23: jay owens, rare book heists, seitan worship, the american "it" dog, so many trees

Such a delayed newsletter, my apologies. The past fortnight has been one of turning my life inside out—all for the better, I think—in a way that makes me want to revisit the Faraway Tree books I so loved as a child. Perhaps encounter “caraway seeds” for the first time too. Seeing the supermoon, even if it wasn’t exactly pink, was reassuring; everything feels more optimistic now. I very much recommend tree.fm, which tunes you into a different forest each time.

This week’s diary comes from researcher, writer and dust aficionado Jay Owens; the images are from a 19th century book of greenhouse flora. I’m going to stop publishing these to the internet as hybrid blog-newsletter nb, so the next ones will arrive only in your inboxes.

spiky bois

The system has collapsed: India’s descent into Covid hell. How Bill Gates impeded global access to Covid vaccines. Kati Kariko helped shield the world from coronavirus. “We are hoarding:” Why the US still can’t donate Covid-19 vaccines to countries in need. There’s a name for the blah you’re feeling: it’s called languishing. “Use garlic breath distancing to stay safe.” The spectacle of anti-Asian violence on instagram. India is what happens when rich people do nothing. How trans kids landed in the crossfire of the culture wars—and the damage it could do. In my hometown, opioids are still stealing lives. How grave is India’s oxygen emergency? Worse than the government admits. The return of my garbage self. Surviving the crackdown in Xinjiang. Haphephobia.


The tale of the travelling Kaliya. Malaysian toddy, tuak and tapai keep the tradition alive. “We have to help these people.” This Facebook group takes Seitan worship to the next level. In Thailand, traditional cannabis cuisine is back on the menu. DM to purchase: laid-off restaurant workers are setting up shop on instagram. The secret to this Taiwanese town’s tofu is a mud volcano. A sweet taste of terroir. My secret affair with Chinese takeout. Sweeten your springtime with Japan’s fruit sandwiches. You and I get tanked differently. Will cooking classes ever be the same? Nil-by-mouth foodie: the chef who will never eat again. Milk.


Cracking the case of London’s elusive, acrobatic rare book thieves. Losing oneself in Kerala’s Gulf migrant literature. Why read the classics? Who you’re reading when you’re reading Arab women. A conversation on survival and style in American letters. The Golden Age. Saving the Ghazal. Coming of age in a struggling Berkeley bookstore. The art of translating back. The puzzling provenance of historic Hebrew type. What Snoop Dogg’s success says about the publishing industry. How Soviet children’s books became collectors’ items in India. Religious symbolism in Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Of veiled sentiments and secluded scholars. Why buy a yacht when you can buy a newspaper? The rise of adjunct lit. Storytelling in Indo-Persian literary traditions. Forever Young. The many lives of Nawal El Saadawi. Works in progress.

my life is trees & champagne now

Biogenes. The woods. The woman who lives 200,000 years in the past. The trees that feed on metal. The church forests of Ethiopia. Salmon trees. The great work. The past and future of the world’s oldest trees. Illuminating Kirinyaga. The social life of forests. The demise and potential revival of the American chestnut. The greatest climate-protecting technology ever devised. Ancient trees show when the Earth’s magnetic field last flipped out. Danger in the forest. The trees that sail to sea. One hundred and eleven trees. The mysterious life (and death) of Africa’s oldest trees. Multiple metabolisms & the chemical gaze.

☞\( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)☞ yeehaw

Out of thin air: the mystery of the man who fell from the sky. Aphrodisiac of the ocean: how sea cucumbers became a gold mine for organised crime. The very cute, totally disturbing tale of the American ‘it’ dog. Americans are turning spare bedrooms into giant closets. When the techies took over Tahoe. The mystery of ‘Harriet Cole.’ How an email sting operation unearthed a pro-Assad conspiracy—and Russia’s role in it. Crush. CodeMiko will see you now. A prominent white nationalist just finished boot camp. Life in Wonderland: on growing up in my parents’ cannabis bakery. This DC real estate agent is like the Hugh Hefner of mansion porn. The last of the Southern girls. Genetic mapping. Molar city. The man who stole a hotel. “I wanted to buy a marine aquarium:” why people around the world are flocking to OnlyFans.

culture diary: jay owens

Via Nigel Thornberry

sunday 11 april

It’s the last day of Lockdown #3 in England. Barring about two weeks in December, when restrictions were briefly loosened to Tier 2—permitting me three gym visits and a tacos-and-tequila outdoor brunch with my friend Rishi—we have essentially been at max stringency since early November. Six months straight. The New York Times reports that this length of restriction is “globally unique.” I have been… fine, but rather bored. Languishing, perhaps.

