Tom Baldwin’s biography of Keir Starmer

Tom Baldwin, Keir Starmer: the biography, (William Collins 2024)

Tom Baldwin’s biography of the current leader of the British Labour opposition party, Sir Keir Starmer, follows a fairly conventional chronological pattern. It starts with his upbringing in a small Surrey town.

His father was a skilled toolmaker. This would have positioned him, in our British class-conscious social system, as working class, not meriting the esteem accorded to the privileged beneficiaries of inherited wealth and a private school education. A stern, undemonstrative man, his father’s patriarchal approach to family life led to Starmer becoming ostensibly an emotionally reticent person – except with the rest of his family and his close friends (including fellow footballers – a sport he is genuinely passionate about), who are all still very important to him.

His mother suffered from a serious illness which rendered her more or less an invalid for most of her adult life. Starmer was deeply influenced by her fortitude and her resilient response to her disability, and her refusal to wallow in self-pity or curtail those physical activities of which she was capable, such as hill walking in the family’s beloved Lake District, where they spent most of their holidays. He grew up with a deeply ingrained set of moral values, as well as a sense of decency, probity and integrity.

After reading law at the universities of Leeds and then Oxford, he became a top human rights lawyer who worked on some famous high-profile cases. When he became Director of Public Prosecutions, he was often accused of betraying those principles by which he had previously lived and worked: he was seen by some to have changed sides by turning prosecutor. Having vigorously upheld the right of all, even those accused of serious crimes, to a proper legal defence, he was portrayed by some as demonstrating double standards and shifting his moral position – an accusation also levelled at him frequently in his more recent political career.

Baldwin carefully shows that the truth is more complex than this black-and-white view. Starmer is obsessed with the nature of justice: it involves treating everyone caught up in the legal process with fairness and even-handed decency. That means that just as all accused of crime have the right to a proper defence, all victims have the right to a legal system that operates without prejudice or bias in its prosecution of perpetrators of crime.

This deeply principled foundation has continued to serve him in his subsequent career as a politician and member of parliament. When he became leader of the Labour party, he worked immediately to eradicate the antisemitism that had become endemic in parts of the membership. His determination to do the right thing, having carefully weighed – as a good lawyer should – all evidence, resulted in his removing many Labour members from the party. This included dealing with his outspoken and controversial predecessor, the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn; Starmer had him barred from active involvement in parliamentary politics. These were moves that provoked outrage in some quarters, and the left of his party turned on him aggressively.

So far he has ridden the storm and managed to demonstrate to all but his most blinkered critics that his political positions are determined by the deeply-felt convictions and principles mentioned earlier – not by the factionalism, posturing and grandstanding that tend to characterise the performance of most of our recent politicians.

This is largely a ‘warts and all’ portrait: it is not a hagiography. Baldwin acknowledges that Starmer can seem when in the media spotlight to be lacking in charisma, and overly lawyerly in his style of politics. Many doubt, as a consequence, that he is prime minister material. But Baldwin, in my view, successfully dispels such doubts.

Starmer is not the stereotypical showman politician, the charlatan, the boosterish prankster who takes nothing seriously, least of all the laws and standards they profess to uphold (certain recent populist Tory PMs come to mind). It’s maybe a strength in his demeanour that he doesn’t indulge in showy rhetoric or soundbites that conceal a lack of substance or political or moral rigour. If he is at times over-cautious, and is capable of changing his mind in the light of new developments or information, that’s maybe no bad thing – not a sign of weakness or infirmity of purpose.

Some biographies, especially those featuring politicians, can be stodgy, plodding reads. Baldwin’s portrait of Starmer is well-evidenced, balanced and highly readable. No matter what your politics, I’d recommend this biography for its depiction of a serious, thoughtful politician.

Rory Stewart, Politics on the Edge

Rory Stewart, Politics on the Edge: A memoir from within. Jonathan Cape, 2023

Mrs TD and I have been keenly following the hit podcast The Rest is Politics, fronted by Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell, since it started 18 months ago. Campbell is the man who was Tony Blair’s media and comms guru, depicted in a grossly exaggerated way as the foul-mouthed bullying Malcolm Tucker (the name rhymes with a swear word he’s overfond of using) in the BBC political satire ‘The Thick of It’. Stewart is an alumnus of Eton and Balliol, Oxford. He is a former soldier, diplomat, author, academic and Tory MP.

This is Stewart’s account of his colourful career up to the point when he quit the Conservative Party in 2019, having been effectively sacked for opposing the hard-line no-deal Brexit bill that was being passed acrimoniously through Parliament. This was the final development in what he describes as the party’s transformation into a ‘populist party of the right’. This was a scarily predictable shift; his book traces this growing movement across the world, which led in the UK to the disastrous premierships of Johnson, Truss and, a less extremely inept example, Sunak:

On four continents provocative, anarchic, charismatic leaders were gaining, spitting out half-invented facts, presenting themselves as the people in revolt against an unrepresentative elite. The age of populism had begun.

This memoir begins with a brief account of the early part of Stewart’s career. He took leave from his diplomatic post in 2000 to walk across a large part of Asia – walking plays an important part in his life and working practice. It’s his way of meeting the people he serves, and reflects his principled approach (rarely shared by his colleagues) to representing them in his professional posts. For a man with a patrician heritage, he’s always determined to find out what people are really thinking and wanting from him, and then trying to bring about change for the better for them.

He served as a provincial governor in Iraq after the ill-fated 2003 war. His experience as a diplomat during these early years exposed him to what was to become familiar to him in political life: an over-fondness among his colleagues for ‘abstract jargon and optimistic platitudes…Most striking was not the failure, but the failure to acknowledge our failure.’

After a spell running an NGO in Afghanistan and as an academic at Harvard, and disillusioned by his chances of improving people’s lives as a diplomat, he decided to try entering what seemed the source of political power, and applied under David Cameron’s 2009 initiative to encourage a more diverse group of people in parliament to become a Conservative MP.

