Category Archives: Reviews

The myth of meritocracy

In a blog earlier this month, I mentioned how much enjoyment and intellectual challenge I’d gained from various on-line events that I have been fortunate to be able to join since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Talks by some truly remarkable people have been broadcast to my computer from Hay-on-Wye, Bristol, London and New York (among others). I’ve agreed with lots of what was said at some of them, and very little of what was said at one or two of them, but one that really sticks with me was an interview with Hashi Mohamed as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

Hashi is a successful barrister, contributor to the Guardian, Times and Prospect magazine, and has appeared on and presented programmes for BBC Radio 4. To all appearances he is the very model of a successful middle class member of the British establishment. What sets his story apart, though, is the fact that he first came to London as an unaccompanied child refugee from the civil war in Somalia following the death of his father in a road accident. He was nine years old. He spoke little English. In his book People like us (Profile Books Ltd, London, 2020), Hashi draws on his experiences to reflect on the meaning of social mobility in the 21st century in the UK. It is a fascinating, challenging, and at times deeply uncomfortable read for a middle class white man. I have just finished my first read through the book. There is a lot in there that jars with what I have come to accept as ‘givens’ about the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda in the UK. I need to read the book again as part of a deeper reflection on my own preconceptions and attitudes towards social mobility.

For now, it’s clear that any romantic notion that I may have lazily entertained around Britain as a meritocratic society where talent and hard work would eventually prevail, has been shattered by Hashi’s account of his experiences and the research that he quotes about the experiences of others starting from low down in the social structure. The following quote comes at the end of the book and is a powerful demolition of the myths of meritocracy. Having described the almost infinite improbability of a nine year old, Somali refugee rising to become a barrister in 25 years, he states : “The chance of you succeeding in Britain today is down to many factors: the wealth and profession of your parents; the kind of school you attended; your mental and physical health; and the quality of your early environment, in terms of stability and attention. You’ll need to work harder than you ever imagined – and hope that whatever talents you have… are going to still be needed when you grow up. You’ll need a lot of luck as you go; and let’s hope that, along the way, someone explains the unwritten rules of the world you want to join. And you’ll need to make it through all that with your belief in yourself – and your vision for the future – still intact. And then – maybe – you’ll make it. It’s a bit of mouthful but it’s a damn sight more honest than anything with the word ‘meritocracy’ in it.”

Biden and Heaney : character and poetry

Much has been made in the UK of President-Elect Biden’s clear pride in his Irish roots. For some, the fact of his heritage is seen as a major threat to the Westminster government’s ambitions for a post-Brexit, UK:US trade deal. The received wisdom on the eastern side of the Atlantic is that no Democrat President will countenance a trade deal with the UK that connives in the undermining of the Good Friday Agreement and the on-going piece process on the island of Ireland. Time will tell whether the change in regime in Washington leads in turn to a softening of the hitherto hard-line, ‘no-deal’ rhetoric that has typified the UK’s approach to Brexit negotiations with the EU.

However, another aspect of Biden’s love-affair with Ireland is his clear familiarity with and deep affection for the poetry of Seamus Heaney. This is the subject of a really insightful piece by Jonathan Jones in today’s Guardian newspaper. Heaney is a poet that I have only come to fairly recently (and – don’t judge me – mainly as a result of stumbling across the @HeaneyDaily Twitter account). His poetry draw heavily on his rural, Catholic upbringing in Northern Ireland. There is a matter-of-factness about the way that he describes actions that are as natural in the countryside as they are appalling to an urban audience. There is (to me at least) a lot that connects Heaney’s descriptions of twentieth century Ireland to R.S. Thomas’ poetic treatment of north west Wales, or Laurie Lee’s lyrical-prose depiction of Somerset in Cider with Rosie. In all three cases, you are left with the impression that the characters of the writers have been forged by the landscape around them – that they have a sense of who they are in the place that formed them.

Digging is a beautiful tribute to Heaney’s father and grandfather – men who were steeped in the countryside and whose character was formed through hard work and perseverance. Digging for them was literally about putting food on the table and keeping the cold damp out of the family home. For Heaney, it is his craft as a wordsmith that will keep their memory alive even as he forges his own way in life.

