Vol. 43 No. 22 · 18 November 2021

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A Decent Death

It is useful to read Stephen Sedley’s clearly expressed legal opinion on assisted suicide (LRB, 21 October). There are, of course, alternative views. He might have considered the opinion, expressed in the House of Lords in 1994 by the neurologist Lord Walton, that the prohibition on intentional killing is ‘the cornerstone of law and of social relationships’. Once it is allowed that we can aim at the death of someone, a line is crossed and, as we have seen elsewhere, there will inevitably be an extension of the criteria on the basis of which it becomes acceptable to end a life.

Sedley twice refers to the opponents of ‘assisted dying’ as doctrinaire. But he mentions palliative care only once, and then in conjunction with ‘suffering’ and ‘a lingering death’. He can only see the status quo as allowing two miserable alternatives: neglected lives not worth prolonging or enforced survival and unbearable suffering. Having worked in a hospice and with palliative care colleagues in the care of many dying patients, I have a more optimistic perspective. We need more palliative care and more research in palliative care, not the legalisation of intentional killing by doctors or anyone else.

Julian Hughes
University of Bristol

People from the UK and from neighbouring countries regularly come to Switzerland for assisted suicide. If a patient wishes to end their painful and hopeless suffering, who are we to forbid this? I certainly want this possibility for myself. As a physician I consider assistance to suicide a clear and noble duty. According to Swiss law, assisting suicide is unpunishable as long as it is not done for profit. Physicians may provide the poison and they are also allowed to dissolve it and to set up an intravenous infusion. But they are not allowed to start the infusion themselves: if the patient cannot swallow the drug, they must inject it or open the line themselves. Also it would not be prudent of the physician to ask for a fee. All this is taught in medical school. During my career as a physician I have assisted in a suicide on two or three occasions. I have always found it disgraceful that other civilised nations exclude their citizens from this possibility and leave the demanding task to us foreigners.

Lukas Fierz
Bern, Switzerland

Stephen Sedley makes a clear case for amending the law to allow the assisting of suicide in certain circumstances. The experience of the past eighteen months, in which many people have died at home who would ordinarily have died in a hospice, has shown again that the end of life can involve pain and suffering that we would wish for nobody. But I wonder if the ‘word about safeguarding’ which Sedley offers is sufficient. His case assumes that all parties in a legally permitted assisted suicide would act rationally. But the current law exists to protect people in the real world, where decision-making can be more complicated. There are good reasons campaigners for people with disabilities resist changes in the law. They fear that it will come to seem rational to people with disabilities to relieve society of the burden of caring for them. As a parish minister I saw that people in difficult circumstances found it hard to make decisions about medical treatment. How sure can we be that assisted suicide will not seem best to many of the most vulnerable in society?

Sedley concludes with a ‘simple but realistic case’ about a woman whose life is not the property of ‘some capricious deity’. There is no need for a lawyer to be charitable towards opponents’ arguments, but if, as he believes, Parliament has been too influenced by theology, then let it at least consider better-informed theological arguments than Sedley offers. Such arguments would neither dismiss assisted suicide out of hand nor give it a free pass on the grounds of compassion, but would explore these profound matters in the light of people’s experience and beliefs, sometimes in a deity who isn’t defined only as capricious. Theologians may also recognise that if dreadful pain and suffering come to us or to those we love, we may change our minds.

Donald MacEwan
University of St Andrews Chaplaincy

A Very Great Secret

Steven Shapin is right that the Manhattan Project ‘was a very great secret’, but it was kept haphazardly (LRB, 4 November). My late father, Major Tom Bird of the Rifle Brigade, was a desert veteran who served as aide-de-camp to Field Marshal ‘Jumbo’ Wilson in Washington in 1945. Jumbo was chief of the British Joint Staff Mission and the British military representative on the Combined Policy Committee, which dealt with the atom bomb. General Groves, the overseer of the project, called regularly and my father was privy to all developments. Vice President Truman was not. My father was in Potsdam on 16 July 1945, the day the Bomb was tested, a day of some tension as both he and Wilson had been told that it might trigger a chain reaction. Knowledge of the Bomb had made him tense for months beforehand. He talked in his sleep.

Nicholas Bird
London W3

In Praise of Indexes

Anthony Grafton’s account of the rise of the index describes John Foxe’s printed blank commonplace book, first published in 1557, as ‘riding a wave’ (LRB, 23 September). That is being charitable: Foxe could also be accused of running a lucrative scam. In its expanded versions, his book consisted of a folio of six hundred leaves, each of which contained (on the recto side) printed headings, with the rest of the pages being completely blank, allowing purchasers to insert pithy quotations discovered in their reading. The book was then tied to a printed index in its final pages. In theory, this would allow users to create their own searchable archive – an analogue storage and retrieval device.