It’s always seemed to me (and Alastair C often teases him about this on the podcast) that he’s far too liberal in his political views to be a Tory. But his riposte there, and in this memoir, is that he dislikes what he sees as the Labour party’s ‘technocratic fantasies’ and predilection for ‘big government’. He’s an advocate, in general terms, of the military, the monarchy, tradition (whatever that means) and love of one’s country. More specifically, he favours limited government, individual rights, ‘prudence at home and strength abroad’. But he’s the old-fashioned, one nation kind of Tory that’s now pretty much been supplanted by the opportunist, xenophobic ultras of the hard right.

Elected in 2010 as the MP for Penrith and the Border, a rural constituency in the far NW of England, he went on to become first a junior minister, held various other posts of increasing responsibility, and peaked as minister at the department for international development from 2017.

His account of his career as a politician is vivid, highly readable and entertaining, but also deeply depressing. His colleagues were often rude to the point of viciousness; most of them, and all of his bosses, were hardly representative of selfless integrity, decency and honesty.

As a new MP he was dismayed to be told by the chief whip – the parliamentary enforcer for his party – that

We should not regard debates [in parliament] as opportunities for open discussion; we might be called legislators but we were not intended to overly scrutinise legislation; we might become members of independent committees, but we were expected to be loyal to the party; and votes would rarely entail a free exercise of judgement. To vote too often on your conscience was to be a fool, and ensure you were never promoted to become a minister. In short, politics was a ‘team sport’.

When first summoned by his new boss Liz Truss at the department for rural affairs, he was horrified by her loftily dismissive attitude to their area of concern. She was to become typical of politicians being appointed to positions for which they showed little enthusiasm or in which they had no experience. Anyone like Stewart, who had vast knowledge of areas like Afghanistan, would be overlooked for posts that cried out for such expertise, and instead injected into positions for which they were unsuited. This reflects the atrophied and ineffective nature of our parliamentary political system with which he gradually fell out of love.Her cavalier attitude to their roles caused him to question whether

these ministerial roles were anything more than symbolic gifts in exchange for loyalty.

At times his account makes him sound priggish and pious, but he’s disarmingly honest about his shortcomings and self-doubt, his tendency to be ‘over-earnest’ and obsessed with details. He admits committing several gaffes, like the one when he was minister in charge of dealing with floods: after one particularly serious flood had happened, and many houses and streets were inundated, he told the BBC that his department had spent millions on flood defences, but this fifteen-foot rise in river levels was unprecedented: “The flood defences are working”, he asserted, “the problem is that the water came over the top”. This admission of one of his ‘screw-ups’ he concedes was a fine example of ‘political idiocy’.

But he also had some successes, like introducing charges for the plastic carrier bags that used to be given out free in supermarkets and shops; this reduced plastic waste by 85%. When prisons minister he managed to improve the previously appalling conditions. There were other small gains. It was the madness of the divisive Brexit campaign and its aftermath that finally did for him, and he realised that the selfishness of his party’s leaders, their disregard for the public good and habit of prioritising their own careers and grip on power, had become too egregious for him to stomach any longer.

We need more people in parliament and politics in general with his kind of integrity, decency and probity – all qualities that our current PM has bragged about restoring, but shown zero capacity for deploying.

Whatever your politics, I’d recommend this book for its insight into the dysfunctional nature of Britain’s political (and electoral) system.

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A history of walking. Granta, 2014. First published 2001

This is a scholarly, well-researched and readable account of walking – its history, and how and why humans go for walks, often with no particular goal in mind.

Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust cover She explores the archaeology and anthropology of bipedalism, and the consequences of our ancient ancestors’ rising from all fours to an upright position that enabled perambulation, and the evolutionary and cultural developments that followed.

Then she has a section on that particularly focused kind of walking: pilgrimages, from those in the Americas, to Compostela and the medieval and later European pilgrim destinations (but I don’t recall a mention of Chaucer and Canterbury, and there’s no such entry in the index; maybe I missed it). She’s astute in summing up the essence of why people feel the impulse to set off on such gruelling trips: often, unlike sturdy hikers, these are walkers who are infirm or frail. Many go on pilgrimage in quest of healing or solace.

Labyrinths are the subject of the next section. She sees these as a means of undertaking pilgrimage in a confined space, a sort of symbolic pilgrimage. I don’t recall any mention of Borges here.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the one that deals with the rise of landscape gardening. In medieval and early modern times, nature was seen by civilised people (ie wealthy urbanites) as chaotic, savage and hostile. Solnit doesn’t mention that our word ‘savage’ derives from the Latin ‘silva’, meaning wood, forest, or by extension any wild, uncultivated (and therefore potentially dangerous) place. It’s the opposite of civilised (a word derived from the Latin for ‘relating to a citizen’, ie a dweller in a city).

Gardens, and then country estates of the gentry, were developed as oases of ordered tranquillity; ‘nature needs to be dressed and adorned, at least in the garden.’ By the 18C this had become a pre-Romantic fashion for more natural-looking (less geometrically sculpted) gardens, and the era of the famous landscape gardeners like Capability Brown arrived.

I’d have liked a bit more on Jane Austen’s contribution to the literature of this period. When her heroines ‘take a turn’ round the park of their own estate, or more often that of the wealthier young man on whom they’d set their sights, they set out on what was to be an opportunity to flirt and escape the watchful eyes of chaperones. The gentlemen could show off the ostentation of their wealth; the ladies could legitimately display how well they looked when flushed by exertion and the country air. Solnit astutely quotes Mr Darcy saying (playfully but also meanly) to the young ladies vying for his attention and suggesting a walk: ‘Your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking’.

Although she writes interestingly about the importance and frequency of walks in Austen’s fiction, especially in Pride and Prejudice, she could have made far more of the symbolic, literary and cultural significance of her characters’ ventures out into the natural (and cultivated to look natural) world of gardens, country estates and beauty spots like Lyme Regis.

Behind all this was a concept of nature as being in need of human intervention to remove its imperfections, to enhance and improve it. The garden should look like a landscape painting, something to be aesthetically appreciated by the tourist or visitor.

Then we come to Wordsworth and the rest of the serious walkers of the Romantic era. They went beyond the cosy confines of the country estate: all of nature was their garden, and they thought nothing of walking hundreds of miles on a tour. WW clocked up thousands of miles of pedestrianism in his lifetime.