Digging by Seamus Heaney
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

Jones (in his Guardian piece) offers this analysis of Biden’s love of Heaney’s verse : “There is a depth in Biden’s response to Heaney that clearly goes beyond mere political convenience. He has suffered terrible losses in his life and perhaps he finds particular solace in this poet who voyages into the underworld and speaks with the departed. This appreciation of one of the wisest and subtlest of poets marks out Biden as a truly rare politician.

“In general it is a good thing that poets are not, as Shelley claimed, the true legislators of the world. Would you want the antisemitic TS Eliot, Mussolini-supporting Ezra Pound or petty racist Philip Larkin influencing politics? But Heaney was that truly rare thing: a great imaginative artist who was also a wise and noble human being.”

It is to be hoped – for all our sakes – that wisdom and nobility are also the traits that will mark out Biden’s Presidency. They have been in short supply recently in Washington and Westminster.

Roadkill (BBC1) : a review

It seems fitting somehow that the formal announcement that Joe Biden has secured sufficient Electoral College votes to succeed Donal Trump as President of the United States, should come on the same weekend that David Hare’s brilliant BBC drama Roadkill reaches its conclusion. In a nod to ‘slow living’, we have been watching the four parter as it has been shown on BBC1 – with a week’s gap between each instalment. The whole thing is available on the iPlayer though, if you haven’t yet seen it and fancy giving it a go.

Hugh Laurie plays Peter Lawrence, a maverick, libertarian Minister of State in Her Majesty’s Government who lives a seemingly charmed – not to say teflon-coated – life. A whole host of indiscretions, historical and contemporary, sexual and political, ethically dubious and overtly criminal, seem to surround but never quite stick to him. Publicly, he is a ‘man of the people’, driven only by a desire to ‘free his country’ – although freed from whom and to do what is never really made clear. He seems to move easily from the political to the corporate world, whilst maintaining a common touch that leads to members of the public feeling emboldened to approach him and ask for selfies. His personal life is a car crash – his multiple affairs over 30 plus years of marriage have destroyed any sense of love and affection that either his wife or his two grown-up daughters feel for him. Even his long term lover has seen through the pointlessness of a relationship that will always see her interests subordinated to his own. Despite all this, he rises to become Prime Minister, his election by the MPs in his party carefully choreographed by corporate interests principally connected to the international arms trade, and a desire to open up UK public services to US private enterprise.

Hugh Laurie plays Peter Lawrence in the BBC drama : Roadkill

If ever there was a political drama that was of its time, Roadkill is it. It speaks of a political class that is driven by power rather than ideology; of shadowy interests influencing and interfering in the democratic process – where party (and the funders of the party) consistently trumps country in the big decisions. It’s also very well written and very cleverly acted.

And (without giving anything away in case you haven’t watched the final episode yet), there simply has to be a second series!

Nationalism : can it ever be a force for good?

Simon Schama

Yesterday evening I joined 10,000 others in a ‘virtual’ audience for a talk by Simon Schama at the Hay Digital Festival. The talk was titled Return of the Tribes : nationalism in the age of global disaster. It was a fascinating insight into the way that international crises have impacted on feelings of nationalism through history. Schama noted that one would expect that something as all-embracing as a pandemic (the very word implies something that respects no borders) would be a force for bringing people together rather than driving them apart. And yet in reality, it has exactly the opposite effect as countries have closed borders and (in some cases) actively withdrawn from co-operation in international endeavours to control the virus or its consequences. Thus, the UK (in a flush of post-Brexit nationalist fervour, declined the opportunity to join EU initiatives to procure ventilators and PPE; while the US had withdrawn funding support from the World Health Organisation at the very point when the virus was spreading exponentially from across the country.