But, as users expanded the archive by inserting further blank leaves, the index as a finding device soon proved useless. Foxe’s system was also rigidly Calvinist: what would a Catholic user have entered on the pages reserved for Absurditates in doctrina Pontificia (‘Absurdities in papal doctrine’)? It’s true that the Master of the Rolls, Sir Julius Caesar, used Foxe’s book over a period of sixty years. But he was the exception. Many users seem to have abandoned it once its conceptual and ideological flaws became apparent, often using it merely as a source of paper.

What’s more, Foxe’s folio was competing with compact, readily available storage devices which were cheap, portable and fully functional. Printed almanacs were produced in their thousands in the period, and not only contained a wealth of useful information (when to plant crops, dates of holidays, phases of the moon etc) but were often sold at provincial markets and fairs with blank interleaved pages on which to jot memoranda. In effect, Foxe had produced a non-functioning mainframe device for an elite market, while all around him ordinary people were already using inexpensive hand-held devices.

Jonathan Sawday
Saint Louis University, Missouri

One troublesome use of indexes is their occasional weaponisation in academic feuds. A masterclass is provided by the Victorian medievalist J.H. Round, whose Feudal England (1895) was in large part a sustained and vitriolic attack on his fellow medievalist E.A. Freeman. The entry devoted to ‘Freeman, Professor’ is by far the longest in the index, taking up one and a half columns of its eleven double-columned pages, and has sub-entries such as: ‘his contemptuous criticism’; ‘when himself in error’; ‘his “facts”’; ‘confuses individuals’; ‘his pedantry’; ‘misconstrues his Latin’; ‘his confused views’; ‘his special weakness’; ‘his Domesday errors and confusion’. The final sub-entry might seem somewhat superfluous: ‘necessity of criticising his work’. And all this when Freeman had died in 1892.

Andy King
University of Southampton

An example of the woes of indexing known to many paediatricians was mentioned in the New York Times obituary of Waldo Nelson, author of the Nelson Textbook of Paediatrics, in March 1997.

The book was a family affair. Dr Nelson would call out items from each page as his wife and three children wrote them down on index cards. The children were not eager to help, but Dr Nelson insisted that it was a contribution to their education. In humorous retribution, his daughter Ann introduced a line in the index. Under ‘birds, for the,’ she listed the entire book, pages 1-1413.

Nelson insisted that the entry was removed from subsequent editions.

Norbert Hirschhorn
Minneapolis, Minnesota

In How to Make an Index (1902), Henry B. Wheatley, the founder of the Index Society, pointed to the dangers of a too-comprehensive index. William Prynne’s attack on the stage, Histrio-Mastix, might have escaped the notice of the attorney general had Prynne not supplied all the incriminating material in a convenient list. The entries include: ‘Devils, inventors and fomenters of stage plays’; ‘Heaven, no stage plays there’; ‘Herod Agrippa, smitten in theatre’; ‘Kings, infamous for them to act or frequent Playes’; ‘Plagues, occasioned by stage plays’; and, predictably, ‘Women actors, notorious whores’. The prosecutor quoted the index at Prynne’s trial.

Frances Post
London N10

For more than forty years I have been hoping for an opportunity to make the following index entry better known. It is from the Monthly Review, January-April 1802:

Interment, premature, of human bodies apparently dead, laudable institution for the prevention of, in Germany, 42.

Tony Lurcock


T.J. Clark suggests that Velázquez’s Mars was informed by Paolo Veronese’s Mars and Venus with Cupid and a Dog, which was in Philip IV’s collection until it was given to Charles, Prince of Wales, during his quixotic visit to the Spanish court in search of a bride in 1623 (LRB, 23 September). Clark assumes that Velázquez saw the painting in Madrid before it left for London. But although it was in Philip IV’s collection, it was hung in a villa in Valladolid, where its original owner, the Duke of Lerma, had displayed it since 1607. The Prince of Wales was presented with it there before he left Spain. There is no evidence that Velázquez accompanied the prince’s entourage. The splendidly ‘crestfallen’ gaze that Velázquez’s Mars casts at the viewer – or perhaps at a fleeing Venus – may well be entirely of Velázquez’s own making.

Xanthe Brooke
Wallasey, Merseyside

On Inis Meáin

The house on Inis Meáin where J.M. Synge stayed in 1898 still exists, with the interior retrofitted to recreate the conditions he would have experienced as a guest. But there would have been no floorboards through which to overhear the ‘islanders below’, as Roger Morsley-Smith puts it, since it’s a single-storey thatched cottage with earthen floors (Letters, 21 October). In the opening sentence of ‘On the Aran Islands’ Synge does indeed report ‘listening to a murmur of Gaelic’ in this way, but that was during a stay in a Kilronan pub on the larger island of Inis Mór.

Brendan Carroll
St John’s Point, Donegal

Two Homers

Thomas Jones writes that the Harvard classicist Sterling Dow ‘among other things deduced that Linear B was an early form of Greek’ (LRB, 7 October). In fact this was first conclusively shown by the person who deciphered the language, Michael Ventris. But Dow can take credit for being one of the first people to champion Ventris’s conclusions.

Rory Allen

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