He broadened the educated person’s appreciation of walking to include pleasure as well as suffering, ‘politics and scenery’:

He had taken the walk out of the garden, with its refined and restricted possibilities, but most of his successors wanted the world in which they walked to nothing but a larger garden.

The concept of urban walking forms another of the most interesting sections of this book. I’d read studies by Solnit and others of the rise of the Parisian (and other cities’) flâneur (and flâneuses – women walking alone in the city were sadly usually associated with street walkers, aka prostitutes, lorettes, and so on). I’ve posted on this topic before, on Walter Benjamin, psychogeography, Breton, and so on; links HERE). I must read Lauren Elkin’s full-length study of this subject.

Unlike Rousseau, who avoided crowds, Baudelaire and other gentlemanly urban strollers were ‘men of the crowd’; they sought out crowded places, even while indulging in their dérives, or drifting, aimless wanderings through the thronged city. Dickens is another famous literary figure who was a prodigious walker, and Solnit perceptively assesses his motives for and accounts of walking.

There is a brief section on the literature of walking, but Solnit sees this as mostly in essay and other non-fiction forms. The likes of Hazlitt and RL Stevenson see walking as a sort of circumscribed activity: ‘the walking essay and the kind of walking described in it have much in common: however much they meander, they must come home at the end essentially unchanged.’ Walking offers an uplifting opportunity to reflect, collect one’s thoughts. ‘And then moralizing sneaks in…Few of the canonical essayists can resist telling us that we should walk because it is good for us, nor from providing directions on how to walk.’

(She’s less stringent and dismissive of Rousseau, in an earlier part of the book. His take on (usually solitary) walking represents what she calls the philosophical kind. Her assessment sums it up as a cross between meditation and escape from the rigours and stresses of urban life, a flight into simplicity, away from crowds.)

Then this intriguing history started, for me, to fizzle out, apart from the section on mountaineering. I found most of the final sections a drag. There was too much digression into Solnit’s experience of demos and street events. Here she veered dangerously close to a kind of right-on Californian pretentiousness. She touches on other modes of transport in the modern age – but not, strangely, sailing; I read most of this book while on a sailing holiday with family on the Croatian-Dalmatian coast. Sailing seems to go beyond the confines of her area of study. There’s also far too much for my taste on the lurid phenomenon of Las Vegas.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Solnit’s writing is mostly elegantly and intelligently done (apart from an annoying habit of starting sentences with ‘Too’). I may have been a bit unfair for wanting to see more of the aspects of this subject that interest me than she was prepared to provide.

Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife

Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife, Phoenix paperback, 2014; first published 2013

I first came across this bizarre twist on the Frankenstein story when I was teaching a Romantics module on a degree course a few years ago (link to my series of posts on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel HERE).

Moore, Perfect Wife cover Wealthy, eccentric and uncouth Thomas Day had been upset several times when his fiancées had a change of heart about marriage and rejected him. The latest of these was Margaret, sister of his friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth (Anglo-Irish inventor and father of the novelist Maria). Day was hardly a compelling romantic prospect: his face was badly scarred from childhood smallpox; he was dirty, unkempt, morose, moody, misogynistic and opinionated, given to holding forth at tedious length on his pet subjects.

A devotee of Rousseau’s radical theories about education and social equality, he nevertheless (like his hero) held paradoxically misogynistic and repressive views on women: their role, he believed, was to submit to and obey men. Libertarians at that time firmly held that women were an inferior species and were therefore exempt from androcentric strictures about equality, liberty and human rights. (Today’s so-called libertarians here in the UK at the moment think, equally irrationally, that it’s an infringement on their civil liberties to have to wear a mask to stop them infecting and potentially killing people around them.)

The marital rejections he’d been humiliated by, he believed, were the consequence of young women’s being exposed to and deformed by the corrupting influence of foppish Georgian society. They were susceptible to what he saw as the vacuous distractions of fashion, dancing, gossip, and so on, and lacked rational capacity (that is, they failed to discern his genius). His plan was for his wife to live with him in simple, idyllic rural seclusion, dressed peasant style and following a frugal regime. She would defer to him and his every whim, and yet entertain him intellectually – she’d therefore need a modicum of rational education.

His monstrous plan, formed at the age of just 21 in 1769, in imitation of Rousseau’s scheme in Emile, or on Education (1761-2), was to find a pre-pubescent girl, as yet unspoilt by social influences, her mind a blank slate on which he could inscribe his own program, and to train her to become his ideal wife. He hedged his bets by selecting two orphans from foundling hospitals in Shrewsbury and London, whose names he changed to Sabrina (Latin for Severn, the river in Shrewsbury where her hospital was located), and Lucretia. If one fell short of his exacting standards, the other would, he hoped, meet them.

His scheme, fortunately, failed. Both girls failed to fulfil his selfish, impossible ambitions. His despotic methods included interminable sessions of tedious instruction – the pedagogy of the oppressor. He would cruelly expose them to physical, emotional and psychological traumas, privations and constraints, and try to condition their behaviour through punishment, coercion and bullying. One example of this, which Moore doesn’t mention explicitly, was his practice of firing a gun behind them unexpectedly to startle them; if they screamed or made a fuss they’d be admonished. It was their task to show stoical indifference to all hardships or knocks, and to obey blindly any male orders, however ridiculous or demeaning to them.

Day’s arrogance is depicted with graphic clarity in this lively, depressing account, and the monstrous presumptuousness of his experiment is expounded in all its cruelty. Moore also points out that it was Day’s social rank, wealth and gender that enabled him to get away with his devious schemes; nowadays one would hope he’d be exposed and prosecuted as a paedophile and predator.

He was a strangely paradoxical character: he gave away much of his wealth to the poor, and was an abolitionist, and yet he made a virtual slave of Sabrina, and abandoned her to a life of penury when she failed to satisfy his requirements.

