Vol. 45 No. 3 · 2 February 2023

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Burning Questions

Fraser MacDonald draws attention to the negative health effects of domestic wood burning (LRB, 5 January). He is right to say that PM 2.5 emissions in the UK – PM 2.5 refers to the mass per cubic metre of air of particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres – have been ‘falling steadily for decades’, and the same goes for its larger cousin PM 10, visible as black smoke. This doesn’t, however, necessarily equate to a reduction in particle pollution. When particles are measured at the nanoscale, and by total numbers of particles rather than mass, the story is rather different. Modern cars and expensive stoves are indeed very efficient, and produce virtually no black smoke. They do, however, produce invisible nanoparticles by the trillion.

MacDonald mentions reassuring readings from his home PM 2.5 monitor. Such domestic laser-based monitors are incapable of registering particles with a diameter less than 300 nanometres (the 2.5 micrometre upper limit of PM 2.5 equates to 2500 nanometres), yet it’s these nanoparticles that enter our bloodstream and clog our arteries. In a study from 2016, researchers at the University of Edinburgh asked participants to breathe in particles of (inert) gold. They found that only particles below 30 nm passed through the lung walls and entered the bloodstream, subsequently piling up around fatty blockages in arteries (the precursor of strokes). MacDonald mentions that pollution particles ‘are thought to bear some responsibility for strokes’; in fact the Global Burden of Disease study estimates that air pollution accounts for 21 per cent of all deaths from stroke and 24 per cent of all deaths from ischaemic heart disease.

Studies have shown that 90 per cent of all particles beside busy roads have a diameter below 100 nm, too small to register in PM 2.5 readings. In essence, lighting a stove at home – no matter how efficient – causes much the same situation in your living room. There is, no doubt, a primal pull towards fire; if a pub has a fire lit I gravitate towards it. But we must – as with passive smoking – collectively understand and accept the risks, or collectively reject them. Those with little choice should be allowed to heat themselves by whichever means are available. But the recent 40 per cent rise in wood-burning stove sales has very little to do with fuel poverty, and more to do with middle-class taste.

Tim Smedley
Banbury, Oxfordshire

If You Were There

Paul Mendez writes that George Michael’s Listen without Prejudice Vol. 1 is ‘full of quotes from the gods of rock and soul’, citing as an example the ‘vocal inflection’ on the line ‘There ain’t no hope for the hopeless sinner’ from Michael’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘They Won’t Go When I Go’ (LRB, 5 January). For Mendez, this recalls Marvin Gaye’s vocals on ‘Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)’. I hear something different. Both Michael and Wonder clearly sing ‘there ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner.’ And this, along with its vocal inflection, is a direct quotation from ‘People Get Ready’ (1965), the much covered classic by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions.

Neil Foxlee

Paul Mendez mentions that Wham!’s concerts in China in 1985 were the first by any Western group. What’s almost as remarkable is that the accompanying feature-length concert film was directed by Lindsay Anderson. Wham! were then co-managed by Simon Napier-Bell, who was openly gay – unlike Anderson, who repressed his homosexuality, channelling it, according to Malcolm McDowell, into an unrequited love for his heterosexual lead actors. Chronically under-supported by the British film industry, Anderson wrote in his diary that he wasn’t excited by the music and that he had accepted the job purely for the fee. But perhaps he felt more of a kinship with Michael than he would admit, even to himself. In any event, Anderson was abruptly dismissed in October 1985, and the footage completely re-edited and released as Wham! in China: Foreign Skies. This year marks Anderson’s centenary; BFI Southbank is planning a retrospective. It is rumoured that Anderson’s cutting copy of his Wham! film, titled If You Were There, still exists.

Gareth Evans
London E8

A Bit of Everything

John Whitfield writes that the Research Excellence Framework has undermined existing research centres based on particular specialisms, resulting in a tendency towards homogeneity within university departments (LRB, 19 January). It should also be noted that the REF undermines ‘team research’, which has always depended on what Basil Bernstein called a ‘culture of impermanence’, that is, the labour of a ‘contract’ workforce whose employment conditions and benefits are inferior to those of ‘academics’ who are required to teach and do research, funded or not. Contract researchers are expected to vary their hours according to the time allocated in the research budget, and are not entitled to funding for such things as study leave. Many make up their salaries by, for example, running seminars and supervising undergraduate projects.

In the past some contract researchers did nevertheless make careers out of funded research, and some were even better published than staff employed as academics. When my own institution was absorbed into University College London, contract researchers were reduced to a lower status than academics. Some had been dependent on research funding for years. Perversely, some research posts were converted into teaching/research positions. Whitfield says that REF funding is used to tide research staff over between contracts, but that hasn’t been my experience.

