Vol. 39 No. 21 · 2 November 2017

Search by issue:

The Liveliness of the Dead

Instances of ‘medicinal cannibalism’, described by John Shipley, would seem a survival of a religious cult (Letters, 5 October). There is even a word, ‘myrrhoblyte’, for a saint whose body exudes oil long after burial (I owe this piece of information to the late Dom Sylvester Houédard, aka dsh, concrete poet, lexicographer and ecumenical campaigner, whose knowledge of Christian arcana was unparalleled). San Nicola, the original of Father Christmas, still oozes miraculously, and the clergy in the church in Bari where he lies in his tomb offer visitors phials of a clear, slightly viscous, odourless and tasteless (I tried it) fluid with protective powers – or at least they did twenty years ago. Some early Christian reliquaries (the Princeton Museum has examples) have a hole in the top or the side for pilgrims to dip a stick into and obtain some of the liquor flowing from the remains. Today curators and priests prefer to speak of oils that have been in contact with the relic, rather than oils flowing from it, but St Nicholas is by no means the only myrrhoblyte in the calendar.

The phenomenon would seem to be a presage of inoculation: a tiny dose or drop, if applied or swallowed, would communicate some of the original individual’s powers to withstand evil. The uses of mummy in Europe were not only concerned with health and safety, however. Othello’s handkerchief is a powerful love charm which his dying mother had given him. An Egyptian ‘charmer’ had given it to her, he tells Desdemona, and it was made by a sibyl from the silk of sacred silkworms and then ‘dyed in mummy which the skilful/Conserved of maidens’ hearts’. Desdemona, who doesn’t note any whiff of the grave about the hanky, sounds sceptical: ‘Indeed? Is’t true?’ she asks. ‘Most veritable,’ her husband assures her. And its loss spells disaster for her, as we know.

Marina Warner
London NW5

What is Great about Ourselves

David Goodhart suggests that levels of inequality in Britain have remained essentially unchanged since the 1990s (Letters, 19 October). This can be argued only by those who ignore the rapidly rising income and wealth of the best-off 1 per cent. That alone now makes the UK the most economically unequal country in Europe by OECD measures. Goodhart suggests that spending on social security is much higher now than it was in the 1970s, but he ignores both the near full employment and very low income inequality back then: the UK was the second most economically equal large country in Europe (after Sweden). Housing costs were also much lower and fairer. Public spending was lower because less was needed. Even so, Goodhart doesn’t mention that public spending today is much lower in Britain than in almost every other Western European country.

Danny Dorling

Somewhere in the midst of David Goodhart’s cross response to Pankaj Mishra, he defends his argument that ‘group cultures … do still matter.’ Half a century ago, the anthropologist Fredrik Barth summed up what a generation of sociologists and anthropologists had learned from the empirical study of people living in multi-ethnic situations: the idea of a common culture is a chimera. What gives a group of people a sense of sameness is agreement on who they are not. The shared ‘cultural stuff’ is neither here nor there: the action happens on the boundary where small markers of difference identify the people ‘we’ are not. The markers change as contexts change, and the other group that gives our sense of ‘us’ also changes: what is constant is the process of boundary-making. Goodhart’s vapid pop sociology is itself an exercise in this kind of boundary work; it is in no way an analysis of it.

Jonathan Spencer
University of Edinburgh

Eyes on me!

George Duoblys misunderstands our school, Michaela, in important respects (LRB, 5 October). He likens us to KIPP, the charter chain in the US, when there is little resemblance. KIPP does not plan lessons centrally. I have visited KIPP schools: teachers plan their own lessons. Teachers’ work/life balance is central to the Michaela ethos, so we reduce workload where we can. Nor is it true that Michaela does not believe in skills. Of course we do. We just believe that a better way to achieve these skills is to give children knowledge. In my twenty years in education, never have I seen pupils so vibrant, questioning and confident. Why did Duoblys not question our pupils and compare their understanding of the world to that of pupils elsewhere? Perhaps this would have challenged his apparent scepticism about knowledge, order and discipline. Michaela families are grateful that their children are kinder, happier and more motivated than ever before. Teachers from all over the country have implemented our methods in their classrooms and have watched their pupils change for the better.

Katharine Birbalsingh
Michaela Community School, Wembley

I read George Duoblys’s piece on academy schools with mounting horror. The schools resemble both Gradgrind’s academy and the setting of Gillian Cross’s children’s horror novel series The Demon Headmaster, in which an anonymous principal obsessed with order hypnotises students to achieve total conformity, intending to use them to extend his dominion over the world.

The children at Mossbourne, King Solomon, Michaela and City will not be taking over the world: they are being trained in obedience, conformity and knowing their place. Despite King Solomon’s emphasis on university as the ultimate destination, these students will struggle to succeed at any kind of higher education. Whether in the Russell Group or the ‘modern’ universities such as mine, we prize the inquiring, flexible mind over the reliable processor of information – as do decent employers. Research shows that privately educated students struggle to cope with autonomous study in higher education: in the schools Duoblys writes about, the children get private school attitudes without the concomitant liberty. It’s significant that few of the teachers have children: I wonder how many of them would subject their own offspring to the same regimen.