Moore goes on to show what happened in Sabrina’s life after she was callously cast aside by Day (just as Victor Frankenstein abandoned his Creature, who had also come to appal him). After many hardships she found a kind of peace and perhaps love. Day, for his part, continued to be as boorish and overbearing for the rest of his life. Astonishingly, he managed to find a young woman who went along with his tyrannical regime for a wife, and even seemed to dote on him. There really is no accounting for taste.

I’d have liked to see more of the author’s discussion of influences on Day’s thinking other than Rousseau’s; the scientists/’natural philosophers’ whose thinking radically influenced the nascent Romantic movement, such as those in what became, from 1775, the Lunar Society (which met on the nights of a full moon, hence the name). These late Enlightenment intellectuals – ‘men of observation’ – promulgated the ‘experimental optimism’ mentioned by Jenny Uglow in her book about them, The Lunar Men: The friends who made the future, 1730-1810 (2002; reviewed in the Guardian HERE).

I’d also have liked more on the influence of Day’s callous experiment with Sabrina on later writers, touched on only briefly in Moore’s account, from Henry James’s Watch and Ward to Shaw’s version of the Pygmalion story. Trollope has a tale about a young man who moulds an orphan to become his wife as a central thread in his 1862 novel Orley Farm (I haven’t read it, so can’t confirm this claim). Maria Edgeworth’s fictional treatments of Day’s story are covered by Moore rather more thoroughly, from an early short story to the ‘society’ novel Belinda (1801).

Moore’s style is gratingly journalistic at times, and there’s a dusty air to the whole thing, perhaps a consequence of the obviously very thorough research she conducted – there are 35 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography. Sometimes I felt that the copious narrative detail obscured or diminished the shocking impact of the central theme.

 

 

 

 

 

Failures of State

Jonathan Calvert & George Arbuthnot, Failures of State: The inside story of Britain’s battle with Coronavirus, Mudlark hardback, 2021. 426 pp.

 Jonathan Calvert is the editor of The Sunday Times’s Insight investigative journalism team; George Arbuthnot is its deputy editor. Failures of State is their account of the disastrously inept handling by the British government – and PM Johnson in particular – of the Covid pandemic.

Failures of State front coverTheir tone is set in the prologue, where they juxtapose Johnson’s portentous ‘You must stay at home’ lockdown speech on 23 March last year with his characteristically preposterous, boastful image of ‘Clark Kent, champion of free market libertarianism’ in a speech he made a month earlier. They go on in the rest of the book to trace the chronology of the British government’s and PM’s failure to act swiftly or decisively enough to stop Britain becoming one of the world’s worst responders to the crisis, with some of the highest rates of infection and death in the developed world as a consequence.

The first chapter explores the obscure origins of the virus in China. Was it, as some believe, the result of an accidental leak from a research lab in Wuhan? This seems more feasible than the ‘bat cave’ source more usually identified – this is hundreds of miles away from Wuhan, where the virus first appeared. Whatever the case, the Chinese seem guilty of attempting a cover-up that resulted in catastrophic delays in the rest of the world’s response to the spread of the virus.

‘Sleepwalking to disaster’ is the title of the second chapter (Jan. – March 2020): despite ominous warning signs from Dec. 2019 and earlier, government failed to take the danger seriously. Johnson missed the first five meetings of Cobra (the national crisis committee), more interested in his own turbulent private life and his obsession with Brexit. He made light (like his chum the then-president of the USA) of this minor ‘flu’ virus. He allowed events like football matches and the Cheltenham horse race festival to take place – these became super-spreader events. Warnings from Sage (the expert scientific advisory group for emergencies) went largely unheeded. They still are today.

Subsequent chapters describe with chilling detail why the first lockdown in March was fatally too late, and this reluctance to take prompt, decisive action was to be repeated several times over the following months. Johnson and his chancellor, Sunak, prioritised the economy over public health. ‘Herd immunity’ was their heartless tactic (despite denials that this was the case). They dithered and delayed, allowing tens of thousands to suffer and die needlessly. Their mantra of ‘stay at home, protect the NHS’ proved just more empty rhetoric – our health service was rapidly overwhelmed.

The then health secretary Hancock was as fond as his leader of making empty, sweeping boastful staments, from creating a ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace system (that turned out to be useless) to claiming he’d put a protective ‘ring of steel’ round older people in care homes; the reverse turned out to be the case. Some 25,000 patients were controversially discharged from hospitals into care homes during the pandemic’s height, many of them ‘without first being tested.’ This had the effect of ‘dispersing the virus into the very place where Britain’s most vulnerable were supposed to have been shielded.’

It is one of the most scandalous facts of the lockdown weeks that hundreds of patients who had tested positive for the virus were also deliberately sent into care homes.

By 17 April 2020 there had been almost 10,000 excess deaths in care homes since the beginning of March. This was, the authors say, ‘another big but unsustainable claim.’ Johnson even told a parliamentary committee in May that ‘every discharge from the NHS into care homes was made by clinicians, and in no case was that done when people were suspected of being coronavirus victims.’ He was either badly informed, say the authors – or using language to obscure the truth: many of those discharged would have been asymptomatic, so even clinicians wouldn’t have suspected them of being infected without testing them. The reality was that there simply wasn’t the capacity to test so many.

There I’d better stop: it becomes to upsetting and infuriating to consider the evidence provided so meticulously in this book of this country’s leaders’ hopeless, dangerous and reckless response. What’s worse, Johnson and co. constantly claimed to be ‘following the science’, when all the data indicates they were not. Their dismal list of bad decisions precipitated the successive waves of infection and economic depression that afflicted this country more disastrously than in any other western country.

It’s dispiriting to read this relentless catalogue of mistakes made by the very leaders who should have been protecting their people. Their blunders and subsequent blustering denials that they’d done anything amiss resulted in millions more Covid cases in Britain than would have been experienced if they really had followed the advice of their scientific and medical advisers. Their decision to protect the economy and jobs instead produced the opposite outcome: Britain’s GDP suffered proportionately far more than most. As the bereaved families for justice group wearily stated, ‘they ignored us and repeated the same mistakes.’