Nationalism as us against the other

This behaviour is a form of nationalist exceptionalism – a concept that conceives of nationalism as us against the other. It is an exclusionary, narrowly drawn version of nationalism that reached its peak manifestation in the fascism of Mussolini’s Italy and the Nazi Party in Germany. Defined in this way, nationalism has been conflated with extreme right wing politics, and is used as an argument against independence in places like Wales and Scotland. Even within the last two months, Mark Drakeford, the Labour First Minister at the Welsh Parliament, said in an interview on the BBC that : “[nationalism] is an inherently right-wing creed that operates by persuading people that they are because they are against what somebody else is.” In pursuing this line, Drakeford is simply the latest in a long line of Welsh Labour politicians who believe that it is only through uniting working class interests across the United Kingdom, that those interests can be advanced to fullest effect. You can read more about the debate around Welsh nationalism and whether or not it is consistent with socialism in a fascinating blogpost from Nye Davies for the Wales Governance Centre here.

Schama’s views on the possibilities for progressive nationalism are more nuanced than Drakeford’s. In acknowledging that nationalism is often viewed through lenses that seek to distinguish on the basis of history, language, music, geography or topography, it need not be the case that the undoubted differences between nations should mean that they cannot work collaboratively together. There is no conflict inherent in the statement that a liberal, pluralist democracy can also retain a nationalist identity. The United States itself was formed through the patriotism of immigrants!

Schama opened and closed his talk in typically positive fashion. At the outset, he reminded us that infectiousness is not exclusively a bad thing. We can enjoy infectious enthusiasm, laughter or excitement. Similarly, there must be some hope that a longer term outcome from the current pandemic might be greater international co-operation to improve the health of the planet and that of all the people who live on it.

That is a vision of progressive nations joining together to pursue an internationalist agenda that has real appeal.

Reflections on a weekend of learning

An undoubted sliver lining of the coronavirus lockdown has been the digitalisation of the Hay Festival this year. Since yesterday’s review of Stephen Fry’s reading from his new book Troy I have joined three further sessions. Each of them has been fascinating in it’s own right, but they have also given some pause for thought about the major UK new story of the weekend : the decision of the Prime Minister’s senior adviser to travel 260 miles from London to Durham to self-isolate at his parents’ home at the height of the crisis and when the official guidance was to Stay Home, Protect the NHS, and Save Lives. More on that later.

Yesterday afternoon, Professor Dame Sally Davies, formerly England’s Chief Medical Officer and now the UK Special Envoy on Antimicrobial Resistance, delivered a lecture on the challenges facing us as bacterial infections become more and more resistant to the antibiotic drugs that are available to us. Dame Sally highlighted the fact that the World Health Organisation in December 2019 issued a report on its latest risk assessment for global health that identified a viral pandemic and increasing antibiotic resistance as the two biggest threats for the coming decade. The report was published before we properly understood the significance of covid-19. In fact, although covid is a viral infection, the two threats are interlinked in so far that many people who are ventilated in intensive care develop secondary bacterial infections that require antibiotic treatment. The ‘take homes’ from the lecture for me were that antimicrobial resistance has been accelerated by the choices that were made in so many aspects of society : the use of antibiotic drugs in the animal food chain as a cheaper option to good husbandry and high animal welfare standards (thankfully now much improved in Europe but still a major issue elsewhere in the world); the demand for antibiotics by members of the public even where they are ineffective (eg for viral infections) and poor practice by healthcare professionals in prescribing them; and the operation of market forces in some healthcare systems around the world that leads to people only being able to afford partial courses of medication, which in turn contribute directly to increased bacterial resistance.

Thankfully, the position is not hopeless. Changes in practice in UK agriculture has seen antibiotic use in animal production reduce by 50% in the past 4 years; and Scottish fisheries have now stopped using antibiotics in their salmon farms altogether. At the same time, public awareness campaigns have reduced antibiotic prescribing; and there is a co-ordinated push to support research and development of new types of antibiotic that will replace some of those that are no longer effective in their use. The UK is a world-leader in supporting other countries around the world to embark on similar action plans.

Asked specifically about coronavirus, Dame Sally was clear that there might never be an effective vaccine and that it was far from clear whether having had the disease was a defence against future infection. The science was clear : preventing the spread of coronavirus required good personal hygiene (hand washing and not touching your face), and social distancing, and isolation when unwell.

