12 February 2024

The Sarawak Report:
The Inside Story of the 1MDB Exposé



British journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown has been sentenced in absentia to two years in jail by a Malaysian court. She was sued for defamation by Nur Zahirah, Sultanah of the Malaysian state of Terengganu, on 21st November 2018, a few months after the publication of her book The Sarawak Report: The Inside Story of the 1MDB Exposé.

Rewcastle Brown’s investigative reporting exposed the 1MDB scandal that led to the imprisonment of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak on corruption charges. Less than a week before Rewcastle Brown’s conviction on 7th February, Razak’s twelve-year sentence was reduced by half.

The Sultanah—wife of Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin—had originally sought 100m ringgit in libel damages, though the High Court ruled in Rewcastle Brown’s favour, dismissing the case. The Court of Appeal overturned that decision on 12th December last year, and awarded damages of 300,000 ringgit.

The case stems from a single sentence in The Sarawak Report implying that the Sultanah was instrumental in the establishment of 1MDB, referring to “the wife of the sultan, whose acquiescence was needed to set up the fund” (p. 3). After the initial lawsuit, Rewcastle Brown clarified that she should have named the Sultan’s sister rather than his wife, and the text was changed in later editions. She also explained that the ambiguous pronoun “whose” referred to Sultan Mizan himself.

04 February 2024

2475
นักเขียนผีแห่งสยาม
(‘1932: the ghost writer of Siam’)


2475 Graphic Novel Rama VII

In the years following the 2014 coup, the military government set about removing public reminders of the 1932 revolution, when Thailand transitioned from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy. In the catalogue for his exhibition The L/Royal Monument (นิ/ราษฎร์), Wittawat Tongkeaw describes the disappearance of “physical components—names, plaques, monuments” commemorating the revolution. Similarly, in his chapter in Rama X (edited by Pavin Chachavalpongpun), Chatri Prakitnonthakan discusses “the destruction of significant buildings and monuments related to the memory of the People’s Party”.

Most notoriously, a plaque in Bangkok’s Royal Plaza was covertly replaced in 2017 with a new plaque honouring the monarchy. Leaders of the recent student protest movement created a new plaque with a democratic inscription, and installed it at Sanam Luang on 20th September 2020, though it was removed by the authorities almost immediately. Reproductions of the new plaque have been shown at various exhibitions, including Wittawat’s 841.594, and it appears prominently in Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s film 100 Times Reproduction of Democracy (การผลิตซ้ำประชาธิปไตยให้กลายเป็นของแท้).

The new plaque is an indication of a political awakening among young Thais—known as ta sawang—and a renewed interest in the 1932 revolution specifically. One of the groups organising the recent protests is called Khana Ratsadon, in tribute to the political party of the same name that led the 1932 revolution. A new library of pro-democracy books is called 1932 People Space Library, its name referring to the year the revolution took place. Souvenir items from 1932 were displayed at the Revolutionary Things (ของ [คณะ] ราษฎร) exhibition in 2018. Charinthorn Rachuratchata’s exhibition Museum 2032 (พิพิธภัณฑ์ ๒๕๗๕) looked forward to the revolution’s centenary.

This revival of interest in the events of 1932 is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 2010, vox pop interviews for Abichon Rattanabhayon’s short film The Six Principles (สัญญาของผู้มาก่อนกาล) demonstrated the public’s apathy towards the revolution. But a few years later, in 2013, the change in attitudes was apparent when Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s documentary Paradoxocracy (ประชาธิป'ไทย) achieved unexpected box-office success. (Paradoxocracy features an extended discussion of the revolution, and begins by reproducing the text of a 1932 manifesto railing against King Prajadhipok.)

The 1932 revolution is central to the plot of a new book, 2475 นักเขียนผีแห่งสยาม (‘1932: the ghost writer of Siam’), by Tanis Werasakwong (known as Sa-ard) and Podcharakrit To-im. The book tells the full story of the revolution in the form of a graphic novel, featuring prominent politicians of the period—and even King Prajadhipok—among its main characters. The project’s website describes the revolution as “an event in Thai history that has been erased from collective memory”, a point also made in Prabda Yoon’s short film Transmissions of Unwanted Pasts (วงโคจรของความทรงจำ).

31 January 2024

The Showman:
Inside the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky


Time / The Showman

Simon Shuster’s superb new book The Showman: Inside the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky, published last week, is a unique profile of Ukraine’s President, from a writer who has spent more time with Zelensky and his inner circle than any other journalist. Shuster has reported on Zelensky for Time magazine since 2019, and his dispatches throughout the Russia-Ukraine war have been essential reading. He was embedded in the presidential compound for months on end, yet his reporting on Zelensky has remained scrupulously objective.

Zelensky cooperated with Shuster to such an extent that the President’s staff raised objections to it, as the author explains in his prologue: “Some of Zelensky’s aides, in particular the ones responsible for his security, did not always appreciate the access the president gave me, especially on the days when he invited me to travel with him to the front. He never explained his reasons for doing that. His staff only said that he trusted me to write an honest account.” When Shuster initially proposed the book—under the working title The Fight Is Here: Volodymyr Zelensky and the War in Ukraine—the President, with a degree of modesty, “felt he had not lived or achieved enough to be the focus of a biography.”

Shuster praises Zelensky’s bravery as a wartime leader, and admires the President’s genuine and selfless concern for his people. But although this is an authorised biography, it’s certainly not a hagiography. Shuster makes clear, for example, that Zelensky was at fault for Ukraine’s lack of preparedness when the war began: “He had spent weeks playing down the risk of a full-scale invasion and assuring his people that all would be fine. He had refused the advice of his military commanders to call up all available reserves and use them to fortify the border. Apart from the calamity of the invasion itself, the president would need to face his own failure to foresee it.”

Rather than the exaggerated Churchillian comparisons made by some other journalists, Shuster’s assessment of Zelensky is surprisingly ambivalent. He even admits to being “worried” about the President’s potential commitment to democracy in a post-war Ukraine, once restrictions on the media are eventually lifted: “I don’t know how Zelensky will handle that fraught transition, whether he will have the wisdom and restraint to part with the extraordinary powers granted to him under martial law, or whether he will, like so many leaders throughout history, find that power too addictive.”

14 January 2024

Pac-Man:
Birth of an Icon


Pac-Man

The Japanese arcade video game Pac-Man (パックマン), designed by Tōru Iwatani, was released by Namco in 1980, at the height of the so-called golden age of video arcades. In the 1970s, Atari’s Pong and Taito’s Space Invaders (スペースインベーダー) had defined video games in the public consciousness, though Pac-Man would supersede them both to become arguably the most iconic video game in history.

Pac-Man’s initial appeal came from Iwatani’s creation of what Steven Poole (in his book Trigger Happy) calls “[t]he first videogame ‘character’ of all”. In their book Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon, Arjan Terpstra and Tim Lapetino argue that the game’s distinctive mascot is now a ubiquitous cultural symbol: “Pac-Man’s appeal as a character transcended arcades and moved into the wider realm of popular culture.”

Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon, published in 2021, is the definitive history of Pac-Man, covering every aspect of the game’s development and release. It’s both a coffee-table book with beautifully-reproduced illustrations (including numerous documents from the Namco archive) and a meticulously researched, comprehensive account of the game’s history.

Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon

One indication of the book’s attention to detail is that its title also appears in Japanese (パックマン:アイコンの誕生). Appendices include a complete Pac-Man gameography and the first English translation of Iwatani’s Japanese-language memoir, Pacman’s Method (パックマンのゲーム学入門).

Retro Gamer magazine (no. 61) also covered the making of Pac-Man (which it called “gaming’s most iconic videogame character”), but Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon is the first book on the history of the entire Pac-Man phenomenon. Leonard Herman’s Phoenix was the first general history of video games, and Tristan Donovan’s Replay is the most comprehensive guide to the subject. Push > Start was the first visual history of the medium.

12 January 2024

Lust and Love


Lust and Love

Ark Saroj’s photobook Lust and Love was released yesterday. The book was inspired by New York photographer Peter Hujar’s monograph Love and Lust and, like Hujar, Ark photographs his friends and former lovers: “They are real people and with some of them I have shared intimate moments.” One of Lust and Love’s most explicit images—a black-and-white double-page spread—was shown at the KinkyBKK exhibition at Silom’s Pulse Gallery from 8th to 30th September last year.

