Vol. 38 No. 13 · 30 June 2016

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Volumes of White Noise

The cohort studies discussed by Gavin Francis often confirm what everyone already knows: that (statistically speaking) a person born into disadvantageous circumstances is likely to be disadvantaged through life (LRB, 2 June). The addition of DNA collection and analysis to these studies is a recent phenomenon, which Francis hopes will deliver a deeper understanding of the interplay between genes and environment. I suspect this will prove optimistic. We already know that the genetic contribution to most of the common chronic diseases – including stroke, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, chronic lung disease, chronic kidney disease and dementia – is surprisingly small. Genetic studies in this area generate great masses of data and any number of ‘statistically significant’ results. Very often the effect of a particular genetic variation is small, there is no plausible explanation, and when different cohorts are examined the results can’t be reproduced. When genetic thinking is applied to such hard-to-define traits as personality, behaviour, lawlessness and intelligence, the danger is that great volumes of white noise will be generated. Yet, as Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson have pointed out, politicians, corporations and researchers are all partial to research into genetic determinism: politicians because it reduces their responsibility for ill-health and social disadvantage; corporations because it diverts blame; and researchers because funding for this type of research is relatively easy to obtain.

Tim Cundy
University of Auckland

Don’t blame Nafta (necessarily)

Tony Wood writes that ‘Nafta, the free-trade deal signed by Salinas and Bill Clinton in 1994, blew away much of the Mexican agricultural sector, providing a cheap workforce for the maquiladoras – factories set up in increasing numbers to benefit from new tax breaks’ (LRB, 2 June). The maquiladora sector, which was introduced in the mid-1960s, already had about half a million employees when Nafta was signed in 1994. Since then the number of maquila employees has fluctuated around this figure, mostly in response to upturns and downturns of the US and global economies. The Mexican border region, where most of the maquilas are located, has always had higher average wage rates than the rest of Mexico, and the maquila industry has from the outset attracted labour from villages all over Mexico.

Leslie Sklair
London NW1

Turn off the TV

It is a symptom of something or other that two books on autism should have been reviewed by Daniel Smith in the LRB, and one of them recently in the TLS, too, but not in Nature (LRB, 19 May). I was, I think, the first English paediatrician to make the diagnosis, after reading Leo Kanner’s description of the condition. I have since learned that the clinician has to distinguish diseases sui generis from what Harold Himsworth called syndromes (the common endpoint of often quite different conditions), and from what are best seen as the tail ends of a ‘normal distribution curve’ of characteristics. One can discern within what is now labelled ‘autism’ a distribution curve in which ‘cases’ vary from so-called Asperger’s syndrome, characterised by insensitivity to the normal nuances of social intercourse, to persons unable or unwilling to engage socially at all.

The extent to which autism is the result of genetic factors or environmental stimuli or lack thereof, or an interaction between the two, is difficult if not impossible to determine, as is the extent to which adaptation on the part of parents, teachers and their psychiatric advisers to a susceptible infant may enable a child to make the best of his (most cases are male) talents.

John A. Davis

Bevan’s Friend

Thomas Meaney’s account of the life and work of the communist revolutionary Milovan Djilas failed to mention his friendship with Aneurin Bevan, whom he held in high regard (LRB, 19 May). The values of the Labour Party in the 1950s and 1960s had a significant impact on him. After his release from prison in 1966 he continued to live an active political life. When I visited him at his home in Palmoticeva Street in Belgrade he talked about his visit to the UK and his discussions with Bevan and how much they had influenced his political thinking. The frequent meetings of intellectuals and dissidents in Belgrade, often at his home, led to the formation of a ‘free university’, a network of thinkers who created a space free of ideological and political control by the government. The meetings were brutally interrupted by a police invasion in April 1984, which led to Djilas’s last, short-term arrest.

Miroslav Simic
Milton Keynes

Tall Lady, Eating Sandwiches

When assessing the reliability of Prince Pückler-Muskau I neglected to check my own recollection of The Pickwick Papers (LRB, 16 June). Jingle describes a ‘mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches’, not a man, as the victim of a low arch. Her five children ‘look round – mother’s head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in’. He does not mention whether or not the sandwich was in her right hand. Dickens does date Jingle’s meeting with Pickwick to 1827 so it is contemporary with Pückler’s stay in London.

Nicholas Penny
London W9

Hungarian Sausages

The speaker in August Kleinzahler’s poem ‘30 Rue Duluth’ recalls a ‘broken link of kobasc/fetched only lately from Boucherie Hongroise’ (LRB, 2 June). I hate to be pedantic about sausages, but surely he means ‘kolbász’?