It is a Sunday, and I had made little use of the weekend so far other than to watch Palm Springs, newly arrived on Amazon Prime (and far better than it had any right to be). Two weeks ago we had gained minor new freedoms to (a) sit down on a park bench, and (b) leave your local area. So I decide to make use of them, and catch a train down to Rochester in Kent to walk about 25km to Coldrum Long Barrow, one of the “Medway Megaliths,” a six thousand-year old group of Neolithic standing stones and earthworks. The day is glorious, the sky blue, the beech woods carpeted in primroses, violets, bluebells, celandine and wood anemones. 

On the train back I finish reading Desert, a slim, anonymously-authored book from Active Distribution press. It’s essentially the Invisible Committee’s concept of desertion meets James C. Scott: a thinking-through of the possibilities of finding spaces outside or on the edges of state power, given the ecological catastrophe that lies ahead of us this century. “In our hearts we all know the world will not be 'saved',” they write. It’s useful to be able to point to a green anarchist reckoning with this horizon that is decidedly not the fashy ethno-localism of the Dark Mountain crew. But I write about dust and environmental disaster, and had hoped for some theoretical concept-work I might draw on. I’m not sure I found it, though its footnotes are a rich resource. I guess I shall have to write it myself.

An hour later. Somebody has left a copy of the Sunday Times on the tube, and I purloin the Style section—probably the joint-best weekend style supplement in the UK, tied with the Financial Times’ infamous How To Spend It. I hate to pay for this Murdoch rag, but I’ll recycle it with gusto—unfortunately the centre-right has all the best lifestyle content in this country, being sufficiently untroubled by questions of virtue to succeed in taking pleasure seriously. (The Guardian cannot, it’s far too pious.) When I get home I run a bath with some Aromatherapy Associates freebies left over from my mother’s birthday present, then recline and read Style by candlelight while drinking an Old Hook cocktail (bourbon, red vermouth, cherry liqueur, chocolate bitters). I emerge stupendously chilled, and go straight to bed.

This is Pumpkin, he lived at Norwich Tesco's. Facebook/Annabel Fields

monday 12 april

A writing day, a difficult one, ripping up and restructuring something that I had thought last week was nearly finished. The post delivers four books—bought from Amazon, a firm I had largely worked to avoid until Lockdown #1 finally got me on Prime in search of films and TV. Three of these four weren’t available in the UK via other channels, though, so Amazon it had to be.

I’d bought ‘On Hell’ and ‘Minerva, the Miscarriage of the Brain’ by Johanna Hedva, whose astonishing essay They’re Really Close to My Body I reread a couple of weeks before, reminding me that I needed to own everything they’ve ever written; Megan Nolan’s much buzzed-about Acts of Desperation, which Natalie Kane had recommended on IG a few days ago; and Emily Segal’s Mercury Retrograde. Last week Segal launched a blockchain crowdfunder to support the writing of her second book, Burn Alpha—and I found that I had far more time for the concept than I expected. I didn’t chip in as I don’t own crypto and wasn’t about to work out how to in order to participate—but I was reminded that I should at least pick up her previous work. Three out of four of these books are pink. This is unfamiliar.

This is Pumpkin, he lived at Norwich Tesco's. Jo Harding /SWNS.COM

tuesday 13 april

I start the morning with a cafetiere of black coffee and Elle Decoration (UK) magazine for an hour or so until I am awake enough to consider emails, my laptop, the whole concept of work. American readers will convulse in Puritanical horror to hear that this often isn’t until after noon.

