The Liveliness of the Dead
I was struck that Marina Warner, in her review of Thomas Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead, made no mention of what Louise Noble has called ‘medicinal cannibalism’ (LRB, 17 August). From the early modern period until the 19th century, Europeans, including the British and Irish, used human body parts (usually in powdered form) and blood as medications. Egyptian mummies were a prime source, but as time went on the war dead were used as well as the corpses of executed criminals. Richard Sugg, in his history of ‘corpse medicine’ (Noble and Sugg’s books were reviewed together by Michael Neill in the LRB of 1 December 2011), quotes a poem from the early 18th century by Richard Savage about an unscrupulous vicar who ‘Had made dead skulls for coin the chymist’s share,/The female corpse, the surgeon’s purchas’d ware.’ An Irish woman, Elizabeth Freke, noted in her diary around the same time that she used the ‘ground powder of an unburied human skull for palsy’. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary cites John Hill’s History of the Materia Medica (1751): ‘We have two different substances preserved for medical use under the name of “mummy”: one is the dried flesh of human bodies, embalmed with myrrh and spice; the other is the liquor running from such mummies when newly prepared, or when affected by great heat, or by damps.’
Oak Park, Illinois
How Not to Do Trade Deals
In their devastating account of the UK’s dismal trading prospects after Brexit, Swati Dhingra and Nikhil Datta refer to ‘British blue-collar workers’ as ‘the people who voted for Brexit’, and end with a reference to the ‘stagnating wages of those who voted for Brexit’ (LRB, 21 September). Their assumption about ‘who voted for Brexit’ is sufficiently widespread that they don’t see the need to present any supporting evidence; it is shared not least by Labour MPs so scared of losing their once safe seats in the party’s old industrial heartlands that they wouldn’t vote with the whip against the government on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. But what is the assumption based on? According to the Manufacturer, manufacturing directly employs 2.7 million people in the UK. Even if they all voted Leave, they would have made up only 15 per cent of the 17.4 million who did so.
One of the many ways in which Cameron’s government mishandled the referendum was by presenting it as a choice between a single option, on the one hand (staying in the EU and carrying on as before), and an almost infinite array of fantasy futures, on the other. One implication of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is that Brexit, before the vote, meant whatever people wanted it to mean. Dhingra and Datta spell out what it will really mean, but there’s little sign ‘hard’ Brexiters are taking any notice.
The most thorough analysis of who voted for Brexit that I’ve been able to find is by Adam Jacobs, a medical statistician who blogs at statsguy.co.uk. Among his findings were: 1. there was a strong correlation between voting Remain and having a degree; 2. there was a correlation between areas with high Remain votes and ethnically diverse populations; 3. the correlation between age and voting Leave was less strong than is often assumed: once education and ethnicity are taken into account, the relationship flattens out (reaching its modest peak somewhere just north of fifty); 4. wards with a higher proportion of people in higher socio-economic categories tended to have more Remain voters, but once Jacobs took other factors into account, the relationship reversed: ‘Once you adjust for education, higher socio-economic status predicts a greater likelihood of voting Leave.’
Jacobs makes the important caveat that his analyses ‘are based on aggregate data for electoral wards rather than individual data’. But if you throw caution to the wind and try to derive a portrait of a typical Brexit voter from his results, you’ll come up with someone in their early fifties, white, well-off and without a university degree – not a ‘British blue-collar worker’, in other words, but Nigel Farage.
Swati Dhingra and Nikhil Datta do an excellent job of skewering Brexiters’ vain hopes of making new, far-flung trade deals to replace the European single market. In particular they do well to highlight the grave dangers Brexit poses to the precautionary principle and thus to many safeties – notably, food safety – we currently take for granted. But to posit a choice between staying in the EU or making new trade deals with others is to omit a bold alternative, better suited to a time of incipient climate chaos, when it is becoming increasingly unwise and unethical to rely on vulnerable and carbon-intensive supply-lines. The UK should seek to become much more self-reliant. It would require that food become more expensive, that there be more training of UK workers, and much besides. Globalisation is yesterday’s ideology, not tomorrow’s. It is time for a green, relocalising, openly protectionist Brexit.
University of East Anglia
The Sucker! The Sucker!
Amia Srinivasan writes about laboratory studies of octopuses’ behaviour (LRB, 7 September). You can learn just as much watching animals at work in their own homes. Last summer we had an orbweb spider roost in our garden trellis. From there she threw a silk thread to the lemon tree, a distance of some 1.2 metres. She then spun a web down at the trellis end, but over time moved it across to the lemon. This seemed sensible: there was more insect traffic around the tree. Her web would be destroyed every two or three days, and she would patiently remake it during the night. Sitting near the top of the trellis with her backside pointing at the lemon, she would wait for the breeze to dissipate, then jet out another thread. Once she miscued, hitting the bottlebrush next door, 1.35 metres away, but she spun a new web along this line anyway. A bottlebrush isn’t as stable an anchor as a lemon, however, so she relocated the web to the trellis end where she didn’t wave around so much. When this web was destroyed, she moved back to the lemon. Here’s the surprise. Two weeks later she hit the bottlebrush again, but this time she ignored that line and continued to shoot threads at the lemon until one caught. This tiny creature toils in near blackout conditions, and we aren’t anywhere close to understanding what is going on in her mind – for this is surely mindful behaviour.