Straight after Dam Sally’s lecture, I joined an interview conducted by Guto Harri (formerly of the BBC and subsequently Boris Johnson’s Press and Communications Director during the Mayor of London years) of John Sopel (the BBC’s Washington Correspondent). Sopel has just published a book entitled A year at the circus – inside Trump’s White House. The book chronicles some of the events and intrigues that have played out in the West Wing over the past twelve months, and draws on Sopel’s inside track as one of a very small number of journalists who have been afforded ‘access all areas’ passes for the White House.

Having spent so much time very close to both the President and his closest advisors, Sopel’s insights were fascinating. He absolutely disagreed with Harri’s suggestion that Trump is in any way stupid or ill-informed. Sopel describes a man who has a keen sense of what will appeal to his supporters and the personal conviction to act quickly on those instincts even if this wrong-foots advisers and opponents alike. Sopel pointed to Trump’s recent announcement that he wanted all churches in America to re-open for worship even while the covid-19 death count went above 100,000. This had gone down incredibly well with southern Republican states where the religious right is crucial to Trump’s chances of re-election in November. In addition though, it had seriously discomfited Democratic state governors who were now placed between the rock of their religious voters and the hard place of lockdown restrictions to control the spread of coronavirus.

The problem for Trump is that his instincts are sometimes much less reliable. The recent press conference where Trump suggested that bleach or sunlight introduced inside the body might be ways in which coronavirus could be overcome was a good example of this. These suggestions came as part of a marathon press briefing in which Trump relished his central billing. Sopel suggested that this is where Trump is at his happiest – within the White House circus, he is not a clown (as many would claim) but rather the ringmaster, the wheeler-dealer pulling the strings and leaving others to sort out the fine detail (or the mess!).

There are undoubtedly times when the President has said things that are demonstrably untrue. Sopel was clear that in those circumstances it is the role of the press to call these things out, to speak truth to power in a fair, impartial but resolute way. Interestingly, though, Sopel stopped short of calling Trump a liar. Trump has undoubtedly said things that are not factually correct, and he has made claims that are demonstrably untrue, but Sopel was very clear that this did not warrant the description of Trump as a liar (which would be to denigrate his character rather that to hold him to account for specific incidents of lying). It’s a very fine distinction, and I’m not sure personally that it’s one that holds up to very close scrutiny. I do accept though, that it might be a necessary fiction for Sopel to maintain in order to avoid incurring the wrath of a President and/or his Press Secretary who might otherwise withdraw that sought-after pass. There is a balance to be struck between having the access to call out the specific incidences of lying, and being denied this if that leads to a withdrawal of access altogether.

Sopel’s analysis of the state of US politics was also revealing. He was clear that Trump had won in 2016 because his campaign was demonstrably more effective than that conducted by Hilary Clinton and the Democratic Party. Trump had connected with some of the most visceral beliefs of blue collar Americans around immigration, taxation, and the creeping interference of the state into all aspects of their daily lives. There was every likelihood that Trump would have gone into the 2020 election with a lead in the polls had it not been for covid-19. The virus has been a more effective opponent to Trump than any Democrat in the past three and a half years. As well as 100,000 deaths, millions of Americans had lost their jobs and hundreds of thousands were now dependant on food banks to feed their families. This was not the economic miracle that Trump had promised, and it was from clear that the US economy would recover quickly or easily from the shock that covid had delivered to it. What was clear, however, was that there was no viable alternative to Trump as the Republican candidate. The Good Old Party was effectively now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Trump Organisation.

The third speaker of the weekend was Dr Adam Rutherford, a geneticist and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science. Rutherford’s talk summarised some of the key themes from his book How to argue with a racist which uses concepts from science, genetics and history to factually debunk a lot of the fundamental underpinnings of racism in Western society today. Rutherford was prompted to write the book in part because of the highly dubious tactics that were being employed by far right white supremacist groups claiming that results from genetic testing services including and 23andme were somehow evidence of their racial purity. Rutherford observes that – much like many of those at or near the heart of government who have recently been revealed to have dabbled in eugenics – there is “a danger of being bewitched by the science but without having done the necessary legwork to properly understand it.”