They still are: we are seeing a million new cases a month in this country this autumn, and yet we’re being told to abandon all the protective measures we’d previously been adopting, as we’ve ‘come out the other side’ of the pandemic, as former health secretary Hancock was heard telling constituents the other day. Let’s hope that the public enquiry into these matters, which Johnson will have to face – he can’t keep delaying it indefinitely – will expose those responsible for ‘one of the most scandalous failures of political leadership in British history.’

 

How to become a good doctor

It’s been a busy month, and I have a backlog of books to post about. I’ll start with the first of a couple of non-fiction titles from recent reading: one about the process of becoming a doctor, the other about failing to protect the British people during the pandemic.

 Sophie Harrison, The Cure for Good Intentions: A doctor’s story, Fleet hardback, 2021. 248 pp.

Sophie Harrison, The Cure for Good Intentions front coverThe author graduated in 1995 with a degree in English, then, after a few jobs, became an editor at Grantamagazine. On an exotic beach she had an epiphany and decided at the age of 28 to become a doctor. A junior doctor she met gave her a tip for her medical school interview: when asked why she wanted to become a doctor, not to say ‘Because I want to help people’ – everyone says that. But that was the answer she gave.

Her training began in 2003. This book is her entertaining and illuminating account of that process, from F1 through to qualification, rotating through different specialties. When she decided to become a GP, her colleagues were incredulous: that was for those not good enough to become specialist surgeons or whatever.

I was alerted to this book by hearing Harrison interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 language programme ‘Word of Mouth’, in which she told Michael Rosen about those sections of the book dealing with the language used by clinicians. These were the most interesting parts of the book for me – though there are many fascinating sections about her other experiences.

Medical students were advised to talk to patients

in what we believed to be everyday speech, although it was in fact another language again: infantile, nursery-inflected. We called abdomens ‘tummies’ and warned ‘this might feel a little chilly’. We used soothing, neutered verbs. I learnt to ask patients to ‘pop’ off their clothes before ‘hopping’ up onto the bed, where I would just ‘slip’ this nameless thing I was holding up their noses or down their throats or up their ‘tail end’.

There was also the slangy practitioners’ jargon that often veered into dark humour (a kind of coping mechanism). And the specialised, obscure technical language of medical science, as Harrison shows from her anatomy classes:

 Once I had known that the thigh bone connected to the hip bone. Now I discovered that the iliofemoral ligament arises from the anterior inferior iliac spine and then bifurcates before inserting into the intertrochanteric line of the femur.

 Other chapters deal with Harrison’s learning about our bodies’ internal organs, end of life, observations, the heart, surgery and medicines (especially opiate addiction), women and babies (and her own experience of an emergency caesarean), and pain and how to describe and assess it meaningfully (you can’t).

The final chapter deals briefly with the Covid pandemic. Doctors, like the rest of us, had to learn quickly a whole new way of speaking and acting, with attendant acronyms: PPE, WFH. When a new consignment of boxes of protective aprons arrived at her GP surgery, a nurse exclaimed: ‘These are bin liners!’ Another practice had scrubs donated by patients, who had sewn together old sheets and duvet covers. In my next post I’ll discuss a highly critical account of the British government’s hopelessly inept response to this crisis, and its continuous stream of boastful misinformation about the horrific reality on what they liked to call ‘the front line’.

Ultimately in The Cure for Good Intentions it’s the author’s stories about people and the ailing, imperfect bodies we’re all born with that provide the energy and hope in this engaging account. We’re all going to get sick and decline at some stage – as we all know only too well during this pandemic – and we all fear this inevitable process. Thank goodness we have caring, humane doctors like Sophie Harrison to look after us when we do.

The final paragraph sums up what she learnt going through medical training and acquiring the new idiolects of the doctor’s world:

I had learnt, at least, that medicine was not about finding new ways to express yourself, or how nicely you could put together a sentence. It was about trying to understand what others meant, not just the words they said.

 

 

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines – and a kestrel

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines. Sort Of Books, 2012

This was lent to me along with Findings – an earlier (2003) Kathleen Jamie book of essays mostly about the natural world. My post on that one is HERE.

Kathleen Jamie Sightlines coverThis is another highly entertaining collection of meditations and observations on topics ranging from wildlife to Neolithic caves and burial sites, to the whale museum in Bergen and what diseased cells look like under a microscope – nature isn’t just ‘out there’.

Jamie doesn’t only describe things and places: she uses them as the starting point for philosophical, even spiritual musings on their significance – as moments in the historical process that she inhabits at the time of witnessing them.

She loves to project herself back to the times when these marks on the landscape (and human consciousness) were made – as in the essay on her participation at the age of 17 in an archaeological dig of a Neolithic/Bronze Age ‘henge’ site in southern Scotland. We learn as much about what Kathleen Jamie (and the other drifting youngsters helping with the dig) was like at that time as we do about ‘The Woman in the Field’ whose skeleton is discovered.

The lucid, rhythmic language, as in Findings, is evocative – these are a poet’s prose sketches. It’s also idiosyncratic. As early as page 3, in the opening essay on her cruise to the Arctic to see the Aurora Borealis, there’s this, as the visitors land on a windswept ‘goose-plain’:

It’s a stern breeze, blowing from the land, inscousant now, but…it carries a sense of enormous strength withheld.

‘Inscousant’. I looked it up: neither the OED or various Scots dictionaries online recorded it. Google turned up a reference which turned out to be a post by another blogger, writing about this very passage! From the context it seems to mean the opposite of ‘strong’ – is it a typo for ‘insouciant’ (there are a few minor typos in other essays), a dialect word no dictionary recognises, or something Jamie made up?

Jamie is rather fond of other Scots expressions, like this, in a short impressionistic essay on the moon and its cycles:

Of course time passed. As the shadow crept onward, upward, smooring the moon’s light as it went, I half understood that what I was watching was time…

The Scottish National Dictionaries online has an entry on this (I include the first couple of literary citations; I’ve omitted some of the technical stuff):

v1intr. (1) To be choked, stifled, suffocated, to suffer or die from want of air…esp. to perish by being buried in a snowdrift. Vbl.n. smooring, death by suffocation.

Ayr. 1790 Burns Tam o’ Shanter 90:
Where in the snaw the chapman smoor’d.