An essay by artist Oat Montien in Lust and Love compares Ark and Hujar’s nude portraits: “both of their works subvert the lines between fine art and pornography... They give us the license to really meditate on their very graphic material on a deeper level beyond the immediate shock and taboo.” The same also applies to other photographers, such as Ohm Phanphiroj and Shotbyly, whose work demonstrates the increasing visibility of LGBT representation in contemporary Thai art.

04 January 2024

Pat Yingcharoen:
Collective Convalescence


Pat Yingcharoen: Collective Convalescence

Collective Convalescence is the first monograph on the young Thai artist Pat Yingcharoen, whose paintings combine tragic images of violence from art history and photojournalism. The elegantly designed book features an essay by Panu Boonpipattanapong and an interview with the artist by Korn Karava. (Korn also edited and published the book, which is the second volume in a series that began with No God No King Only Human.)

Like many artists of his generation, Pat experienced a political awakening following the 2014 coup. It was this newfound awareness, known in Thai as ta sawang, which first led him to transition from “conducting painting experiments to focusing more on the historical aspects.” (Novelists Uthis Haemamool and Veeraporn Nitiprapha have also discussed their ta sawang experiences, and it was a recurring theme in interviews with film directors for Thai Cinema Uncensored.)

In particular, Pat often incorporates elements from photographs of the 6th October 1976 massacre, which he regards as “among the most iconic depictions of Thai history”. In his essay, Panu explains that these images of hanged and desecrated bodies are juxtaposed and decontextualised, so that “new dimensions of history that may have been previously suppressed are discovered.”

Images of the 1976 massacre are depicted prominently in several of Pat’s works. In Sacred Punishment, one of the victims is transposed into a reproduction of William-Adolphe Bouguerau’s Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ (La flagellation de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ). In Beater, Neal Ulevich’s infamous image of a man holding a folding chair is superimposed over a detail from the same Bouguerau painting. In Martyrs, another victim is placed in the centre of Andrea del Sarto’s Disputation on the Trinity (Disputa sulla Trinità).

The artist’s other visual references to the massacre are more subtle. Onlookers from the background of Ulevich’s photograph appear in Under the Blue Moon (shown at his Blue Rhapsody exhibition at Number One Gallery last year) and From Jesus to the Void. The distinctive tree trunk from which a victim was hanged in Ulevich’s picture appears in the backgrounds of Imaginary Horizon—a reproduction of Bouguerau’s First Mourning (Premier deuil)—and Cain and Abel. (Another young Thai artist, Pachara Piyasongsoot, also painted the same tree trunk, in The Garden.)

Pat Yingcharoen: Collective Convalescence was published last month, in an edition of 300 (mine being no. 294). Each copy is numbered and signed with a flourish by the artist. (Curiously, he spells his first name Patt, while the book uses an alternative English spelling, Pat.)

29 December 2023

The Amazing Movie Posters of Thailand


Apocalypse Now

The Amazing Movie Posters of Thailand, by Neil Pettigrew and Philip Jablon, is—to borrow the adjective from its title—an amazing book. Featuring more than 500 posters, including many full-page reproductions, it’s the most extensive guide to Thai film posters ever published.

The Amazing Movie Posters of Thailand includes a brief history of Thai film poster production, paying particular tribute to Somboonsuk Niyomsiri (also known as Piak Poster), “[t]he father of Thailand’s style of hand painted movie posters”. The Thai poster for Apocalypse Now, painted by Tongdee Panumas, is singled out as “a contender for being the greatest film poster of all time. Not just from Thailand but from any country.”

The book also features the most comprehensive roster of Thai poster artist biographies ever compiled. The entry for Somboonsuk highlights his design for the French film Temptation (L’Île du bout du monde), which “revolutionised the look of Thai cinema posters in 1959 by using an offset printer which allowed for more richly colourful artwork.” (An exhibition of Somboonsuk’s work was held at the Thai Film Archive last year.)

The Amazing Movie Posters of Thailand / Thai Movie Posters / Bai Pid / Starpics

The Amazing Movie Posters of Thailand is published by the founder of the horror film magazine The Dark Side, thus it focuses heavily on horror and exploitation posters. The final few chapters are devoted to gory and erotic posters, including one for the Hong Kong film A Gambler’s Story (邪斗串), described as “perhaps the all-time most explicit movie poster ever produced in Thailand.” (These posters—displayed in seedier cinema lobbies, not on public view—were more graphic than the films they advertised, as discussed in Thai Cinema Uncensored.)