Philip Coleman
Trinity College Dublin

Please, Mr Kleinzahler

August Kleinzahler writes that he enjoyed good reviews from Guy Davenport and Christopher Middleton when he sent them some poems in 1977 ‘and on the same day Hanna Schygulla turned up on [his] doorstep with a bottle of Liebfraumilch in hand’ (LRB, 19 May). This is too much and too little information. Please, Mr Kleinzahler, I need to know more. Are you saying that Hanna would have been your first choice of female company to celebrate the occasion – that this was the measure of how happy you were – or was she really in Montreal and happened to drop by?

Linda Gray

I hadn’t heard of Christopher Middleton before I read August Kleinzahler’s wonderful remembrance of him, since we inhabited radically different worlds, but reading between the lines, I realise that Middleton and I must have lived in the same neighbourhood in Austin in the 1980s. The description of seeing the skyline when the leaves were off the trees clinched that.

I’d like to set Kleinzahler straight on a couple of things. The music scene had been in full swing since Hank Williams played his last show at the Skyline Club in December 1952, and it had been a countercultural magnet since the early 1960s, thanks to the availability of cheap Mexican pot and legal peyote at any garden store featuring cacti. That was disrupted when Lyndon Johnson became president and a crackdown started. A number of musicians and artists headed to San Francisco, where they became integral to the music scene and continued the underground comics they’d started on the University of Texas’s humour magazine, the Texas Ranger. They started trickling back in the early 1970s.

And although it’s an expensive restaurant, Jeffrey’s was and is anything but a steakhouse. And it wasn’t serving Rhône wines either. I used to gaze at the menu as I walked my groceries home from the supermarket across the street, but it was far beyond my means. Little did I know that the hippie who ran the healthfood store halfway between there and my house would soon start Whole Foods.

Ed Ward
Austin, Texas

In No Mood for Talking

The recent death of Muhammad Ali throws into even sharper relief Raphael Cormack’s tale of his improbable find, in the storeroom of a Cairo book dealer, of a copy of Kwame Nkrumah’s Africa Must Unite, which Nkrumah had signed and presented to Ali during Ali’s 1964 visit to Ghana (LRB, 19 May). An interesting footnote to Cormack’s yarn can be found in Private Secretary (Female)/Gold Coast, Erica Powell’s account of her time as Nkrumah’s private secretary. According to Cormack, on arriving in Ghana Ali was uncharacteristically quiet. ‘I’m in no mood for talking,’ he said, ‘but when I start talking you’ll have to hold your ears.’ If Ali ever did make good on his promise to let loose in Ghana, it wasn’t during his visit with Nkrumah, who on Powell’s telling left (or kept) the Greatest speechless. ‘Whether it was the shock to him, a black American, of finding himself in a country run by people of his own colour, I do not know, but the fact is that he had literally nothing to say,’ she wrote. ‘There was none of his renowned boisterousness, which I found rather disappointing, but he was so utterly handsome, as was his equally speechless brother who accompanied him, that the sight of him far outweighed all else.’

Michael O. West
Vestal, New York

Under the Shadow of Rhodes

Gaia Servadio appears actually to believe that the statue of Luigi Pirandello in Porto Empedocle is really of Lenin (Letters, 2 June). This mischievous suggestion was first aired by the town’s second literary son Andrea Camilleri, creator of Commissario Montalbano, whose statue stands (or rather leans) nearby. Pirandello is represented wearing his customary bow-tie, a sartorial habit not, so far as I know, favoured by Lenin.

Noel Purdon

What have the railways done for us?

George Muir argues that the key benefit in allowing the state rail companies of Germany, France and the Netherlands to run rail services in the UK is the ‘competitive pressure’ they bring to the bidding process for train operating franchises (Letters, 2 June). The question follows: why are these European countries perfectly able to run fine rail services at home without the help of such ‘pressure’ from abroad?

Guido de Graaff
London SE16

Just to be clear

Robert Potts, in his review of J.H. Prynne’s Poems, implies that the first edition of Prynne’s collected poems was published by Bloodaxe in 1999 (LRB, 2 June). In fact the first edition was published by Fiona Allardyce and myself in 1982, under the imprint Agneau 2. The 320-page volume was reviewed by Elizabeth Cook in the LRB of 16 September 1982. The circumstances surrounding the publication of this true first edition are laid out in full in Jeremy Prynne’s 80th-birthday festschrift, For the Future, edited by Ian Brinton, published by Shearsman just about now.

Anthony Barnett
Lewes, East Sussex

Good Grief!

Ian Jack writes: ‘At around 7 or 8 p.m. every Saturday night …’ (LRB, 2 June). That teeth-grating superfluity – ‘p.m.’ and ‘night’ – is now part and parcel of the flapdoodle of the unworthy heirs of the Observer et al. To discover that it is apparently acceptable to both a writer of the quality of Mr Jack and the editors of the LRB left me as surprised as Mr Astor was to learn that most his staff were ‘in debt’.

Allen Pizzey

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