Slk. 1807 Hogg Shepherd’s Guide 121:
Smooring. This is occasioned solely by the shepherd’s not having his flocks gathered to proper shelter.

 

The unusual vocabulary adds pungency to the otherwise plain, clear style, in keeping with the reflective tone.

Jamie digs deep into her own psyche or soul to discover how the outer world she explores resonates within her. So in that Arctic breeze, exhorted by her guide to listen to the silence, she hears it: ‘radiant’ and ‘mineral’, ‘deep, and quite frightening, and makes my mind seem clamorous as a goose.’

In my post on Findings I singled out Jamie’s gift for imagery; her simile here draws upon the earlier part of the essay where she’d been given a goose feather, causing her to reflect on how these birds had recently flown away from where she was standing: ‘To my mind, geese only travel north, to some place beyond the horizon. But this is that place. From here, they go south.’

What a wonderful way to show how she’d reached the earth’s roof. And it’s a notion delicately and even slightly humorously evoked in that simile, where she subverts the cliché about geese being clamorously silly.

Elsewhere in these essays Jamie brilliantly describes the dynamics and drama of a gannetry (a rocky island on which huge groups of gannets nest), and remote islands where a female killer whale teaches her young how to hunt seals.

Tidal creek in February sunFinally, as has become my custom since the pandemic changed how we live, a few images from recent walks.

We’re lucky to live very near to some beautiful tidal creeks. I’ve posted on this one before – it’s one of our favourite local spots. On the day I took these pictures the weeks of cloud and rain briefly ended and a spring-like sun shone.

Hovering kestrel A kestrel hovered just a few yards away from us, its raptor gaze fixed on the land way below.

On another walk in a local park I saw a cluster of these lovely violet-purple flowers in a cultivated bed. The shape of the bells resembles bluebells’, but the rest is more hyacinth-like. According to my flower identification app, they are hyacinths. I’ve never seen them this colour before – then we saw some more on another walk on a local country lane. Strange, isn’t it, how something previously unknown suddenly starts appearing often.

Tidal creekTidal creek

Cairngorm pilgrim: Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

Nan Shepherd (1893-1981), The Living Mountain. Canongate, 2014 (The Canons series)

‘One never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it.’

Nan Shepherd wrote this homage to the Cairngorm mountains mostly towards the end of the second world war, but was advised by a well-meaning correspondent that it would never find a publisher. She put the MS in a drawer where it remained until it was published ‘quietly’ (as Robert Macfarlane puts it in his introduction to this edition) in 1977.

I find it as difficult to describe as he does:

A celebratory prose-poem? A geo-poetic quest? A place-paean? A philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge? A metaphysical mash-up of Presbyterianism and the Tao?

Mountains have long inspired powerful emotions in those who contemplate them. Edmund Burke, in his examination (1757) of all things ‘sublime’, such as mountain ranges, believed that ‘terror’ was its ‘ruling principle’. Until the time of the early Romantics, wild nature in all its forms, especially mountains, were viewed with similar misgivings, although there was always a concession that mighty vistas inspired feelings of awe. Rude nature was seen as something of an imperfection, a visual proof of the fall of humankind from grace. It was chaos – the antithesis of human reason and logic.

I came across a fine example of this wary attitude to nature’s wildness when listening to a podcast recently of the Radio 4 programme The Verb (dated 29.6.18), an episode called ‘Northern Rocks’ – about the craggy hills of the north of England. One contributor cited the English author and rent collector in Scotland, Edward Burt (died 1755; he was also a surveyor for the making of General Wade’s military roads there after the 1715 Jacobite rebellion). Burt wrote in 1727-28 about Scottish mountains in a grumpy letter to a friend (published 1754):

I shall soon conclude this description of the outward appearance of the mountains, which I am already tired of, as a disagreeable subject. . . . There is not much variety, but gloomy spaces, different rocks, heath, and high and low, . . . the whole of a dismal gloomy brown drawing upon a dirty purple; and most of all disagreeable when the heath is in bloom. But of all the views, I think the most horrid is, to look at the hills from east to west, or vice versa; for then the eye penetrates far among them, and sees more particularly their stupendous bulk, frightful irregularity, and horrid gloom, made yet more sombrous by the shades and faint reflections they communicate one to another.Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to his Friend in London. Fifth edit., vol. i. p. 285. (Link to this quotation online HERE).

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain front coverWordsworth was to use the term ‘sublime’ about his beloved Lakeland mountain region in a more transcendendent sense, and he was influential in changing the largely negative attitudes to wild nature prevalent until his time (though there was a fashion in the decades before him for admiring the ‘picturesque’ – sanitised tableaux of natural scenes to be admired in urban drawing-rooms). Shepherd favours this Wordsworthian attitude, with a dose of sensuality, metaphysics and Zen thrown in. She’s also a sort of rural psychogeographer or flâneuse, if it’s possible to be one outside of an urban setting:

Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with them…

She has no truck with the (mostly male) climbers who seek simply to chalk up another peak to their tally of conquests. Mountains are not there to be vanquished. Her approach is more selfless, spiritual and poetic.

The dustjacket of this book carries a quotation from the Guardian newspaper: ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’. I wasn’t convinced of this until the final three chapters. The poetic prose and lofty transcendentalism was a bit heady for my taste – though there were some lovely descriptions of the flora and fauna as well as the topography of the mountains. Then I must have become attuned to the style and approach.

There are some memorable moments, like the description of her waking from a sleep outside her tent (in the summer, of course) to find an owl perched on her tent-pole. She writes beautifully about the ‘swiftness’ of many of the creatures that live on the mountain: the eagle, peregrine falcon, red deer and mountain hare. But this isn’t sentiment or gush: as a sensible naturalist she recognises that being speedy is ‘severely practical’ –

…food is so scarce up there that only those who can move swiftly over vast stretches of ground may hope to survive. The speed, the whorls and torrents of movement, are in plain fact the mountain’s own necessity. But their grace is not necessity. … Beauty is not adventitious but essential.