Co-authors Pettigrew and Jablon are both Thai poster collectors. (Jablon is also a dealer.) Pettigrew has previously written about Thai horror and sexploitation posters in The Dark Side (no. 167, 168, and 180). Jablon organised a poster exhibition at this year’s Singorama Film Festival, and wrote the excellent Thailand’s Movie Theatres.

Gilbert Brownstone’s Thai Movie Posters (Affiches de cinéma thaï/โปสเตอร์ภาพยนต์ไทย), published in 1974, was the first survey of Thai film posters. After almost fifty years, another book on the subject was long overdue, and The Amazing Movie Posters of Thailand was well worth the wait.

Starpics magazine released a special issue (no. 3) on the history of Thai film posters in 1997, which is also a great resource. There are catalogues to the Bai Pid (ใบปิด) and Thai Film Posters (ใบปิดหนังไทย) exhibitions, and other poster exhibitions include Eyegasm and Rare Thai Movie Posters (ลับแลโปสเตอร์ ภาพยนตร์ไทย). There is a short essay on Thai film posters in Thai Cinema (Le cinéma thaïlandais), and vintage posters are illustrated in Dome Sukwong’s A Century of Thai Cinema.

26 December 2023

The Art of Origami Books:
Origami, Kirigami, Labyrinth, Tunnel and Mini Books —
By Artists from Around the World


The Art of Origami Books / The Art of Cutting / The Art of Pop-Up

The Art of Origami Books: Origami, Kirigami, Labyrinth, Tunnel and Mini Books by Artists from Around the World, by Jean-Charles Trebbi, was originally published in French (as L’art du livre origami) in 2021. It includes numerous examples of origami books by contemporary artists, though the most interesting chapter, by Jacques Desse, gives a brief illustrated history of ‘leporello’ books. The chapter on ‘tunnel books’ also includes illustrations of vintage examples.

Trebbi’s previous books include The Art of Cutting (L’art de la découpe) and The Art of Pop-Up (L’art du pop-up). The Century of Artists’ Books, by Johanna Drucker, covers the related topic of books designed by artists, and John Smith’s Notes on the History of Origami is a concise history of origami as an art form.

Britain’s Best Ever Political Cartoons


Britain's Best Ever Political Cartoons
The Plum-pudding in Danger

Tim Benson, Britain’s leading authority on political cartoons, compiled an anthology of Britain’s Best Ever Political Cartoons in 2021. Almost 200 cartoons are included (mostly in black-and-white), from the satirical prints of James Gillray (such as The Plumb-pudding in Danger) to The Guardian’s Steve Bell. Benson’s introduction gives a concise history of British political cartoons, and he cites David Low as “[t]he greatest political cartoonist of the twentieth century”. The book concludes with a selection of recent cartoons, reproduced in colour.

Rude Britannia, The Offensive Art, and The History of Press Graphics 1819–1921 also feature examples of classic British political cartoons. The Rude Britannia exhibition catalogue includes one of Gerald Scarfe’s best Margaret Thatcher caricatures. (Thatcher is underrepresented in Britain’s Best Ever Political Cartoons, and Scarfe’s work is omitted.) Victor S. Navasky profiled key political cartoonists in The Art of Controversy.

The Exorcist Legacy:
50 Years of Fear


The Exorcist Legacy

The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear was published earlier this year, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of William Friedkin’s classic horror film The Exorcist. Author Nat Segaloff was Friedkin’s authorised biographer, and he covers the making of the film in considerable detail, with chapters on the three stages of production and the film’s release.

The book also discusses the various Exorcist sequels, which are of interest only to completists. Segaloff’s synopses of all these spinoffs are largely superfluous. Fortunately, though, the first half of the book is devoted to the original 1973 film.

Mark Kermode’s book on the film, from the BFI Film Classics series, remains the definitive study, and Segaloff interviewed him for The Exorcist Legacy. In fact, Kermode has become such an authority on The Exorcist that Segaloff dedicates his book to him alongside Friedkin and William Peter Blatty (who wrote the original novel).

15 December 2023

Tang Chang (1934–1990):
Non-Forms


Non-Forms

Tang Chang, one of Thailand’s greatest modern artists, is the subject of a retrospective that opened earlier this year at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Tang Chang (1934–1990): Non-Forms (subtitled Non-Formes in French) features his iconic self-portrait from 1973: the painting shows the artist with no eyes or hands, his symbolic self-mutilation a desperate response to the massacre of pro-democracy protesters that took place that year. The bilingual (English and French) exhibition catalogue (bound in the Japanese stab style) quotes his description of the work as a tribute to those “rising in anger against the military dictatorship on 14 October 1973.” Several of his concrete poems (กวีรูปธรรม), commenting on the massacres of 1973 and 6th October 1976, are also included.

02 December 2023

I’m Starving Artbook:
Sweets and Politics


I'm Starving Artbook

Comic artist Kwanrapee’s I’m Starving Artbook: Sweets and Politics (เดี๊ยนหิว!!! Artbook: ขนมหวานและการเมือง), published earlier this year, is a record of the stickers, fleurons, and illustrations she created between 2019 and 2022. This was a period of protest against Thailand’s military government, and the book’s title has a clever double meaning: “If this artbook accurately depicts my hunger, then I also hunger for freedom and democracy.” Kwanrapee’s stickers produced in support of the protesters include a royal portrait of a cartoon duck, similar to a controversial calendar whose distributor was jailed this year.

26 November 2023

The Fabulist:
A Novel


The Fabulist

Uthis Haemamool’s novel จุติ was published in English translation this year as The Fabulist: A Novel. The book describes the protest movement that emerged after the 2006 coup as a “new democratic spirit, which saw citizens as the rightful owners of the country, rather than the few high-ranking officers and aristocrats who governed as though they knew what the majority needed or didn’t need.”

These pro-democracy red-shirts were opposed by the pro-establishment yellow-shirts, in a prolonged political conflict that the novel calls “a chasm between two groups who held two completely different versions of the truth.” The protests ended in 2010, when Abhisit Vejjajiva authorised the use of live ammunition by the army. As the novel puts it: “Death and casualties among Red Shirt protestors erupted after the government—led by the prime minister with the pretty face—ordered the police to ‘secure the area’.”

Interviewed by Max Crosbie-Jones for the Nikkei Asia website this month, Uthis explained that the 2010 crackdown marked the beginning of his political engagement: “Prior to that I thought that art and literature was separate from politics, but seeing so many people killed changed me. And it was even more disappointing to see members of Thailand’s literary and art circles celebrating. Politics have been embedded in my work ever since.”

In his Nikkei article, Crosbie-Jones describes the 2010 massacre, which took place at Ratchaprasong in Bangkok, as “an event that galvanized many Thai artists, writers and filmmakers to address the country’s legacy of coups, military interference and autocracy”. Similarly, Sayan Daenklom coined the term “Post-Ratchaprasong art” to describe works produced in response to the crackdown, in the journal Read (อ่าน; vol. 3, no. 2).

Like Uthis, author Veeraporn Nitiprapha was also inspired to incorporate political subtext into her fiction writing after 2010, as she explained in an interview with the Electric Literature website: “I was overcome with a deep, painful bitterness seeing the fashionable, well-educated, well-paid people of the city feeling content about the injuries inflicted upon the poorer, less educated people who were mostly from the upcountry. And it was important to write about that bitterness.”

In Thailand, this political awakening is known as ta sawang. Film directors Pen-ek Ratanaruang (“me, who five years ago had no interest in politics”), Yuthlert Sippapak (“I never gave a shit about politics”), Chulayarnnon Siriphol (“I turned to be interested in the political situation”), Thunska Pansittivorakul (“I started to learn about politics”), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“I was politically naïve”), and Nontawat Numbenchapol (“I was a teenager, a young man not interested in politics”) all describe their ta sawang moments in Thai Cinema Uncensored.

16 November 2023

Asian Political Cartoons


Asian Political Cartoons

John A. Lent’s Asian Political Cartoons is a remarkable and comprehensive book, covering the history of political cartoons in no fewer than twenty countries. As the publisher claims, with justification, it is “not only the first such survey in English, but the most complete and detailed in any language.” Lent has interviewed more than 200 cartoonists—most notably, Zunar in Malaysia—and made multiple research trips to each of the countries he documents.

Histories of political cartoons traditionally focus on revolutionary France, Georgian Britain, and the Reconstruction era in the United States. Lent’s book, on the other hand, is a window into a previously inaccessible world of satirical art. He shows how cartoonists have challenged authoritarian regimes throughout Asia, and assesses the varying degrees of “freedom to cartoon” in the region (such as the repressive treatment of Mana Neyestani in Iran and Arifur Rahman in Bangladesh).

For his chapter on Thailand, Lent interviewed Chai Rachawat and Arun Watcharasawad, veteran cartoonists who have covered Thai politics since the 1970s for Thai Rath (ไทยรัฐ) and Matichon (มติชน), respectively. He discussed the Thaksin Shinawatra era with Buncha and Kamin from Manager (ผู้จัดการรายวัน), and he describes the enforced ‘attitude adjustment’ of another Thai Rath cartoonist, Sia, under Prayut Chan-o-cha’s military rule. He also covers the rise of anonymous online satirists such as Khai Maew. (Sia wasn’t interviewed for the book, though he spoke to Dateline Bangkok last year.)

The scope of Asian Political Cartoons is unprecedented, though Cherian George’s Red Lines also examines political cartooning from an international perspective. Victor S. Navasky’s The Art of Controversy covers European and American political cartoons, and Alexander Roob reproduces early newspaper cartoons in The History of Press Graphics 1819–1921.

25 October 2023

The Right to Rule:
Thirteen Years, Five Prime Ministers and the Implosion of the Tories


The Right to Rule

The Right to Rule: Thirteen Years, Five Prime Ministers and the Implosion of the Tories, by Ben Riley-Smith, sets out to explain how the Conservatives have held on to power in the UK since 2010. One reason is simply that the party has an inbuilt sense of entitlement: “The story that emerges is one of a party built to rule. Time and again, the same message was echoed by interviewees: what must be understood is that the Conservatives are not an ‘ideological party’ but a ‘power party’.”

A complete political history of the past thirteen years would be impossible to cover in a single volume, so the book instead focuses on “ten critical moments or parts of the story, the pivotal points that explain the wider whole.” These include David Cameron’s decision to hold the Brexit referendum, Theresa May’s ill-fated 2017 election, Boris Johnson’s resignation (Riley-Smith subscribes to the ‘three Ps’ theory cited in The Fall of Boris Johnson), and the brief Liz Truss premiership.

Riley-Smith interviewed more than 100 sources for the book, including three of the last five prime ministers (Cameron, Johnson, and Truss). He spoke to twenty of Johnson’s cabinet ministers, and obtained the first drafts of Johnson’s resignation speech and Truss’s party conference speech. He also quotes previously unpublished material from his Telegraph interview with Sunak—“people are fed up with politicians talking about things and not actually doing them”—and extracts from a tranche of internal party memos from the 2017 election campaign.

Surprisingly, The Right to Rule has not been widely reviewed, except by The Daily Telegraph, of which Riley-Smith is the political editor. But it deserves wider coverage, particularly for its revealing insights into Conservative party procedures: it explains the process by which letters of no confidence are submitted to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, and it includes the first published photograph of a cabinet reshuffle whiteboard.

24 October 2023

The Divider:
Trump in the White House, 2017–2021


The Divider

The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017–2021, published last year, is the only book to cover the entirety of Donald Trump’s presidency in a single volume. Every day of his four-year term brought another I-can’t-believe-he-did-that moment, so it’s not surprising that The Divider is over 700 pages long.

The Divider—written by Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; and Susan Glasser of The New Yorker—argues that Trump succeeded by stoking the embers of preexisting social polarisation: “He exploited the fissures in American society to gain, wield, and hold on to power.” This divide-and-conquer strategy, which gives the book its title, culminated in the insurrection at the Capitol in 2021.

Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker began their book on Trump’s final year in office by listing a dozen of his personal failings. The Divider, on the other hand, opens by identifying arguably the most pernicious aspect of his presidency—not included in Leonnig and Rucker’s litany—namely his “sustained four-year war on the institutions and traditions of American democracy.”

Most of the major Trump books—by Leonnig, Rucker, Maggie Haberman, Bob Woodward, and Robert Costa—are structured scene-by-scene, with atmospheric accounts of selected meetings recounted by the participants. The Divider is just as well-sourced—Baker and Glasser interviewed more than 300 people, including Trump—but it focuses instead on the bigger picture, giving a uniquely comprehensive overview of Trump’s presidency.

