy were the SNP to wield any influence after the coming election. Ed Miliband responded with an admirably risky gambit during the Leaders’ Question Time special, saying he’d rather not be in office than be held there by any form of deal with the SNP.

But has any argument exceeding a single sentence in length been made as to why an SNP-backed government would be so terrible? We’re told simply that the SNP want to “break up the country”. Yet it seems quite obvious that an SNP-backed government in Westminster could drastically diminish Scottish appetite for another referendum in the near future. The SNP’s case for independence says that Scots should no longer be governed from 300 miles south of the border by—invariably English—Tory governments for which they invariably do not vote; a Labour-SNP deal could undermine it.

The majority of recent SNP converts were Labour supporters not long ago, so would likely not object to the thought of Ed Miliband being their prime minster, even if they intend to vote SNP next week. And a Labour government willing to lend an ear to the SNP would give Scots the left-wing government they vote for and the voice in national government they want for. It would be a compromise many might find to be more agreeable than the upheaval of secession.

May poll respondents not forget, either, that it was David Cameron who ensured a surge in SNP support, knowing it would come at Labour’s cost, when he declared only retrospectively that his referendum pledges were conditional on reform for England. Perhaps justifiably fearful of losing votes in England, the Labour leadership declined that opportunity to become an enthusiastic voice for Scots. That is why it is to lose tens of seats it might otherwise have held, not because Labour and the SNP are natural substitutes or allies.

There are those of us who would rather see a majority Labour government able to convince Scots it can represent them (and, for that matter, speak the left-wing language for which Nicola Sturgeon won more applause at the leaders’ debates than anybody else did for saying anything else). But we all know that a majority will not be secured, despite what the party leaders will continue to dispiritedly insist. If Ed Miliband is able to properly and publicly engage with the SNP and, in the event of a hung parliament, negotiate further Scottish devolution, he might yet establish a stable left-wing government, and in the process keep a kingdom contentedly united.

The ‘Je Suis Charlie’ movement is too little, too late.

je suis charlie mohammed

In the coming weeks and months, what will the words ‘Charlie Hedbo’ come to represent? What thoughts will they summon? They will—or should—make anyone into whose mind they arise think of the brave few writers and cartoonists who were willing to risk their lives stress testing the freedoms we all so complacently hold, and hold dear.

The ‘Je Suis Charlie’ slogan is, in and of itself, a poignant and appropriate way to pay them tribute. But the cartoons now inextricably attached to the words ‘Charlie Hebdo’ were noticeably absent from yesterday’s memes and vigils, as they were—predictably, inevitably, dispiritingly—from today’s national newspapers, precisely when it mattered. What is the point in publishing a plethora of admittedly powerful cartoons not one of which exercises the kind of freedoms yesterday’s attackers would deny—are denying—us?

Most news outlets and spokespeople still cannot bring themselves to discuss the attacks without implying that the printing of certain cartoons is an insanitary act. The BBC News website told us that the magazine had “courted controversy in the past”. The first tweet on the subject from HuffPost UK Political Director Mehdi Hasan began “I’m no fan of Charlie Hebdo, but this is a sickening, terrifying, unjustifiable attack on journalists.” On Channel 4 News, Matt Frei’s primary line of questioning to L’express Editor Christian Makarian asked whether Charlie Hebdo had “overstepped the line”.

And how many articles will be written in the coming days glibly insisting that we must defend freedom of expression, authored by people who in 2006 thought that to reprint the Mohammed cartoons published in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten would be needlessly provocative?

No major news outlet in this country has yet reproduced those cartoons either. Charlie Hebdo did. Ils étaient Jyllands-Posten. But for years they were left to their defiance, their heads protruding above the trench, lonely targets on which enemy sights could be honed. What displays of solidarity we have now managed are too little, and they are very definitely too late.

Do we imagine that Kubrick’s Spartacus would have offered gratitude had he been secure on a cross, the Romans’ bloodlust temporarily sated, before his fellow enslaved had decided to commence any act of solidarity? Many of those now happy to appropriate Charlie Hebdo’s name might otherwise have spent today denouncing any writer or cartoonist insistent on treating all belief systems with equal derision as a provocateur, Islamophobe, or racist. Perhaps therein lies some iota of hope.

In response to the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989, Christopher Hitchens wrote: “It comes easily to the relaxed child of the Enlightenment to say that everything should be sayable; that every book should be available. Yet every generation or so, we are reminded that more than a vague permissiveness is at stake.”

We are now, alas, reminded more often than we would need. But we allow what lessons we might learn to dissipate with the smoke of Islamist guns. Between now and the next attack, we will assert our absolute freedom, but we will practise only vague permissiveness. The drawing and the printing will be left to a precious few.

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