There’s an exceptionally good story on the Guardian’s The Long Read about “the hardest job in British farming”: the knackerman. Author Bella Bathurst goes out for a day’s rounds with Ian Carswell, a man whose job it is to deal with “the cows condemned, the pigs with broken legs, the orphan lambs that took one look at life and quit.” He is an unflinching and understated man who is quietly and stoically doing something profound—and the article is much the same. It’s an excerpt from Bathurst’s new book 'Field Work: What Land Does to People and What People Do to Land', published by Profile Books on 29 April—I make a note to buy a copy. Meanwhile, James Rebanks’ 2020 book English Pastoral about three generations of life and change on a northern hill farm is back in the news: it’s been nominated for apparently every literary prize going. Good.

Unnamed cat in Tesco's, Rugby. SWNS:South West News Service

wednesday 14 april

You mean I have to culture every day? I don’t know that I do… At some point during lockdown my internet consumption has, curiously, slackened. I have gone from being the person who had at any point in time read (and tweeted) the article of the hour, to favouriting with almost no intent to read later. I still consume a fairly substantial quantity of news—The Guardian, the New York Times, the Evening Standard (the London newspaper), whatever quantity of New York magazine until I get tired of ducking the paywall. But I share much less of it these days: today only the “hot bunny,” aka a stolen giant rabbit who pet detectives fear has hopped the border, and a camel who is also a library. Instagram sustains me with a succession of Greenland sled dogs (and fat, fuzzy Greenland sled dog puppies) and bodega cats

A quick consultation of Scott Smith and Madeleine Ashby’s How To Future for a workshop I’m running that afternoon. A copy of Vogue (UK) bought at the supermarket—since Edward Enninful took over in 2017, I am back to buying it most months.

This is Mango, he lived in Tiverton Tesco's. Tiverton Tesco Cat / Facebook.

thursday 15 april

A similarly low-culture day. I am extremely frustrated with a particular piece of work, and am only good for easy duties: reading Lawrence Svobida’s 1940 autobiography, Farming The Dust Bowl, a story of his experiences in Kansas. It’s useful and I pepper it with sticky index tabs.

Brutus, of Morrisons in Saltney, Chester. @NathalieJJones

friday 16 april

Ann Marie Low’s Dust Bowl Diary, her story of a hard decade in North Dakota. Not as dusty as one might expect—which is, for me, a problem. Nonetheless it’s a vivid account of a life: a fifteen year-old girl at the start of the book in 1928; a good girl: bright, tirelessly hard-working and self-sacrificing; a girl who loves the land she lives on but who of course, inevitably, loses it. It’s not great writing but it’s real and it’s true and it moves me all the same.

Brutus, of Morrisons in Saltney, Chester. @maxinekeira

saturday 17 april

I celebrate the end of lockdown by meeting my friend Rishi Dastidar in Soho, for lunch at Pizza Pilgrims followed by gelato at Gelupo. It’s a sunny spring day though still a touch chilly, and the entire neighbourhood has been pedestrianised to allow restaurants to start reopening—there’s still no indoor dining for another month. Barring the crowd outside Comptons and Caffe Nero, Old Compton Street now reads as majority straight.

Rishi is in the middle of editing the new collection from Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, Too Young, Too Loud, Too Differentto be published by Corsair in August—though also preoccupied by baseball: writing about it, playing it, and of course wearing its hats. We head to Foyles, the big independent bookshop on Charing Cross Road, so he can scout out research material. I successfully avoid buying Sam Byers’ new novel ‘Come Join Our Disease’ as I still have the two Hedvas and Megan Nolan’s novel to get through (alongside so many feet of unread books, fiction and non-fiction, that I am about to buy them their own bookshelf—but shhh).

After Rishi heads home, I wander the West End for a few hours, inevitably ending up in the perfume department at Liberty’s to celebrate the fact that the world once again exists. I get the long-desired Comme des Garcons Black (less goth and more gourmand than expected: liquorice, treacle, my gran’s gingerbread) and DS & Durga’s El Cosmico (the West Texas desert, which I have been dreaming of for a year). Back home I take another two-hour bath in order to finish reading Emily Segal’s Mercury Retrograde. I have finally been conned into reading autofiction—and an Internet Novel, at that—but it turns out it’s actually fun.

Tinkerbell, of Clissold Wines, London.

featured creature: scaleless blackfish

Tiny and creepy but also somehow really cute? Until it opens its mouth that is:

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