Raumati Beach, New Zealand
Mary-Kay Wilmers mentions that John Sturrock ‘played, and liked to write about, cricket’ (LRB, 21 September). In the only cricket match in which he and I both played, I batted one place above him. Having made my highest-ever score, I was glowing with happiness, and as he passed me on his way out to the wicket, I looked up, expecting congratulations. ‘Not before time!’ he grunted.
Overtones of Eternity
Colin Burrow writes that ‘lyrics are very often in the present tense,’ and that they use a ‘fictional “now”’ to express general truths (LRB, 7 September). In English, we very rarely use the present tense to talk about ‘now’. Speakers often use the present tense to relate experiences in the past, and we much prefer the present tense when talking about the future. When we say, ‘My dog eats chocolate,’ we invariably do not mean it is eating chocolate now – it isn’t, look – but that it has done so in the past and will, we expect, continue to do so in the future. Cows eat grass, Peter makes mistakes in his maths, the sun also shines.
In poetry workshops these days, one is politely discouraged from using the ‘continuous present’: don’t say ‘the leaves are floating,’ but ‘leaves float.’ The simple present is grittier, one is told, more direct, more condensed. What’s really meant is that it gives the idea of a ‘general truth’. It expands, exactly as Burrow explains, a simple idea into a gnomic piece of wisdom.
Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ uses tense precisely. He tells his anecdote in the past tense, but gives his reflection in the simple present. He did this; this is the effect of that. By linking the past to a general truth in this way, Wordsworth expresses his idea with a certain humility. Modern ‘lyric’ poetry rarely follows this model, preferring to endow the simplest experience, as Burrow says, with overtones of eternity.
What Is Great about Ourselves
Pankaj Mishra says that as David Goodhart sees it, the left have ignored ‘the psychological and sociological repercussions of squashing ineluctably dissimilar people together on buses, trains and tubes’ (LRB, 21 September). I recently spent a day travelling on buses in the North-East of England. As I boarded the first one, a fellow passenger, presumably hearing my ‘posh’ accent and noting my subdued middle-class dress sense, shouted from his seat: ‘Slumming it, are we?’ Having read Goodhart’s book I experienced an anthropologist’s delight in having so easily stumbled across this stereotype, but had I had the choice I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be squashed next to him. I don’t deny that I live in the South-East of England, but on a modest pension on one of the original Milton Keynes housing estates. What’s more, my accuser was as white as I am and I attended a state secondary school in the working-class town to which we were both headed. Looking back, I don’t believe white British people ever shared anything remotely like a single culture.
Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire
Pankaj Mishra accuses me of ‘backslapping’ a fellow elitist, Douglas Murray, by thanking him in a tweet for his ‘nice’ review of my book The Fate of the West in the Times. Actually, the ‘nice’ was followed a few words later by ‘but’, to correct Murray’s claim that I had failed to see Brexit coming and was somehow astonished by it, like other smug globalists. Since I was associated with (and roundly attacked for) a BBC documentary by Annalisa Piras in March 2015 called The Great European Disaster Movie that did warn Brexit was likely (if undesirable), this was false. But then what Murray and Mishra have in common is the use of falsehoods to support their preferred narratives.
Accident v. Collision
Malcolm Gaskill’s tales of early modern accidents brought to mind parallels with traffic accidents in London today (LRB, 7 September). Now, as then, the word ‘accident’ is a social construct. The police no longer use the word, preferring ‘collision’ to avoid implying that nobody was at fault. Frequently, somebody is. The media further depersonalise blame by reporting ‘woman killed in accident with car’, without mention of a driver. In time, once cars are automated, that will become apt.
As with the rare deaths in early modern times, public interest is inversely proportional to the frequency of these collisions. In the last eight years across England and Wales, 24 pedestrians have died following a collision with a cyclist, compared to 1,925 in collisions with motor vehicles.
18 Hours in Vietnam
David Thomson mentions Vietnam: A Television History, a documentary series of 13 one-hour programmes made by WGBH in 1983 (LRB, 21 September). He gives Stanley Karnow as the writer, but although Karnow did write the book that accompanied the series, the scripts for the actual programmes were written by their respective producers. I wrote the episode ‘America Takes Charge’, about the ground war in the period 1965-67.
Kittery Point, Maine