Friday, 27 November 2020
Wednesday, 18 November 2020
This is a remarkable, contemplative book. After finishing 'The Return', a book in which Matar returns to the land of his childhood, Libya, seeking, unsuccessfully, his father's fate at the hands of Gadaffi, the author goes to stay in Siena for a month to look at the city's art, which he has been longing to do for many years. He meets the city, he meets one or two of its people, and he looks at paintings for a long time. His look is not, however, strictly aesthetic, but rather that of a storyteller. His description of Ambrogio Lorenzetti's 'Madonna del latte' is a short classic of interpretation. As I read this book I found myself imagining I was inside a poem. Highly recommended.
Sunday, 11 October 2020
Saturday, 10 October 2020
This is Harold Laski, the intellectual engine of the Labour Party of the 1940s and 50s, and professor of politics at the LSE, addressing the Ealing Labour League of Youth. The woman is my mother, Jacqueline Clarke, whom he addressed, in his curious accent, and much to her amusement, as 'Charwoman' of the group. He was very much taken with her conversation and invited her to the LSE where she became a secretary to, among others, Claus Moser, later a close friend, in the statistics department, while at the same time studying for entry to the school.
Friday, 18 September 2020
Wednesday, 9 September 2020
My uncle Ken worked at the Hoover factory during the last two years of the second world war. It had been given over to making armaments ('flamethrowers, that sort of thing', says Ken). It is a much admired building, rightly so, and has now been converted onto flats. I have discovered that Elvis Costello wrote a song about it.
Tuesday, 8 September 2020
Friday, 4 September 2020
I've almost certainly posted this before. Absolutely wonderful poem.
ON THE BEACH AT FONTANA
Wind whines and whines the shingle,
The crazy pierstakes groan;
A senile sea numbers each single
From whining wind and colder
Grey sea I wrap him warm
And touch his trembling fineboned shoulder
And boyish arm.
Around us fear, descending
Darkness of fear above
And in my heart how deep unending
Ache of love!
Tuesday, 1 September 2020
The Granville Theatre, Walham Green (Fulham Broadway to you youngsters). Adjoined was my great grandmother's caretaker's flat, through the walls of which Grand Guignol screams kept my mother awake and fearful through the night in the early 1930s. The theatre was established by a consortium that included Dan Leno. It was designed by Frank Matcham (who also designed the Coliseum). My g-grandmother, Elizabeth Mary Nunns, was the undertaker not for the theatre but for the solicitors and the coal merchants on the floors below hers. The theatre and offices were demolished in 1971.
Tuesday, 28 July 2020
by Thomas Carew
Now that the winter's gone, the earth hath lost
Her snow-white robes, and now no more the frost
Candies the grass, or casts an icy cream
Upon the silver lake or crystal stream;
But the warm sun thaws the benumbed earth,
And makes it tender; gives a sacred birth
To the dead swallow; wakes in hollow tree
The drowsy cuckoo, and the humble-bee.
Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring
In triumph to the world the youthful Spring.
The valleys, hills, and woods in rich array
Welcome the coming of the long'd-for May.
Now all things smile, only my love doth lour;
Nor hath the scalding noonday sun the power
To melt that marble ice, which still doth hold
Her heart congeal'd, and makes her pity cold.
The ox, which lately did for shelter fly
Into the stall, doth now securely lie
In open fields; and love no more is made
By the fireside, but in the cooler shade
Amyntas now doth with his Chloris sleep
Under a sycamore, and all things keep
Time with the season; only she doth carry
June in her eyes, in her heart January.
Friday, 24 July 2020
Friday, 10 July 2020
Friday, 3 July 2020
Wednesday, 1 July 2020
Thomas Chatterton Williams
Self Portrait in Black and White, p.77
Thursday, 25 June 2020
Saturday, 6 June 2020
Monday, 1 June 2020
Sunday, 31 May 2020
Wednesday, 27 May 2020
Saturday, 23 May 2020
Tuesday, 19 May 2020
Tuesday, 28 April 2020
Sunday, 26 April 2020
ne of the most philosophically interesting questions is how to determine a person’s “cause of death”, and one of the most philosophically interesting documents is the death certificate. You may not be surprised to learn that the first such certificate emerged in London during outbreaks of the plague in the 16th century. It had the portentous name of “bill of mortality” and was used to record how many people had died in a given area, thus alerting healthy people of the places to avoid.
The taxonomy was crude, as documented by Kathryn Schulz of The New Yorker. By the 17th century in England you could die “of Bleach and of Blasted, of Cramp and of Itch” and of the “Rising of the Lights”. As our A doctor writing out a certificate has to determine which of this capacious list should be included in the section on cause of death. Line A asks for the “Disease or condition directly leading to death”. Line B asks for “Other disease or condition, if any, leading to A”. Line C asks for “Other disease or condition, if any, leading to B”. In other words, the causal chain leading from life to death is afforded a maximum of three links (with an additional line on “contributing” conditions). An example might be: death caused by pneumonia, in turn caused by cancer.
Yet despite the extensive list of causes, here is a word you will never find on a death certificate: “recession”. This despite the fact that recessions cause mortality and suffering on a large scale, through multiple channels, such as chronic disease, mental illness and constraints on healthy choices because of poverty, as the economist James Banks has detailed. In other words, economic factors can, and do, operate as earlier links in the causal chain of mortality — links that do not, and cannot, figure on death certificates.
I mention this because we are told that government decisions are based on “science”. This makes it sound as if science is a unitary discipline that uses data to provide objective answers.
In truth, science is multifaceted, made up of different paradigms, data sets, heuristics, theories and models. Medics look at mortality in a particular way, economists in another, evolutionary biologists in yet another. Each of these perspectives can be useful, depending on the question being asked. And each can be defective if used in isolation, or beyond the scope of its empirical orbit.
