What’s our message to outer space? We are not so brilliant here on Earth

You might think of poets as poor – starving in their garrets, receiving tiny sums for their occasional slim volumes of verse and all that. Not so Leyla Aliyeva, one of whose works was printed in school books in her home country of Azerbaijan. As revealed in the Pandora Papers, she and her siblings were shareholders of 44 companies registered in the British Virgin Islands between 2006 and 2018, which owned tens of millions of pounds worth of luxury property, much of it in London.

It would be churlish to think that either her literary success or her wealth are anything to do with the fact that her father is Ilham Aliyev, the country’s president, or that her grandfather (the subject of the poem in the school books) was president too. Her mould-breaking achievements are surely attributable to the unique beauty and brilliance of such lines as “I wish the winds would spread the cry of my heart/ To the whole universe”.

In any case, creativity runs in the family. In 2010 her mother, Mehriban Aliyeva, received the Unesco Mozart Medal, a prize for contributions to music also given to such giants as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Mstislav Rostropovich. This could have been awkward for the-then director-general of Unesco, the Bulgarian Irina Bokova, who was married to a beneficiary of handsome consultancy fees from an Azerbaijani company.

In other poetry news, the Covid-delayed Dubai Expo 2020 has just opened. The UK Pavilion, by the designer Es Devlin, offers passersby a large circular facade on which LED lights display verses created from words submitted by visitors and generated by artificial intelligence.

The idea is to create a message that we might want to deliver to other advanced civilisations in outer space, in response to the late Stephen Hawking’s call for such a thing. Examples so far include such enigmatic gems as “now I’m in a garden by chance, and the light is all but positivity” and “papa’s shirt, and the grasshopper coming this way – but this is a weird day for thinking”. Between these lines and Leyla Aliyeva’s cries blowing through the universe, you’d hope that any passing alien might consider this planet too baffling to bother invading.

Expos, once known as “world fairs”, are like the Olympics – only without the excitement – vast and expensive international jamborees constructed around vague platitudes about global friendship and understanding. I haven’t made it to the Dubai iteration, so maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to conform to the usual ratio of 99% futility to 1% inspiration, as a row about the Italian pavilion suggests.

This features a 6-metre replica of Michelangelo’s David, which is something to do with the theme of “Beauty Connects People”. The famously naked statue is hemmed in by the pavilion’s interior architecture so that the ordinary visitor, circulating through an upper gallery, can only easily see its head and shoulders – you have to be a select visitor or attend a function on the lower floor to get a good view of its genitals.

The pavilion’s organisers have been obliged to deny accusations that this is an act of self-censorship, in order not to offend their hosts in the predominantly Muslim United Arab Emirates. Let’s believe them, as why would Emirati VIPs be thought less sensitive to body parts than the general public? But what was gained by giving themselves this problem in the first place?

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