This represents the best and worst of Shepherd’s prose style. That second sentence is, well, sublime, but I omitted a long sentence in that extract, which would to my mind have benefitted from some editing.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Here’s the final paragraph, that conveys this book’s essence:

I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into a mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kathleen Jamie, Findings

Kathleen Jamie, Findings. Sort Of Books, 2003

Another book loan from my friends the owners of those imperious cats, Igor and Phoebe.

Kathleen Jamie Findings coverKathleen Jamie is a Scots poet. This book of short essays ranges in topic from birds and other wildlife, archaeological sites in Scotland and the Hebrides, to her husband’s grave illness after pneumonia, the view of Edinburgh’s lofty steeples and weathervanes, and its medical museum.

To call her a nature writer is to oversimplify. In an essay called ‘Markings’ she traces the cup-rings – circular carved shapes – scraped into the rock by Neolithic settlers thousands of years earlier, then visits the abandoned shielings – the high summer pastures for cattle, and the shelters their owners lived in while they grazed there long ago. As often in these essays it’s evident that Jamie studied philosophy. These aren’t so much ‘nature writings’ as meditations arising from her experience in nature and with people. Her poet’s sensitivity to place and language is revealed on every page.

Here for example she ponders describing places like this as ‘natural’ or ‘wild’, even ‘wilderness’ – but concludes that this ‘seems an affront to those many generations who took their living on that land.’ Whatever caused them to abandon their shielings, they left subtle marks. ‘What’s natural?’ she asks herself. We’re having to ‘replant the forests we cleared, there’s even talk of reintroducing that natural predator, the wolf.’

Most of her sentences are like that: lucid, colloquial, unforced – natural, perhaps. Not overtly ‘poetic’ or florid.

She’s alert to the sounds and sense of every word she uses, and deploys them with unobtrusive precision. It would be good to hear these pieces read aloud. Many of her words are of Scots origin, wild and natural as the things they signify: those shielings; machair – from an old Gaelic word for Hebridean grassy plains; creels – wicker baskets or lobster pots; sheep or cattle fanks – holding pens.

She imagines the shieling women eating bannocks  and whey – flatbreads cooked on skillets.

She uses metaphor and simile sparingly, but when she does they’re just right. Some examples I savoured: in the title essay she sails with a group of naturalists to the Sound of Shillay (from the Gaelic for ‘seal island’); she describes walking on the beach and sometimes flushing a flock of feeding shore birds:

I loved the moment when, after they’d all risen together, they all banked at once, like when you pull the string in a Venetian blind.

The title of the essay ‘Crex-crex’ is taken from the Latin name for corncrake. This shy brown quail-like bird is now very rare, having been hunted to extinction on the mainland. She stays on an island in the Outer Hebrides, one of its few surviving haunts. Her bird warden guide Sarah locates some and invites her to listen to their rasping call:

What does it sound like? Like someone grating a nutmeg, perhaps. Or a prisoner working toward his escape with a nailfile.

Now and again Sarah stops and tilts her head, all attention: ‘when she stops to listen she reminds me of a thrush on a lawn.’

Sometimes she relishes the opportunity to subvert over-used images, as when she enters a Neolithic burial chamber, a ‘dim stone vault’ (she’s fond of punchy, evocative monosyllables):

There is a thick soundlessness, like a recording studio, or a strongroom.

Not ‘silent as a tomb’. This is ‘a place of artifice, of skill’, you feel the ‘self-assurance’ of the artificers who built this place, perfectly orientated to face the setting midwinter sun, whose rays would hit the tomb’s back wall in ‘a complicit kiss’.

She delights in the findings on another island: a gannet’s skull, sawn off from the body with her knife. Part of an aeroplane’s wing, of all things. Everything intrigues her – and hence, her reader.

She doesn’t single out and describe these findings as curiosities worthy of exhibition in a museum. She muses and makes connections that probably result from her training in philosophy. In ‘Darkness and Light’, for example, she ponders the semantic force of these words and our human reactions to them.

Peregrine falcon, from John Gerrard Keulemans – Catalogue of the birds in the British Museum. Volume 1, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11058956

One of the best pieces relates her delight and anxiety in watching a pair of nesting peregrine falcons (and later, ospreys and an exotic crane in flight). She manages, without forcing the juxtaposition, to liken the precipitous ‘stoop’ of the peregrine on her prey – by diving down on it from above so it never knows what hit it – to the screaming Tornado jets that pass overhead, back from the war in Iraq. Later, her son asked her if they were going to be bombed. “No,” I said. “We will not be bombed.”

She hangs out of her window in her nightclothes one morning, scanning the sky for her peregrines with her binoculars. Her children demand their breakfast. This is a naturalist who feels guilty about making them wait, hungry, as she yearns to see where the female raptor will head.

Even cobwebs, observed by her door, glinting in the morning light, lead her to meditate on life and death as her husband fights for breath in hospital, his lungs infected.

 

 

 

 

Jan Morris, Venice

Cover of the Faber third rev. ed. of 'Venice', publ. 1993

Cover of the Faber third rev. ed. of ‘Venice’, publ. 1993

Jan Morris, Venice was first published in 1960 when she was James, but so timeless and largely unchanging is the fabric and spirit of Venice that the account isn’t particularly dated. On our visit there a week or so back, however, Mrs TD and I saw little of the animal and bird life she describes – apart from the ubiquitous pigeons and seagulls (noisy in the mornings, like sobbing babies). I did catch a glimpse of early swifts darting and screeching overhead. And a community of surprisingly well-nourished feral cats. An old lady was feeding them from a packet of biscuits. They lived in a peaceful central courtyard of the Ospedale San Giovanni e Paolo (San Zanipolo to the locals) – a magnificent Renaissance cloistered complex, including an art gallery, that still functions as a hospital, with its ER access a canalside quay for water ambulances!

Plaque outside Brodsky's house

Plaque outside a house where Joseph Brodsky stayed, near the Zattere. Meant to include it in yesterday’s post. He was buried in San Michele. Because he was a Jew, he wasn’t buried too close to Ezra Pound’s grave.

Morris describes the strutting equestrian statue of condottiere Colleoni in the square outside as ‘incomparable’. This Venetian notable died in 1484, leaving his entire fortune of ‘nearly half a million ducats to the state (which badly needed it) on condition that a statue was erected to him’ on that site. It’s that kind of well-researched detail, engagingly communicated, that makes this account of Venice so readable.