The consequences of the REF for contract researchers are all the more worrying given the importance of international research collaboration. Multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary teams are needed to tackle major global problems. Such teams typically employ contract staff but offer them no clear career pathways. Given the tendency towards greater homogeneity within university departments and the increasing specialisation of academic journals, the REF may also have the unintended effect of making multi or interdisciplinary work too ‘risky’ to undertake.

Julia Brannen
UCL Institute of Education, London WC1

Political Undesirables

In her review of Clare Anderson’s Convicts: A Global History, Linda Colley refers to individuals transported to Australia, ‘most of them ordinary convicts, but with a number of political undesirables included for good measure’, citing the example of fifteen sailors found to be involved in the naval mutinies of 1797 (LRB, 5 January). She also laments the dearth of evidence available to sustain a historical account written ‘from below’.

The distinction between ‘ordinary convicts’ and ‘political undesirables’ is by no means straightforward. The official histories ‘written from above’ found it convenient generally to categorise the deportees as criminals. But several sources indicate that in fact very large numbers were included for political reasons. Apart from members of such groups as the Chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Glasgow cotton spinners, by 1800 Irish deportees, feared as militant Republicans, made up more than a quarter of the population of the penal colony. The fear was reinforced by events such as the Vinegar Hill uprising of 1804, when convicts marching to ‘Croppy Boy’, the song of the 1798 Irish rebellion, planned to proceed south to recruit Irish prisoners at Parramatta, then east to march on Sydney. Similarly, Ned Kelly’s 1879 ‘Jerilderie Letter’ announced the intention of forming an independent state within the colony. During the nocturnal lead-up to the gang’s ‘last stand’ at Glenrowan, the song ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ was sung. Such songs form part of a significant body of evidence.

Sydney Police Bench reports from 1833 describe penalties imposed at the prison settlement on Norfolk Island, including, for example, a hundred lashes for William Riley and Michael Burns ‘for singing a song’. (‘Grossly neglecting his duty’ and ‘absent without leave’, by comparison, incurred only fifty lashes, though that was still enough nearly to flay a man.) A large proportion of these songs were about Ireland. From Hugh Anderson’s extensive work in this area we learn that while many convict ballads referred straightforwardly to criminality, the Irish contributions were overwhelmingly political, hymns to various forms of Irish nationalism. Such vernacular songs exported a tradition of rebellion against a colonising authority that extended its power from one side of the world to the other, and which lumped its deportees to Australia into the single category ‘convicts’. From top down these deportees were criminals. From bottom up they were often what we would now call freedom fighters.

Bruce Johnson
University of Technology Sydney

At the Top Table

Ed McNally rejects an Atlanticism that he sees as the ‘sine qua non of participation’ in the foreign policy establishment (Letters, 15 December 2022). The challenge for anti-Atlanticists is to come up with a credible alternative, especially since Nato has rediscovered a role it struggled to maintain under the Trump presidency. Ideas of how to get round the US military monolith are notably absent from British defence and security debates not because of any veto, spoken or unspoken, but because the alternatives don’t reflect the real­­ity of the UK’s global position and have yet to coalesce into anything coherent or operational.

As for the notion that the foreign policy elite uniformly goes along with the worst of US decision-making and what passes for ‘grand strategy’, there was widespread outrage in the UK at Biden’s appallingly timed withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. The most significant contributions to think-tank debates are often made by practitioners who have served on the front lines of badly conceived foreign ventures. They rail furiously at their transatlantic partners when British security interests have been jeopardised.

Dealing with a difficult large ally or trade partner is a fact of international life, whether it be the US, EU or China. Choosing to ditch them, find new allies or go it alone are options the UK lost along with its empire. The narrowness of the British foreign policy debate is limited more by its failure to define and articulate the UK’s role in the wake of Brexit than by its sub­ordination to the US.

Claire Spencer
Washington, West Sussex

Love from BFG

Colin Burrow writes that Roald Dahl ‘would act surprised when asked if he (at 6’6”) was the BFG’ (LRB, 15 December). On occasion, however, he leaned in to the comparison. At a boozy publishing bash in the late 1980s, a relative of mine requested his signature for a young fan. On the back of a business card, Dahl scrawled:

How is you?
I is a bit piddled
Love from BFG
and Roald Dahl

Ben Fletcher-Watson

Nothing to Offend

‘Venice is the only city I’ve been in, with the possible exception of Cambridge, where there was nothing to offend the eye,’ Alan Bennett writes – ‘possible’ presumably prompted by thoughts of the Lion Yard shopping centre (LRB, 5 January).


Lion Yard, Cambridge

Charles Turner
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

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