This is the twentieth, and surely the last, Trump book reviewed on Dateline Bangkok (at least until his inevitable ghostwritten memoir is published). The others are: Betrayal, Confidence Man, Fire and Fury, Too Much and Never Enough, Fear, Rage, Peril, I Alone Can Fix It, A Very Stable Genius, Inside Trump’s White House, The United States of Trump, Trump’s Enemies, The Trump White House, The Room Where It Happened, Team of Five, American Carnage, TrumpNation, The Cost, and the audiobook The Trump Tapes.

06 October 2023

The Abuse of Power:
Confronting Injustice in Public Life


The Abuse of Power

The prime ministerial memoir is a staple of British political literature. Recent PMs Tony Blair (A Journey), Gordon Brown (My Life, Our Times), and David Cameron (For the Record) have all written about their times in office, though Theresa May’s new book isn’t a traditional memoir. May also makes clear that it’s “not an attempt to justify certain decisions I made in office or to provide a detailed retelling of historical events.” Instead, it’s an account of “the abuse of power exhibited so often in the way the institutions of the state, and those who work within them, put themselves first and the people they are there to serve second.”

The Abuse of Power: Confronting Injustice in Public Life includes damning assessments of the Hillsborough Stadium and Grenfell Tower tragedies, and the Primodos scandal, amongst other miscarriages of justice (but not the Post Office Horizon case). May rightly condemns the institutional failings that resulted in these horrific episodes, though her book also discusses seemingly unrelated issues, including her government’s Brexit negotiations. May’s reflections on Brexit—and her thoughts on other world leaders, such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin—are fascinating, though they would be more suited to a conventional memoir. In fact, there’s something quite offensive about equating the Brexit deadlock with the Hillsborough disaster.

As May recognises, she will be remembered primarily for her protracted Brexit negotiations: “I know in my heart of hearts that the political reality is that my premiership will always be seen in the context of Brexit and my failure to get a deal through the House of Commons.” She also accepts partial blame for the 2017 election campaign car-crash that wiped out her parliamentary majority: “The most obvious, and arguably the defining, mistake was the press conference after the revision of our social care policy where I said nothing had changed. Obviously something had changed.”

The election result greatly weakened May’s ability to pass legislation in parliament, though she blames former parliamentary Speaker John Bercow for the stalemate instead: “I am certain that he scuppered the Brexit deal.” May is surprisingly direct in her condemnation of Bercow: without mincing words, she describes him as “not just a bully but a serial liar.” She also criticises her predecessor as PM for the Downing Street parties held during coronavirus lockdowns: “there were those at the top of politics, including but not limited to Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, who did not think that the laws they made applied to them.”

In contrast, the book presents May as a vicar’s daughter and a dutiful crusader for justice. In her concluding chapter, May considers how to prevent future abuses of power, but rather than increased regulation or transparency, she calls for more public figures who share her belief in “[s]elf-sacrifice rather than selfishness.” But it’s unrealistic to expect such selflessness from those in public life (except perhaps Gordon Brown, who has a similar background to May), and the book’s final lines are overly idealistic: “those in public service, particularly politicians, should cast aside the mantle of selfishness and devote themselves unashamedly to duty and the service of others.”

04 October 2023

The Last Politician:
Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future


The Last Politician

The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future, by Franklin Foer of The Atlantic magazine, is the third book on President Biden’s administration, after The Fight of His Life (by Chris Whipple) and Peril (by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa). Whipple had higher-level access than Foer, though with some restrictions: he interviewed Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, but only via email. Foer wasn’t granted on-the-record interviews, though he did speak to almost 300 people in the administration and, unlike Whipple, his account doesn’t seem overreliant on some sources at the expense of others.

Foer writes that he was initially critical of Biden: “I began this project sharing the Washington establishment’s skepticism of the man.” His opinion evolved during the research for the book and, like Whipple’s, his assessment became broadly positive: “as I reported on him at close distance... my respect for him grew.” Also like Whipple, Foer reserves his harshest criticism for Biden’s plan to withdraw from Afghanistan, describing it as “the decision that scarred his legacy.” (Whereas The Fight for His Life and Peril focus on the decision to withdraw, The Last Politician has more coverage of the evacuation itself.)

