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The fourth in an occasional series of posts listing things I’ve enjoyed on the web recently.


As the lock rattles

This is a bit of a cheat because I read it in the paper LRB rather than online. John Lanchester’s article on the pandemic is well worth reading for both its detailed analysis and its snark about our wholly unable Prime Minister.

It isn’t always possible to draw a straight line from someone’s personal life to their public works. Johnson’s private life is his business. But one thing you can say about a man responsible for at least nine pregnancies by at least four different women is that he is prone to wishful thinking. That wishful thinking is the common theme in the government’s failures from spring 2020 to autumn 2020 to now. Johnson doesn’t want certain things to be true, so he acts as if they can be ignored. That strategy has worked for him in domestic politics. It was at the heart of his advocacy for Brexit. But it doesn’t work in economics, and it doesn’t work in dealing with a pandemic.

Lanchester’s discussion of the topic on the LRB podcast is also worth a listen.


Things fell apart

I listen to quite a lot of speech radio, but without wanting to disappoint Auntie, I have been a bit of a BBC Sounds refusenik. It’s a stupidly named service with a hard-to-navigate app that has never seemed relevant to my life.

Yet, when searching for something completely unrelated online recently, I discovered that Jon Ronson had made a radio series for BBC Sounds, which has also had an edited run on Radio 4. The series began in November, and despite being a fan of Ronson’s work and therefore presumably within the target market, the Beeb’s marketing didn’t reach me until after it had finished, but the whole series remains available.

Once I knew it existed, I enjoyed this series. Each episode investigates the ‘origin’ of a particular aspect of the ‘culture wars’, which sounds tedious, but with Ronson’s gentle humour and humanity, it becomes a collection of interestingly strange and moving tales.


Not a drill

The relationship of the USA to guns is one that always feels difficult to grasp from a British perspective. This chilling Atlantic article from Nicole Chung describes her experience of a receiving a text from her 13-year-old daughter in the middle of the morning telling her that she is sheltering at school as there is an active shooting threat.

I was in high school when Thurston and Columbine happened, which means I was in high school before it occurred to me that I could be shot in my school. This knowledge is something that American schoolkids of all ages live with now. My 13-year-old has been participating in shooter drills since she was 3 years old—though when she was younger, her teachers couched them in vague, less frightening terms. I remember the day she came home from preschool and told me, “We practiced what to do in case someone is in the school who shouldn’t be.” She described her teacher locking the doors, turning off the lights, and herding all the students into a small bathroom, where they were told to sit still and stay “very, very quiet.” “It was hard. We weren’t very quiet,” she admitted.

This is one of those articles that just stopped me in my tracks.


Clinical negligence reform is an ethical and financial necessity

Ian Kennedy’s suggestion for reform of the NHS approach to clinical negligence, as published in Prospect, is clear and convincing.

The crux of the approach is this: we should separate the needs of the patient from the conduct of the professional/institution.

I’d struggle to mount a convincing argument against.


‘Daddy isn’t coming back’: surviving my partner’s suicide

There isn’t a line in Manuela Saragossa’s FT story that isn’t worth your time, but this one particularly spoke to me:

The meds were to treat schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar, the worst of both terrible worlds. In Steve’s case, his illness manifested as persistent delusions, mania and depression.

“It’s just in your mind,” I would tell him, uselessly, after an episode, once the volume had turned down on the recurring, persecutory thoughts that tormented him. “My mind is all I have,” he would rightly reply.

This is a moving and direct account of living with a partner with severe mental illness, and coming to terms with his untimely death. In another universe, I’m a psychiatrist: I came very close to applying for specialty training in psychiatry, before opting for public health. I don’t think I would have been all that good at it, in retrospect.

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Review: Them by Jon Ronson

Somehow, despite being a virtually card-carrying Guardianista, I’d never read one of Jon Ronson’s books. This one seemed as good a starting point as any!

The book describes Ronson’s adventures with several extremist groups and conspiracy theorists as he tries to find out more about the Bilderberg Group, who are thought by many conspiracy theorists to summarily control the world. It’s long-form gonzo journalism, with the added edge that Ronson is Jewish, while a number of the groups he meets along the way are, to a greater or lesser extent, anti-semitic.

The narrative of the book is engaging, and some of the descriptions are enlightening. But it feels to me like there’s a central problem in this book: Ronson seems quite conflicted over his feelings about the people he meets. Occasionally, he plays their beliefs for laughs, but, for the most part, it seems reasonably clear that he likes the individuals whilst finding their viewpoints and some of their actions abhorrent. This was and is always going to be a problem in an ethnography like this, but the fact that there’s never any deep reflection on this in the text just gives the whole thing an air of awkwardness.

There’s also a slight weirdness in that it seems to me that the point the book is trying to make is that relatively ordinary people can believe extraordinary things with certainty. That’s a really interesting concept, but, again, there’s no real self-reflection on this. Did this experience make Ronson question any of his own deeply-held beliefs? Has it made him view conspiracies and conspiracists differently? How has this whole experience changed him?

Ronson writes engagingly about the challenge of going through this investigation as a Jew. He reflects on denying his Jewish heritage, and how that makes him feel. Yet the other big questions seem to hang in the air, and I’m left wondering what the gonzo style adds if the majority of the deep personal reflection is cut out of it. I guess it provides a narrative. But it takes away objectivity, and makes us very reliant on the author as the sole source. I’m not sure those trades are worth it if the impact on the author – which is really something I consider to be at the heart of the style – is taken away.

I’m conscious that I’ve now written three paragraphs of criticism of a book that, on the whole, I enjoyed! I learned the truth about the Bilderberg Group (not that I’d heard of it before reading this book). There were several convincing descriptions of how conspiracy theorists interpret events in a way that supports their own world view (though, disappointingly, little discussion of the degree to which the rest of us do that too). The writing brought the characters to life, and the narrative drove the “plot” forward at a good pace.

All-in-all, while I was a bit disappointed by what wasn’t in this book, the stuff that was there was great: I’ll certainly read another of Ronson’s books at some point in the future. As for the star-rating: I’ve dithered for some time now over whether to give this 3 or 4; it’s somewhere in between. On balance, this isn’t a book I’d return to again, and I think its flaws of omission pull it nearer to 3 than 4.

Them is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

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