Aidan Byrne
University of Wolverhampton

In the Brain

Harry Strawson recounts the diagnostic procedures he underwent before surgery to remove a tumour lodged in the temporal lobe of his right hemisphere (LRB, 5 October). He correctly points out that the brain is lateralised, and that in most individuals language processes are localised in the left hemisphere. He isn’t right, however, to state that information from each eye travels to its contralateral hemisphere. Rather, it is information from the left and right visual fields – namely, the bits of the world lying to the left or right of the point of fixation – which travels to the contralateral hemisphere.

‘Neurons demand more oxygen in order to perform a task,’ Strawson writes. Actually they use glucose, carried by locally augmented blood flow, but not oxygen, to fuel additional energy demands. This is the same anaerobic process that fuels muscle contractions in short sprints, resulting in the production of lactic acid. This is the reason local increases in oxygen concentration, due to a mismatch between locally increased cerebral blood flow and unchanged oxygen consumption, can be used to pinpoint activated brain regions with functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Giovanni d’Avossa
Bangor University

The Freud We Need

Paul Keegan declares it ‘impossible to write a non-Freudian life of Freud, which is the only kind that is needed’ (LRB, 5 October). May I point out that my Freud: The Making of an Illusion attempts to fill that need, at least for part of Freud’s life? I’m not so naive, though, as to think that Keegan or other connoisseurs of Freud’s subtleties would welcome my book. It addresses issues that are widely considered to be in poor taste. Did Freud discover anything at all? Didn’t he chronically lie about his therapeutic success? Was he able to distinguish between his own fantasies and those of his clientele? Were some of his ‘patients’ invented from thin air in order to illustrate his theory and be flabbergasted by his brilliance? And could there be a relationship between his use of cocaine, over what Ernest Jones privately estimated to be a 15-year span, and the signs he exhibited of confusion, erotic obsession, paranoia and megalomania? These questions aren’t new, but I have addressed them with an unaccustomed fund of evidence. Although my answers, if correct, don’t invalidate anything said in Keegan’s essay, they suggest that there may be less to Freud’s textual cruxes and conundrums than meets the eye.

Frederick Crews
Berkeley, California

The Flight to Dunkirk

Like Jonathan Raban’s father, my uncle Tom didn’t say much about his experience of the flight to Dunkirk (LRB, 5 October). The only story he told concerned the quality of German engineering. He was a gunner in an anti-aircraft battalion which was ordered to turn its guns to horizontal so that it could fire at the oncoming tanks. ‘We might as well have been using pea-shooters,’ he said. I don’t recall any dismay in his voice. What sticks in my mind is that after the war he drove only Volkswagens.

Andrew Finlay

How Not to Do Trade Deals

Martin Sanderson and Rupert Read, respectively, credit Swati Dhingra and Nikhil Datta with producing a ‘devastating account of the UK’s dismal trading prospects after Brexit’ and ‘skewering Brexiters’ vain hopes’, but can it really be said they do anything of the sort (Letters, 5 October)? Dhingra and Datta point out that agricultural imports into the EU have very high tariffs. Indeed, and this explains why 71 per cent of the UK’s agricultural imports now come from the EU: it would be more expensive today to buy from Africa. But the authors seem to suppose that Britain will continue importing the same proportion from the EU, and at substantially higher prices, if no new trade deal is reached. Surely at that point the rational approach would be to substitute expensive EU produce with better-priced imports from other regions. Or I suppose we could revisit the Corn Laws, as Read seems to be suggesting. A lot of the economic analysis around Brexit seems to assume static conditions extending into the future, whereas business and trade activity are dynamic. The £250 billion that the US is currently investing in the UK, together with the fact that the US already accounts for 13 per cent of our exports (more than any other country) and 9 per cent of our imports, rather suggests that a trade deal is not a precondition for trade.

H.E. Taylor
London SW15

Overtones of Eternity

It is not correct, as Philip Rush puts it, that English speakers ‘much prefer the present tense when talking about the future’ (Letters, 5 October). You might as well say that English speakers prefer to use the singular for the plural in nouns such as ‘deer’. The construction ‘My dog eats chocolate’ is not an example of either the present or the future tense, but of the consuetudinal tense, referring to that which is constant, habitual or naturally the case. In Germanic languages the consuetudinal tense takes the same form as the present tense, while in Welsh it takes the same form as the future tense. It is interesting that English has reverted to using the same form as the present tense, whereas Old English or Anglo-Saxon (spoken in England until about 1150) used the same form as the future tense. The influence of Old Welsh on Old English?

Margaret Faull
Wakefield, West Yorkshire

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences