David Thomson: Eighteen Hours in Vietnam

If the film seems like an epic of fiction, it’s because it is less engaged in a quest for historical truth than it is in getting closer to some verities about life and death. If there had been a Truth, America would not have been in Vietnam. It went there to obviate the doubt empires cannot endure. The implication is that there may be no purpose we can rely on – yet purpose is the justification for most of our wars. Are the witnesses telling us the truth on the oath of a verité camera? Or are they dreaming of a truth that might explain them – to themselves as much as to us?

Thomas Meaney: Merkel’s Kingdom

Her trick is to avoid the country’s root problems while treating the symptoms more skilfully than any conservative politician before her has ever managed. The media, meanwhile, unwilling to address the difficulties caused by Germany’s position as the reluctant hegemon of the Continent, or the growing sense of lurking inconsistencies in the gospel of Atlanticism, prefer endless celebration of the leader: the intellectual, strong, patient, grounded, wry, compassionate, tough, reality-grasping, scientific, opera-loving, Bismarckian wunder-Kanzlerin on whom nothing is lost.

Swati Dhingra and Nikhil Datta: How Not to Do Trade Deals

It would be sensible to prioritise a trade deal with the EU. Countries have always traded the most with their biggest, closest neighbours. This is by far the most reliable fact about international trade and holds true no matter which set of countries, time period or sector (goods, services, e-commerce, foreign investments) is looked at. Given that the EU is within swimming distance from the UK, has a population of more than 500 million and a GDP of almost $20 trillion (double that of China), an equivalent replacement is effectively impossible.

Adam Shatz: Trump’s Racism

What, then, explains the paroxysms of Republican anti-racism in the face of Charlottesville? The purpose was not to expunge white supremacy from American life, but to expunge its naked expression, which Trump, to their embarrassment, has been reckless enough to encourage. Since the Nixon era, Republicans have understood that the party’s plans to favour the white ‘silent majority’ depend on coded language that everyone understands but which can be plausibly denied.

Malise Ruthven: The Saudi Trillions

It made perfect sense that the first port of call on President Trump’s first foreign trip, in May, was Riyadh. Saudi Arabia – the world’s second largest oil producer (after Russia), the world’s biggest military spender as a proportion of GDP, the main sponsor of Islamist fighting groups across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq, the leader of a coalition in a devastating war against Yemeni rebels now in its third year – is a country one can do business with, even as the most ardent Kremlinologists in the West struggle to understand it.

Colm Tóibín: In Barcelona

All the way up towards Plaça de Catalunya, on the route the van had taken, were shrines placed where people had been killed. The first one, at the very top, opposite Bar Núria, marks the spot where the van had come onto the pedestrian boulevard. Among the candles and the flowers and the handwritten messages was a brand new edition of the Collected Poems of Federico García Lorca in Spanish. Lorca, who came to Barcelona first in 1925, said that the Ramblas was a street he hoped would go on for ever.

Rosemary Hill: Charles and Camilla

His twenties were probably the most successful decade in terms of public perception. Young, good-looking and rich in his own right with the income from the Duchy of Cornwall, he could, from a certain point of view, be seen as a prince for the swinging 1960s. After that the biographies chronicle a succession of increasingly difficult milestones. As he faced his 30th birthday he addressed the Cambridge Union in hair-raisingly ingenuous terms: ‘My great problem in life is that I do not really know what my role in life is.’ None of the journalists he complained about could have said anything more undermining.

Amia Srinivasan: What’s it like to be an octopus?

Octopuses – and to some extent their cephalopod cousins, cuttlefish and squid – frustrate the neat evolutionary division between clever vertebrates and simple-minded invertebrates. They are sophisticated problem solvers; they learn, and can use tools; and they show a capacity for mimicry, deception and, some think, humour. Just how refined their abilities are is a matter of scientific debate: their very strangeness makes octopuses hard to study. Their intelligence is like ours, and utterly unlike ours. Octopuses are the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.

John Lanchester: It Zucks!