Rutherford notes that most racism is fundamentally centred around skin pigmentation, and that this has only actually been an issue since the start of the European Enlightenment about 400 years ago. Prior to that, different peoples were differentiated on the basis of religion, language or geography rather than the colour of their skin. Ironically, the science is now pretty conclusive that the greatest genetic differences within humanity now exist in and between Africans who still live on the continent. In fact, it is much more likely that any individual African will have more in common genetically with any other person in the world from outside Africa, than with somebody else who lives in Africa. The racism that is based on skin pigmentation is effectively a social construct with no scientific basis to it whatsoever; that doesn’t make it right, but it also means that concepts of racial purity or superiority have to be called out whenever and wherever they are found. Rutherford’s talk finished with a quote from Angela Davis: “In a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, you have to be anti-racist.”

So what are the threads that I draw from this in considering the Cummings story over the weekend? It is a fact that Cummings drove from his main London home to Durham with his wife and child while she was already displaying symptoms of covid infection. He did this at a time when the official advice was to stay at your main residence and self-isolate if you or any member of your family was symptomatic. The excuse offered that he was concerned for the welfare of his 4 year old son does not stand up to close scrutiny. Literally thousands of people up and down the country in similar or parallel circumstances did as we had been instructed and stayed put. We did not visit family members; we did not decamp to be closer to family members of friends. We did this because we were told that we were all in this together – the fight against the virus gave us common cause. It was painful but necessary. We followed the science – we washed our hands; we socially distanced; we stayed in if we developed symptoms. We did this not because the law required it; we didn’t look for technical loopholes to justify ‘stretching’ the rules – we did it because it was the right thing to do. As a country, the UK has a long tradition in this regard – something that Dame Sally Davies continues in her international work to promote research and practice to improve antibiotic usage and reduce antimicrobial resistance.

Dominic Cummings selfish behaviour in driving 260 miles with a symptomatic family member against the spirit of the lockdown advice and guidance, displays the same narcissistic tendency that personifies Trump’s tenure at the White House. The rules are for other people, not for us. Boris Johnson’s appalling defence of his adviser at the daily briefing today demonstrates that – like Trump – his political instincts can also go badly awry. It is interesting to see journalists from across the spectrum of press and media outlets finding their professional nerve and holding Johnson and Cummings to account for the obfuscations and half-truths that have littered the official responses to the story to date. It is interesting to note that in Cummings’ case, his apparent interest in eugenics seems to lead him to a belief that he is inherently superior to others. He is the very embodiment of a man who has been bewitched by the science without bothering to properly understand it.

Of heroes and myths

“How lucky are we to be alive in the time of Stephen Fry!”

So went one of the live comments during Stephen Fry’s extended reading and question and answer session as part of the Hay Digital Festival. Declaration of interest : Stephen Fry ranks right up there as one of my all-time heroes, alongside the likes of Peter Ustinov, Clive James, Sandi Toksvig and Mary Beard. People who have read and studied across a broad range of subjects (they would have been labelled polymaths in the 19th century), and who have an uncanny ability to connect up all that learning and knowledge in a way that makes it accessible and relevant – whether is writing or in person.

I’m not even going to attempt to describe the energy and passion and sheer love of the subject matter that Fry invested in the reading from his new book Troy last night. Suffice to say that what was billed as a 35 minute broadcast from 9pm became – in a way that only Hay Festivals event can – a 90 minute tour de force that started 20 minutes late! You can watch a recording of the event here and I cannot recommend it enough – but be quick, it will be gone by tomorrow morning!

A couple of things really resonated with me from the session. The first question that Stephen addressed was whether or not teaching of Greek mythology should be compulsory in all schools. His answer was brilliantly balanced. Making anything compulsory in education (behind basic literacy and numeracy) is fraught with risk – mainly that being forced to learn something actually makes it into a chore rather than something to be cherished and enjoyed. But – and its a big but – so much of the whole canon of Western art, poetry, music and literature is directly or indirectly influenced by the Greek myths that NOT to have at least a basic understanding of and familiarity with them is a huge disadvantage in trying to fully understand and appreciate all later art forms. As someone who was exposed to no Greek mythology at all in formal education, I have always felt this huge gap. I have previously reviewed Fry’s Mythos on this blog, and I commend it to anyone who (like me) wants to fill a gap in their mythological education. I will be purchasing Heroes and Troy – the next instalments in the series – immediately after publishing this post.

The second thing that struck me was Fry’s incredibly sensitive and tender response to a question about the failings of Hollywood portrayals of Greek myths to properly represent the LGBTQ themes that are repeated throughout so many of the stories. Fry reflected both that those themes could be argued to be underplayed in many of the big-screen adaptations; but also made the point that the themes themselves were not actually made a great deal of in the myths themselves. This was probably because the ancient Greeks deemed all love – whether physical, homosexual or heterosexual, or platonic and philosophical – as being the most natural thing in the world. There was no need to overplay it because it was just what it was. The reason why LGBTQ activism is so necessary now is because somewhere along the line we lost sight of the beauty of love for its own sake, and persecuted those who didn’t conform with a much narrower definition of what was acceptable.

The third thing that really struck home was a question about how the Greeks would have interpreted coronavirus and which of the gods would have dealt with it best. This was a perfect cue for Fry to relate a tale of immortal revenge dished out by Apollo for a perceived slight of one of his followers. Apollo – the golden archer – had at his disposal plague arrows that would rain down illness and disease on individuals or cities that displeased him. In the particular account related by Fry last evening, Apollo chose not to directly infect a city, but rather to loose a plague arrow into the cows that provided milk and food for the inhabitants. It was through eating and drinking from the herd that the plague decimated the population. If you thought zoonosis was a new thing, then – as is so often the case – Greek mythology serves to remind us that there is nothing new under the sun!

Why trust science?

Today saw the launch of the Hay Festival on-line, and I was able to join one of the first sessions of the Festival this afternoon. This was an interview by Nick Stern (Professor of Economics and Government at the London School of Economics) of Naomi Oreskes (Professor of the History of Science at Harvard). Oreskes is the author of “Why Trust Science?”, her most recent book published in 2019. She initially trained as a geologist before extending her research interests to earth science and climate change. Her 2010 book Merchants of doubt is an exploration of the orchestrated campaigns of denial and obfuscation that have attempted to deflect from the scientific consensus that had emerged around topics including the health implications of smoking, the environmental impact of acid rain, and the human-behavioural contribution to both depletion of atmospheric ozone, and the wider changes to the global climate.

Interestingly, Oreskes was pretty dismissive of arguments to the effect that it is ‘the scientific method’ that makes science trustworthy. Her argument is that there is no single ‘scientific method’. Rather, there are elements of most fields of scientific enquiry that tend to make them inherently more trustworthy. These include the critical interrogation of scientific claims through rigorous testing and review during the discovery phase, robust peer review and evaluation (including at scientific meetings) immediately prior to publication, and an acceptance that even after publication, findings and conclusions drawn from them will be subject to continuing scrutiny and challenge. It is this process of discourse, challenge and testing that is key to the trustworthiness of scientific claims. It’s important too, that we do not fall into the trap of trusting the scientist rather than the science. It’s important always to ask to see the evidence, and also to consider whether there is other evidence that conflicts with or offers an alternative perspective on the conclusions that have been drawn.

Oreskes offers some fascinating insights into the motivations of people who deny the scientific evidence almost despite the facts, rather than because of them. She suggests that there is a form of implicatory denial at play here. People deny the science not because they disagree with the findings, but because they object to the implications of those findings. Her research into campaigns designed to undermine the consensus on human-impact climate change suggests that the objection is not to the scientific consensus on whether it is happening, but rather the implication that government intervention to address the problem is an unwarranted interference in the market and therefore the thin end of a wedge that leads to socialism. In similar vein, the objections of those who contest the science around evolution are motivated by a fear that evolutionary theory is the thin end of a wedge that leads to a scientific rejection of the existence of a Creator God.

Recognising implicatory denial is critical to engaging with people because it requires an approach to engagement which is more subtle than simply repeating the scientific facts. Behavioural science studies have shown that working with those who deny evolution to identify ways in which other religious believers have reconciled their religious belief to evolutionary science is much more effective than adopting a binary “I’m right and you’re wrong” position.

Oreskes refers to a cartoon in her new book that is a variation on Pascal’s Wager. The cartoon depicts a lecture during which a slide on the screen listing all the benefits of addressing man-made climate change : a cleaner environment for people to enjoy; improved air quality reducing respiratory disease; urban environments designed around people rather than vehicles; reductions in extreme weather events and resulting famine and disease, and so on. At the back of the lecture, a man raises his hand and says : “But what if climate change is a hoax? We’ll have made the world a better place for nothing!”

Later in the interview, Oreskes refers to the importance of diversity in research groups and the wider research community as a precaution against the groupthink that is an inevitable risk where researchers are predominantly white, male and middle class. Diversity is not just about race, gender, class though. People tend to trust scientists who are authentic in the way that they present their own motivations for conducting the research that they do. All of us carry a set of internal values and beliefs that inevitably constrain the extent to which we can behave truly objectively. Acknowledging those beliefs, motivations and values openly both humanises the scientist and acts as a further check and balance against inadvertent bias and ‘blind spots’ in the way that research is conducted and/or conclusions are reached.

The final section of the interview included some thoughts on the role of scientists in actively addressing attempts to misrepresent their findings. Social media, the internet, mobile technology now enable the spreading of disinformation at a speed and scale that is unprecedented. There is an imperative for scientists in this environment to be prepared to counteract disinformation where it arises, and to call out the protagonists in a calm but evidence-based manner. The evidence suggests that most people react well to these sorts of responses – nobody wants to be taken for a sucker, and calling out the spreaders of disinformation and lies clearly and forensically can be highly effective (even while it may also be exhausting and at the risk of social media pile-ons and on-line abuse in the form ad hominem attacks).

You can find the full interview here for the next 24 hours.

Next up for me is Stephen Fry talking about his new book Troy but you’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s blog to find out more about that one!

Worth a thousand words

I blogged earlier this week about the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday, and the love of language that was instilled in me thanks to some truly inspirational high school teachers. Even now, I really enjoy all forms of literature, and can appreciate the way that different linguistic devices are used to convey mood, atmosphere and feeling. There are books that I return to over and over again, and it’s really unusual not to find something new with each re-reading. Often, what strikes me on a fresh reading was there, hiding in plain sight all the time, but it’s my own perspective or viewpoint that has shifted, allowing me to see things from a different angle – to appreciate the writing in a different way.

It’s a matter of regret (and not a little shame) to me that I have never been able to appreciate art in quite the same way. Paradoxically, and perhaps unsurprisingly given the opening paragraph to this piece, those few attempts that I have made to read up on art history and develop my understanding, have resulted in me enjoying the narrative text used by the art historians to describe the great masters, more than the paintings themselves. This was certainly the case with Simon Schama’s The Power of Art, a book that accompanied the BBC series of the same name. This quote from Schama’s introduction to the book is typical of the combative style that he adopts to the critical analysis of the works of eight great artists who individually changed the way that art was done and appreciated. “The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things, visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure and then proceed in short order to re-arrange your sense of reality.”

The regrettable truth is, that for me, I ended up feeling much like it was prose of Schama that was ‘roughing up my sense of reality’ than the paintings that he was writing about! It probably makes me a Philistine, but I have tended to fall into the ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’ category. However, I am determined to use this enforced lockdown period to try once again to change all that. And I think I’ve found just the way to do it. Quite by chance in casting around for some inspiration for today’s blogpost, I stumbled across the National Gallery’s YouTube channel. It’s an absolute treasure trove of video introductions to some of the painters and paintings that can be found in the Gallery’s massive collection. I watched a thirty minute lecture on the three Caravaggio paintings on display at the Gallery. They cover the whole period of Caravaggio’s career, from his initial breakthrough completing private commissions in Rome, to the height of his fame completing public works for some of that city’s most important churches, to his final years on the run from a murder charge in Malta, Sicily and finally Naples.

I now have the beginnings of an understanding of the way that Caravaggio uses light in the same way that a theatre lighting designer would use a spotlight to highlight specific people, expressions or actions in a painting. But also how he uses darkness to emphasise things that are not meant to be seen. Thus, in the early work of the boy being bitten by the lizard, it’s not the lizard that is the main focus, but rather the shocked expression on the boy’s face. And in the Emmaus Supper painting, the faces of the disciples are lit up as the identity of Christ is revealed to them, while the innkeeper’s shadowed face mirrors his lack of knowledge about what is happening right under his nose. Caravaggio uses the framing of the pictures too, to drawn the viewer into the canvas. We are not passive observers but rather we become active participants in the scene. The executioner is not merely presenting the head of John the Baptist to Salome, he is literally presenting it to the viewer beyond the plane of the painting.

It’s early days, but I intend to stick with these National Gallery introductory videos (and I’ll also be casting around to see if there are equivalents for Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. I’ll know if I’m making progress if I can begin to understand what it is that I’m looking at in a Mark Rothco canvas!

Mark Rothko : No.5

Happy birthday, William!

April 23rd sees the anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. Either the greatest writer in English the world has known; or the source of untold agony to generations of children trying to recall obscure quotes to regurgitate in sweltering school gyms for national examinations. Where you stand on this continuum is probably a function of age and the skills of your English Literature teacher!

I was really fortunate to have outstanding English Lit teachers throughout my team in secondary school. As a result I really enjoyed the Shakespeare we studied and even now can recite reasonable numbers of lines from Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth and Henry IV part one. Incidentally, the same teachers brought to life Milton’s Paradise Lost and Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. It’s to those teachers that I owe my love of words and word-play (as well as my finely tuned eye for the absurd!).

If Shakespeare’s plays are what he is best-known for, then some of his most poignant writing is found in his poetry, and more especially his sonnets. A sonnet is a particular form of poetry, comprising 14 lines with one of a number of rhyme schemes and typically 10 syllables per line. 154 sonnets in total are attributed to William Shakespeare, and some of them include some of the most famous lines in the English literary canon. Take this quatrain from sonnet 18 :

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Or these lines from sonnet 130 :

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

Themes of love, loss and redemption re-occur throughout the sonnets, nowhere more so than in sonnet 33. This is a poignant reflection of a time of perfect love that is lost as the sun is lost behind a bank of cloud. The implication is that the object of Shakespeare’s love has done something that has spoiled the perfection of their relationship – that they have acted basely and in a way that makes ugly the beauty that they had portrayed before. Ultimately though, Shakespeare forgives the object of his love – acknowledging that even as the sun allows itself to be hidden by the clouds, so occasionally ‘suns of the world’ will act in ways that mask their true and endearing beauty and brilliance.

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out! alack! he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth

I think it’s a beautiful poem, reminding us always to remember the ‘triumphant splendour’ of the early morning sun and not to dwell on the occasional clouds that pass by or are burnt off by the sun’s glory.

Happy birthday, Mr Shakespeare – and thank you.

Traditional skills bring valued heirlooms back to life

Just a short post this evening. It’s 7.40pm and the next instalment of BBC1’s The Repair Shop is on at 8. If you haven’t seen the programme and you can access the BBC’s iPlayer service, then I highly recommend it. Essentially, the programme brings together a range of craftspeople who work on repairing and reviving treasured family possessions and heirlooms that have been damaged or neglected. The skill of the craftspeople is brilliant to witness in its own right, but what really makes The Repair Shop must-watch TV in our house are the powerful emotions that are released in the people whose treasures have been lovingly restored.

Whilst sometimes the items are valuable in their own right, often they have little monetary value but a lifetime of cherished memories. The emotional response to seeing the memories prompted by the revelation of a cleaned up, restored or repaired item is incredibly moving. It’s quite usual for the person whose brought the item, the craftspeople who worked on it, and at least two members of the TV audience at home (me and Mrs P.) to end up in floods of (joyful) tears in the course of the 60 minute programme. I’ve got to go know – I need to make sure I have a clean handkerchief close at hand ready for the start!