Serf City, Here We Come

Since 2018, the Tainy Usadby (Secrets of the Manor) immersive festival has seen evening-dressed and frock-coated fauxristocrats descend, like feudal-system re-enactors, on different Russian estates for an annual history-suffused weekend of pleasure and learning. Activities, according to The Moscow Times, run to ballroom dancing, hoops and sticks (for children), and croquet, rather than, oh, hunting runaway serfs and seizing property. Not that such things ever would have happened at this year’s estate, once the home of the geographer, statistician, and traveler Pyotr Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky, in Lipetsk. “At many, if not most estates, the owners took care of the peasants of the surrounding villages, building schools, hospitals, almshouses, and vocational workshops,” notes the newspaper. So check your kindjals (daggers) at the gate, and see you down by the samovar for tea.

Carne crudo?


Finger Sandwich?

Leave it to the Italians to put an exciting new spin on prison food. During an altercation at the Rebibbia jail, according to the local press, a Sicilian Mafia boss bit off a guard’s finger, which vanished, leading prosecutors to an obvious and unfortunate conclusion. As it was merely the little finger—essentially an antipasto—the prisoner’s subsequent cry of “I’ll slit your throats like pigs!” while attacking six more guards might simply be interpreted as an indication that he was now ready for the secondo.

A mountain of differences.


Peak Insecurity

Whose Mount Everest is bigger, China’s or Nepal’s? Nepal, China resolve Everest height row, ran the headline in the Hindustan Times … in 2010. Those were the good old days, as the British press is reporting that the squabble may have resumed. Last year, a team of Nepalese researchers installed equipment at the world’s highest peak, promising an exact measurement. This past spring, China, which in 2005 had reduced the long-accepted height, did the same, guaranteeing that it would provide the most precise figure ever. The countries ultimately agreed to issue the results jointly, but now, as the months have gone by without an announcement, there is speculation that, as The Sunday Times put it, “science has fallen foul of nationalistic interests.”

So what’s an oxygen-poor meter or two between neighbors and, for the most part, friends? “Yes, 8,848m (29,028ft) is widely accepted as the height of Mt Everest since 1955, even though the elevation of the summit has fluctuated by a dozen or so metres since then, depending on who is calculating,” said the Nepali Times last week. “Since previous measurements were by American, European or Indian surveyors, it has now become a matter of national pride for Nepal and China to jointly come up with their own figure.”

Maybe they still will. But matters are further complicated by the occasionally shifting surface of the planet—post-earthquake, say—as well as the question of where exactly you put your thumb on the tape, as it were. Do you measure from sea level, or from the bottom of the ocean? And, five and a half miles up, do you measure to the tip of the bedrock, or to the ice and snow that cover it? Another wrinkle, inevitably, and the point at which national pride becomes intensely personal: What self-respecting mountaineer would ever prefer the lower number, however accurate?

So much drama …


Full of Sound and Fury …

A kind of publishing perfect storm—bookstores reopening, coronavirus-delayed titles finally appearing, new offerings from authors with names like Ferrante—has led to Britain’s best first week of September on record, with some $43 million in sales reported. The Thursday Murder Club, the first novel from Richard Osman, creator of the quiz show Pointless, topped the list. “We haven’t seen anything like it since Harry Potter,” one bookseller told The Guardian.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is planning a move away from what its head of digital calls “buildings-based presentation,” reports The Sunday Times. Even after live theater (presumably) returns, the R.S.C. will focus more on streaming and on hybrid productions that use the kind of virtual and augmented reality popular in gaming technology. Alack! Is this a joystick which I see before me?

Shakespeare may be going virtual, but George Bernard Shaw may be virtually gone: students at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art are demanding that his name be removed from its theater because of Shaw’s late-in-life enthusiasm for eugenics. They’ve also asked that RADA consider dropping Restoration comedies from its repertory (awkward empire issues). It seems as if, along with Plays Pleasant and Plays Unpleasant, we might soon be discussing Plays Unproduced.


But They Identify as Jeffrey …

See, that’s the problem right there—at least for some of the 7,000 people who live in the Quebec town. They would prefer to shed the name Asbestos, which derives from the hazardous substance that was once mined there, and adopt a whole new identity. Like, say, Jeffrey. The problem, reports The Guardian, is that “Jeffrey” comes from W. H. Jeffrey, who in 1880 started what became the town’s largest asbestos mine, known until recently as the Jeffrey mine. In that context, some Asbestinians see “Jeffrey” as a mere euphemism. It will all be put to a vote, the other finalists being Phénix, Trois-Lacs, and Apalone. Maybe there’s a compromise? “Jeff, Quebec” has kind of a nice ring.

George Kalogerakis is a Writer at Large for air mail