I am scared of Facebook. The company’s ambition, its ruthlessness, and its lack of a moral compass scare me. It goes back to that moment of its creation, Zuckerberg at his keyboard after a few drinks creating a website to compare people’s appearance, not for any real reason other than that he was able to do it. That’s the crucial thing about Facebook, the main thing which isn’t understood about its motivation: it does things because it can. That’s why the impulse to growth has been so fundamental to the company, which is in many respects more like a virus than it is like a business. Grow and multiply and monetise. Why? There is no why. Because.

Marina Warner: The Liveliness of the Dead

The dead are hard to think about – and, in many ways, to read about. Unlike animals, which Lévi-Strauss declared were not only good to eat but bon à penser, too, I found that I averted my eyes, so to speak, several times as I was reading this book. Not because of the infinite and irreversible sadness of mortality, or because of the grue, the fetor, the decay, the pervasive morbidity, but because the dead present an enigma that can’t be grasped: they are always there in mind, they come back in dreams, live in memory, and if they don’t, if they’re forgotten as so many millions of them must be, that is even more disturbing, somehow reprehensible.

T.J. Clark: Picasso and Tragedy

Perhaps, then – though the thought is a grim one – we turn to Guernica with a kind of nostalgia. Suffering and horror were once this large. They were dreadful, but they had a tragic dimension. The bomb made history. Mola and von Richthofen were monsters in the labyrinth. It may be true, in other words, that we pin our hopes on Guernica. We go on hungering for the epic in it, because we recoil from the alternative – violence as the price paid for a broken sociality, violence as leading nowhere, violence as ‘collateral damage’, violence as spectacle, violence as eternal return.

Joanna Biggs: Diary

If you can’t buy the pills – say, you’re more than nine weeks pregnant, or you have a complicating condition, or you can’t face it – you’ll have to travel. On average, two women from Northern Ireland travel to England every day. Most are married, most are having their first abortion, most are between 20 and 34. Clinics in England have ‘Irish prices’, set slightly lower than private prices, but even so the cheapest available abortion with pills costs £274, and the average costs £410. Then there is a consultation fee of between £65 and £80. Then there are the travel costs.

Patrick Cockburn: Endtimes in Mosul

Nobody knows for sure how many civilians were killed in the city as a whole. For long periods, shells, rockets and bombs rained down on houses in which as many as a hundred people might be sheltering. ‘Kurdish intelligence believes that over forty thousand civilians have been killed as a result of massive firepower used against them,’ Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s former foreign minister, told me. People have disputed that figure, but bear in mind the sheer length of the siege – 267 days.

Jonathan Raban: Granny in the Doorway

Sheringham in the early summer of 1945 was trying to return to normal life as a fishing village and genteel holiday resort. Along the beach, the rusting coils of barbed wire, wooden stakes and concrete blocks were mostly cleared, and the anti-tank ditches were being filled in. Snipers’ pillboxes and signs warning of unexploded mines remained, and so did the now-fading self-importance that comes to a place taught to think of itself as being on the front line of imminent invasion.

Eley Williams: Slough

Eley Williams’s collection Attrib. and Other Stories appeared earlier this year. Eley Williams I don’t know which pronunciation eitherbut will trust an advert that chooses semicolons over em dashes,little Basil …

Neal Ascherson: The Unusual History of Heligoland

Konrad Adenauer said that ‘peaceful Heligoland, set in the seas between Germany and Britain, will be in future a symbol of the will to peace and friendship of both nations.’ Few Britons now know where the place is. Still fewer know that it was once a British colony, a tiny offshore reminder that Britain is as much a European nation as it was ever a global power.

Tom Crewe: The New Deal

‘Post-truth’ is a faulty concept because it presupposes the existence of shared, accepted ‘truths’ which are actually, you know, true. But also because it implies the existence of a ‘pre-truth’ period, a lawless Wild West of unmeaning and misunderstanding that was at some point tamed by the self-discipline and integrity of politicians and the media. This second assumption is equally misguided.