This brings me to Covid-19, perhaps the most complex political problem of modern times. It is wrong to call it a health problem, an economic problem or even an epidemiological problem. The way we deal with this will need to draw upon knowledge in all those domains, and more. A medic will inevitably use the lens of disease to think through an appropriate response, an important part of any discussion. But such a perspective will neglect other issues of significance. For instance: when an economy shrinks, innovation declines, leading to deaths that might have been avoided through advances in scientific knowledge. Medics are unlikely to have the training to reason through the dimensions of this counterfactual. An economist is better placed.
This suggests that the deepest question facing the government is not determining what scientists think, for they think different things. The question is how to draw upon the arsenal of scientific knowledge that impinges on this multidimensional problem, and then to triangulate this knowledge to chart the wisest course. The phrase “our decisions are guided by the science” therefore raises a very deep question indeed. Basing decisions on a narrow branch of science — or, say, a single epidemiological model, not yet peer reviewed, from Imperial College — is not scientific.
The leak of the membership of the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) caused some turbulence, not least because of the news that Dominic Cummings has attended some of the meetings. One question will be whether the prime minister’s chief adviser listened and observed, or participated and steered. Another will be whether the principal members of the group are sufficiently broad in outlook to consider the full health and behavioural implications of such a complex crisis. There are a lot of mathematicians and modellers.
Either way, the advice of Sage can represent, at most, one input into the broader judgment facing the government. It is how these considerations interact with those of the Treasury that will drive the most consequential set of decisions of a prime minister in recent times. The balance between lives and livelihoods, between the demands of a functioning economy and those of public health, is now pressing upon ministers. Ultimately, however, it is only Boris Johnson who can decide — and without the twenty-twenty precision of hindsight available to his critics in the years to come.
What is abundantly clear is that the political risks are by no means symmetrical. An easing of social restrictions will lead to short-term fatalities that might otherwise have been avoided. The causal chain from the political decision, to the contracting of Covid-19, and to death (for those susceptible) is short and direct. It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to see a future inquiry drawing this connection and ministers being demonised for their actions. If a vaccine is found quicker than expected, say within six months, these excess deaths will have particular emotional resonance.
Sustaining the lockdown, on the other hand, will lead to hardship and death through a longer and more convoluted causal chain. In 10 years’ time, in 20, those passing away will not have “lockdown” written on their death certificate but a gamut of mediating pathologies, their lives blighted, economically and psychologically, by the attrition of this artificially induced economic coma. Counterfactuals about the fuller lives that might have been lived, the innovations that might have been sparked and the deaths that might have been avoided, will not enter future medical analysis, perhaps not even the history books.
My sense is that the British public recognises the terrible bind confronting Johnson as he convalesces from an illness that almost ended his life. We would be wise to remember that when a scientist offers an opinion, they always speak from a position of partial knowledge while often, if unconsciously, smuggling in assumptions and value judgments. This is why a decision based on “science” is not necessarily scientific or, indeed, wise.
Monday, 20 April 2020
Saturday, 28 March 2020
Tuesday, 17 March 2020
Friday, 6 March 2020
Having said that, there are of course all sorts of wonderful things, chiefly descriptions, and we keep reading, pulled east by car and train, to Siberia, or north to St Petersburg. Tolstoy's eye for the telling detail of dress or glance is always in place, and his knowledge of human nature, for all Nekh's apparent wonder at its wickedness, is fairly comprehensive. Tolstoy's satire, though, is undermined both by his own strident dogmatism - revolutionaries all have kind blue eyes, bureaucrats and the wealthy are invariably ugly - and by a kind of sourness that reduces much of it to sarcasm. Despite attempts to ape Dickens (whom I believe he revered) he cannot quite bring himself to invest the wicked with the humanity, however broken, that CD does. Tolstoy is incapable of Uriah Heep.
The above seems mealy-mouthed. I very much enjoyed this book. Anyone studying the Russian revolution really needs to read it. That bloody thing seems inevitable as Tolstoy describes the world of the Imperial criminal justice system. The prison scenes - of which there are many - are vivid and grisly. The legal bureaucracies are stifling.
As often in Tolstoy, there is a lot of weather. We are always present in his scenes, albeit getting an earful of how we ought to be living.
Thursday, 27 February 2020
Friday, 14 February 2020
Tuesday, 11 February 2020
Monday, 10 February 2020
There lies behind everything, and you can believe this or not as you wish, a certain quality which we may call grief. It’s always there, just under the surface, just behind the façade, sometimes very nearly exposed, so that you can dimly see the shape of it as you can see sometimes through the surface of an ornamental pond on a still day, the dark, gross, inhuman outline of a carp gliding slowly past; when you realize suddenly that the carp were always there below the surface, even while the water sparkled in the sunshine, and while you patronized the quaint ducks and the supercilious swans, the carp were down there, unseen. It bides its time, this quality. And if you do catch a glimpse of it, you may pretend not to notice or you may turn suddenly away and romp with your children on the grass, laughing for no reason. The name of this quality is grief.
Thursday, 30 January 2020
Zed by Joanna Kavenna
A Dangerous Man by Robert Crais
Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin
Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard
Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy
How to Fight Anti-Semitism by Bari Weiss
Shakespearean by Robert McCrum
Signatures by David Pryce-Jones
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Passover by David Mamet
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy
The Art of Love by Ovid (trans J. Michie)
In the Cut by Susanna Moore
This Boy's Story by Tobias Wolff
Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams
Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton
I Remember by Joe Brainard
The Kill Artist by Daniel Silva
The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson