Jonathan Sumption takes issue with my assessment of the recent record of the United Kingdom Supreme Court, particularly in the field of human rights (Letters, 10 February). Sumption was a judge on that court for some six years, during which time he gave a series of excellent judgments on how best to balance the power of judicial interpretation with the (rightful) demands of parliamentary sovereignty. His satisfaction that the ‘highly interventionist’ activism of earlier cohorts of judges has come to an end sits awkwardly with the fact that these judges (including himself) were obeying Parliament in exactly the way he says they should: there was (and still is) a Human Rights Act, enacted in 1998, which demands that the judges do what is possible to ensure that laws are interpreted compatibly with the European Convention on Human Rights; there are European Court of Human Rights judgments that the British courts are required to take account of in coming to their decisions on the rights set out in the convention; and there is a prohibition on unjustifiable discrimination in the 1998 Act drawn from the convention, interpreted broadly by the European judges in a way that was well understood when Parliament enacted this law.
In doing all this expansive human rights stuff, it was these activist judges who were the loyal servants of parliamentary sovereignty, not the current Supreme Court, whose modest interpretation of its remit is stifling Parliament’s intent. The honest thing for the government to do (and perhaps Sumption would support this) would be to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European human rights system entirely. In further taking back control in this way the government would be unlikely to be overly bothered by a Parliament over which it enjoys control. The Lord Sumption who has been appearing on our television screens over the past two years inveighing against the government’s Covid regulations and the abasement of the parliamentary process that this has involved would understand the risks.
The all-cause excess mortality rate is, as Paul Taylor says, the most reliable metric when it comes to comparing the policy responses of different countries to Covid-19 (LRB, 10 February). I wouldn’t challenge his verdict that Boris Johnson’s leadership has been a handicap to England’s response to the pandemic, but I’m not so sure about his implication that ‘the failure to impose a lockdown in autumn 2020 … represents a failure of judgment so catastrophic it should be unimaginable that any political career could survive it.’
Taylor draws on data collected since the start of the pandemic. He does not mention EuroMOMO, which since 2008 has been monitoring mortality in Europe in an effort ‘to detect and measure excess deaths related to seasonal influenza, pandemics and other public health threats’. It publishes a weekly comparison of European countries, including the four constituent countries of the UK, based on official national mortality statistics, all corrected for over-dispersion (essentially the fluctuations you get on a week by week basis), seasonality and secular trends (for example, the rising number of people over eighty years old in Germany, which Taylor mentions), using methods originally devised to identify outbreaks from routine infectious disease surveillance data. Observed mortality rates for each country are presented as a z score, the number of standard deviations from the expected mortality rate.
If we characterise the 2020-21 winter wave in each country as lasting from the first week that the z score becomes positive (more deaths than expected) to the first week that it dips back below zero (fewer deaths than expected), most countries, irrespective of their lockdown policies, had a wave lasting around twenty weeks on average. I calculate the cumulative z score in England (the area under the curve of a 24-week wave) as approximately 157. Johnson may have been indecisive, not to say chaotic, but Wales (led by the indisputably conscientious Mark Drakeford), which did lock down earlier, nevertheless experienced a 23-week wave with a cumulative z score of 107. Germany and France, with still more restrictive policies, had waves of 33 weeks and 38 weeks respectively, with z scores of 151 and 235. Germany and France may have flattened their curves, but over a longer timescale excess deaths occurred anyway at a rate similar to England’s. There is little to suggest that the decisions in England were uniquely and unequivocally catastrophic.
There are downsides to lockdowns. John Lanchester acknowledges the ‘increase in intergenerational unfairness’ and the ‘mysterious absence of evidence as to just how much harm they cause’, and laments the lack of ‘national discussion about how the old are going to make it up to the young’ (LRB, 16 December 2021). The problem with Taylor’s own judgment is the encouragement it gives to those whose approach to future pandemics will be to promote lockdowns rather than to acknowledge, in the words of Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University, that lockdowns ‘signify a failure of public health policy’, a ‘lazy’ and ‘hugely damaging’ solution with regard to ‘our children and young adults who were robbed of their education, jobs and normal existence, as well as suffering damage to their future prospects, while they were left to inherit a record-breaking mountain of public debt’.
Paul Taylor writes: I am sympathetic to the view that lockdowns represent a failure of public health policy and wouldn’t want my piece to be read as an argument for the use of lockdowns in preference to any other instrument for controlling a pandemic. However, the UK had not prepared for this pandemic, did not respond well in the early stages and failed to implement an effective test and trace programme in the summer of 2020. It did not have many alternatives to lockdown, and given that fact, it would have been better done sooner. My reading of the EuroMOMO data supports that view. The figures Roland Salmon quotes comparing the UK to France and Germany look more favourable to the UK than they might because the period of comparison extends into the spring and summer of 2021, when vaccines were being rolled out faster in the UK. You are seeing the impact not just of the policy failures that led to the disease getting out of control in the winter of 2020, but also of the policy successes that came later. The figures comparing England’s excess deaths with those of Wales show, quite clearly, the impact of Mark Drakeford’s more conscientious response.
Eyal Weizman notes that Israel’s Lightning Strike attack on Gaza in May 2021 involved dropping 450 bunker-busting bombs on densely populated civilian neighbourhoods with the intention of destroying the tunnels beneath (LRB, 16 December 2021). Weizman describes these bombs as ‘the land-based equivalent of anti-submarine depth charges’. The operation was a failure, he writes, but did undermine buildings and kill 39 civilians. The failure isn’t surprising, since this isn’t typically the way depth charges operate.
A few lucky direct hits might crush the hull of a submarine and kill those inside, but shockwave intensity decreases exponentially with distance, so the usual result is merely to cause the sub to leak. Its crew is then forced to surface, where the guns of the ship that launched the depth charge can finish the job. Collapsing the tunnels in Gaza is made even more difficult by the poor blast-conducting properties of dry, sandy soil, especially when, as in Lightning Strike, bombing from high altitude to increase ground penetration makes precision impossible (and civilian casualties more probable). The IDF are surely not unaware of the physics of explosions. The stated purpose of the operation is likely to have been a flimsy pretext for vandalism on a grand scale and collateral fatalities.
I greatly appreciated Helen Thaventhiran’s often generous review of Hooked: Art and Attachment, but because it does not address my book’s main aim – a rethinking of aesthetic experience via actor-network theory – the stakes of my argument never come into view (LRB, 27 January). In asking what it means to become attuned to art, I was inspired by Zadie Smith’s description of her conversion to Joni Mitchell at Tintern Abbey; a transformation that came, she writes, as if out of nowhere. Thaventhiran reproaches me for not challenging this account, remarking: ‘Smith comes well-equipped to her conversion experience at Tintern Abbey: she is an essayist wandering around a heritage site known for inspiring a famous poem.’
I don’t feel the need to challenge Zadie Smith’s essay because it addresses the merits and limits of the explanation Thaventhiran is putting forward. Smith is obviously aware of the cultural associations of Tintern Abbey. She also underscores the ways in which her own taste is socially shaped; it is thanks to the efforts of art critics that she is able to appreciate the beauty of Picasso, she writes, and because of her education that she is no longer bored by Dostoevsky. And yet, however well equipped we may be, nothing guarantees that a specific work will ‘take’ at a specific moment. Why was Smith previously impervious to Mitchell’s Blue while her college friends were hooked? Why did other encounters with sublime or culturally resonant landscapes – a holiday in the Alps, perhaps – not have the same effect? Smith is right to suggest that there’s an unpredictability to some – not all – of our aesthetic responses.
Thaventhiran writes that I am ‘more interested in the immediacy of stories of attunement than in the history of aesthetic discourse that makes them possible’. Yet Hooked insists that aesthetic responses are always mediated, while also arguing – with ANT and against Bourdieu – that it can be remarkably difficult to specify all the influences in play at any given moment, which extend well beyond the ‘history of aesthetic discourse’. Zadie Smith’s essay still strikes me as the best possible introduction to these issues.
Alan Bennett notes his father’s use of ‘jollop’ to mean ‘any sort of liquid mess, like blancmange’ (LRB, 6 January). My grandmother used the word in two senses, generically to refer to any glutinous bottled medicine, and specifically to mean kaolin and morphine, a very effective cure for diarrhoea. However, I remember seeing, in George Melly’s autobiography, Owning Up, a reference to ‘jollops’, defined as ‘a very strong laxative’, so perhaps this is another of those instances in the English language where the same word can have two quite different, indeed opposite, meanings.
In the issue of 10 February a typesetting error unfortunately led us to omit the last line of Jorie Graham’s poem ‘On the Last Day’. The end of the poem should have read:
these tracks from this
summer or how many years
ago. Are these
grasses come again now,
new. This is being
remembered. Even as it
erases itself it does not
erase the thing
it was. And gave you.
No one can tell the whole story.
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