The Marías and Brodsky books I discussed yesterday were impressionistic sketches; this is a full-length biography and socio-cultural history of a city, of the kind Peter Ackroyd has produced more recently – almost a psychogeography. And there are charming personal touches braiding the narrative: Morris standing on her balcony gazing at the breathtaking views, but also pointing out, when the tide is low, that ‘the underpinnings of the Venetian houses are revealed in all their green and slimy secrecy.’ This is so typical of Venice: beautiful exteriors covering a sleaziness under the surface. But even the squalor is only superficial; there’s always something gorgeous if you look beyond.

View along the Grand Canal from Accademia bridge towards San Giorgio

View along the Grand Canal from Accademia bridge towards San Giorgio

She provides almost every detail and history you could desire of the city (its 450+ bridges, 107 churches) and in the archipelago of over 100 islands. As you see flying over the lagoon into Marco Polo airport, there are countless mudbanks and islets that come and go with the tides and currents. It was an uninviting swamp, and the city suffered decimations of population for centuries from the diseases harboured there, from plague (a hazard of the Levantine trade) and mosquito-transmitted malaria to cholera caused by poor water hygiene (that did for gloomy von Aschenbach in Death in Venice). Hence the prominence of San Rocco in the city’s five church dedications to him; they stole his relics, too, from France, for his protection against ‘bacterial demons’. I remember the Visconti neorealist film ‘Rocco and his Brothers’ – rather better as I recall than the more famous and morbid Bogarde vehicle with its picture-postcard superficiality.

A random sample of the Morris narrative tone in an extract from the opening page:

Here is a glowering octagonal fort, here a gaunt abandoned lighthouse. A mesh of nets patterns the walls of a fisherman’s islet, and a restless covey of boats nuzzles its water-gate. From the ramparts of an island barracks a listless soldier with his cap over his eyes waves half-heartedly out of his sentry-box. Two savage dogs bark and rage from a broken villa.

Not just hard facts dug out of histories and archives, then; human observations like the above make this book a pleasure to read.

Those cats in Zanipolo

Those cats in Zanipolo

She also gives a detailed account of the major islands, including Torcello, where the original settlers established a foothold in the 5C to escape the depredations of the invading Goths, Huns and other warlike tribes. This island prospered, then declined disastrously from the 12C, and is now returning to nature, its former glories weed-covered and plundered for materials to build its replacement, Venice itself.

Some highlights from a book densely packed with interesting details. How in 829 Venetian merchants, with typical audacity and cunning, stole the relics of St Mark from Alexandria. To keep the loot safe from prying Muslim eyes they hid them in a barrel of pickled pork. It was a city of policy, trade, chicanery and sharp practice (hence the plot of The Merchant of Venice). It’s a ‘shamelessly self-centred place’, redolent of ‘elderly narcissism’. It can adopt ‘a morose but calculating look’ full of ‘sly contempt’, with ‘a note of amorality’, ‘hard-boiled, sceptical and sophisticated’. But also courteous, ceremonious – ‘a very bourgeois city.’ Full of nosiness, gossip, sex, melancholy and intrigue.

It was also the city of Tintoretto, Titian and Goldoni – and Casanova. They even claim Othello as one of their own.

There’s a fascinating section on the Ghetto (and the cruel treatment of the Jews), and on the visitors from all over the world – not just the usuals like Shelley and Byron and his suicidal jilted girlfriend throwing herself into the Grand Canal from the Palazzo Mocenigro, the Brownings, George Eliot and her canal-bound suicidal husband, swaggering Hemingway and punctilious Ruskin. She shows how the city is cosmopolitan, enriched over the centuries by incomers from the orient, the Middle East (those Armenians and the Riva degli Schiavoni, named for the Slavs who brought cargo to the place that is still a thriving trading and ferry quay.) Oriental influences are seen everywhere, like the arabesque swirls in the windows.

I recall the Venetian style of the harbour at Chania in Crete. Forts in Cyprus. For Venice absorbed features from every culture it dealt with, but also disseminated its own.

There are some good jokes. Like Robert Benchley, who cabled home when he first arrived there: ‘Streets full of water. Please advise.’

In the section on the city’s influence elsewhere in the world, she says she saw a sign in London’s Little Venice: ‘Beware of the Doge.’

Some omissions: she mentions the church of the Madonna dell’Orto, but unlike Brodsky and Marías, says nothing about the Bellini portrait noted yesterday. There’s some reference to Ezra Pound, but not of his grave in the San Michele cemetery, or Olga Rudge.

The six-pronged prow of gondolas, with the curve above maybe representing the sweep of the arterial Grand Canal

The graceful six-pronged prow of gondolas, with the curve above maybe representing the sweep of the arterial Grand Canal. Sunlight, not lamplight

Finally, those gondolas again: even the etymology of the word is controversial. There’s the now discarded felze, or canopy, which concealed all kinds of illicity liasions (see previous posts). Is it true, as the gondoliers assert, that the six prongs on the prow – the ferro – represent the six sestieri, the curved beak at the top is the Doge’s hat/the Rialto bridge/several other theories? Whatever their origins (Roman, Egyptian or Turkish?), they are a magnificent sight,

curved, rampant and gleaming, riding side by side through the lamplight of the Grand Canal.

I’ll not forget the atmosphere of this extraordinary, beautiful, vibrant city. It probably sounds inane, but I hadn’t realised what an effect is gained by having no road traffic. No wonder Venice’s appellation is La Serenissima. It’s a serene city – the only sounds the lapping of the water, the cries of the gondoliers (and those seagulls) and the chugging engines of the innumerable boats supplying the produce for the wonderful markets – but also cleaning the canals, ferrying travellers and transporting the sick to the Ospedale.

There was a water fire-engine moored at the canalside, attending a blaze on Murano, with a chic uniformed fireman posing for the tourists’ cameras while his colleagues buzzed in and out of the burnt shell of the building a hundred metres away. He looked like a young Robert de Niro.