After his first year in office, Biden’s reputation seemed tarnished: “his messy presidency looked like it would be best remembered for its failures—a disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the humiliating collapse of his Build Back Better legislation, and the rise of inflation.” But the Inflation Reduction Act, and his public support for Volodymyr Zelensky, turned his presidency around: “redemption—and a profound legacy—came unexpectedly, splayed across the second half of his second year, as he orchestrated the most fertile season of legislation in memory and rallied the world to Ukraine’s defense.”

Biden’s personal relationship with Zelenksy was, at least initially, one of mutual suspicion, and he accused the Ukrainian President of irresponsibly seeking to provoke World War III. His feelings about Russian President Vladimir Putin are well documented, and Foer quotes him telling a friend that Putin slouched like an “asshole schoolkid” during bilateral meetings.

29 September 2023

Nine Nasty Words —
English in the Gutter:
Then, Now, and Forever


Nine Nasty Words

How many swear words are still considered taboo? Any list of such terms should inevitably start with the seven words—including all the four-letter ones—that comedian George Carlin described on his album Occupation: Foole. That album was broadcast on 30th November 1973 by MBIA, a New York radio station, which ultimately led to a landmark Supreme Court verdict giving the Federal Communications Commission the authority to censor radio and network television.

In his book Nine Nasty Words — English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever, John McWhorter slightly expands the classic Carlin list: “I will zero in on not seven but nine of the bedrock swears of modern English, including what we more conventionally term slurs but which qualify as our newest profanity. Or, really, eleven if you count damn and hell.” He gives etymologies for each term, and his citations include literary references and early twentieth century popular culture.

McWhorter has interesting points to make about the c-word, refuting the common interpretation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “queynte” as a euphemism: “Chaucer did not bedeck his Canterbury Tales with casual references to cunts, despite how this gets around among English majors. It is easy to suppose, because Middle English spelling looks so odd to us and was not yet regularized, that his queynte was an eccentric spelling of cunt. However, it was actually what it looked like: the word quaint”.

Rebecca Roache’s For F*ck’s Sake, Philip Gooden’s Bad Words and What They Say about Us, Peter Silverton’s Filthy English, Ruth Wajnryb’s Language Most Foul, and David Sosa’s Bad Words cover similar ground to McWhorter. Geoffrey Hughes wrote An Encyclopedia of Swearing, expanded from his earlier Swearing. Forbidden Words, by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, is the most authoritative book on linguistic taboos, and Allen also recently edited The Oxford Handbook of Taboo Words and Language.

27 September 2023

The History of Press Graphics 1819–1921:
The Golden Age of Graphic Journalism


The History of Press Graphics

Alexander Roob’s The History of Press Graphics 1819–1921: The Golden Age of Graphic Journalism, published earlier this year by Taschen, is a stunning 600-page survey of illustrations from nineteenth and early twentieth century newspapers and magazines. The book features hundreds of images, many of which are full-page and double-page reproductions, and includes a comprehensive bibliography.

A prologue outlines the early history of press graphics, from the late sixteenth century onwards, though the book’s starting point is 1819. This was the year of the Peterloo massacre in Manchester, England, and William Hone and George Cruikshank’s pamphlet The Political House That Jack Built, published in response to the tragedy, which “established the era of pictorial journalism”.

Roob examines the technical developments in printing over the period, from wood engraving and lithography in the 1870s to photoxylography a century later. There is also extensive coverage of caricature and political satire, including Charles Philipon’s cartoons of the French King Louis-Philippe.

La Caricature Le Charivari

Philipon was arrested for treason after drawing Louis-Philippe as a plasterer in La Caricature on 30th June 1831. At his trial, he mischievously demonstrated that the King’s likeness could be discerned in almost anything, even a pear, and that fruit became a symbol of Louis-Philippe in subsequent illustrations by Philipon and others. On 27th February 1834, Philipon’s magazine Le Charivari (‘hullabaloo’) published a front-page editorial about the King in the form of a calligram, with the text typeset to resemble a pear.

Philipon’s pear sketches, and a caricature of Louis-Philippe as Gargantua by Honoré Daumier, are reproduced in The Art of Controversy. There is a chapter on press graphics in History of Illustration. The History of Press Graphics 1819–1921 is published in a folio format, the same size as Taschen’s Information Graphics, History of Information Graphics, Understanding the World, and Logo Modernism.