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Poet’s Corner at last

December 4, 2016

Philip Larkin


Tom Courtenay in the tourist bookshop, Edward Fox by the Great West Gate, Grayson Perry chatting in the queue. Too timid to tackle such eminences, I struck up conversation with an unknown. “I’m a Larkin” he said, a cousin once removed, or something like that, come up from Truro for the occasion. His ancestor had been the brother of Sidney Larkin, Philip’s father.

We trooped in and settled among the choir. I found myself next to an Arts Council fellow who’d sat on poetry committees with Larkin. Together we pointed out more celebrities. Melvyn Bragg and Alan Bennett opposite. Anthony Thwaite and Alan Johnson over there.

Choral evensong celebrated the 50th anniversary of Barbados’s independence. The ambassador read the lesson, and the choir sang unaccompanied; no congregational singing for once. Psalm 78 had God repeatedly saving the ungrateful Israelites from their folly, finally knocking them into shape, picking David as ruler, and letting them live in peace and tranquillity ever after. I couldn’t see much of a link with either Barbados or Larkin; perhaps it was just psalm of the day.

After the Barbadians and the public had been ushered out, the Larkin crowd moved to the south transept for the dedication. Virginia Bottomley read Solar, The Trees, and Water, Grayson Perry read from Larkin’s 23rd October 1962 letter to Monica about harvest thanksgiving, Blake Morrison gave the address (click here), Anthony Thwaite read the final verse from Church Going. Sir Tom Courtenay read Days, and Reference Back; a real actor showing the amateurs how it should be done. Someone played a recording of King Oliver’s Riverside Blues, a few prayers and it was over.

The Philip Larkin Society (click here) have been pushing this for years. Hull being City of Culture for 2017 helped. So, while Will Gompertz and the BBC filmed a piece for Newsnight, the rest of us milled about, and listened to a few more words from Professor Edwin Dawes, chair of the Philip Larkin Society, and Rosie Millard from the City of Culture. I chatted to a GP from Kent who was chair of the Thomas Hardy Society – the two societies have recently organised some joint events, and of course Larkin was a great admirer of Hardy. I fear I upset one archivist by foolishly saying I thought Larkin’s archive was in Oxford; he put me right that the Bodleian have only a few letters. But I hope I cheered up another, by getting appropriately excited when he told me he had Larkin’s lawnmower in his collection.

Here is that poem. With those wonderful, terrible, unconsoling lines, “The mower stalled twice,” … “I’d even fed it, once.” … “we should be kind/While there is still time.” Yes, he’s deservedly in Poet’s Corner.

The Mower

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.


Den Gyldene Freden

November 16, 2016

Getting to be a regular. Previous visit here.

This book about the Swedish painter Anders Zorn’s American travels was on the bar.


Zorn got rich in America; he painted three American Presidents, Cleveland, Taft and Teddy Roosevelt. Back in Stockholm he was a leading member of the Bellman club, who drank, dined and sang the troubadour’s songs here. Sometime after 1910 the building fell into disrepair and Zorn bought it for the then huge sum of SEK150K and set about restoration and refurbishment. Despite a few later licks of paint it remains much as he left it.

Zorn died in 1920 leaving the freehold to the Swedish Academy, who still dine weekly in an upstairs room. The waitress says they’re discreet; she learned of Bob Dylan’s literature prize at the same time as the rest of us.

Here’s their private dining room. Each member has their own schnapps glass.

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The other dining areas are a rabbit warren.

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Some pictures and plaques

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Below them all, the kitchen.


Jim Thornton

Brief Encounter

November 14, 2016

Meeting Point by Louis MacNeice


Written in the early 1930s, this poem has reminded every reader since 1945, of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s Brief Encounter. David Lean’s film of their unrequited love story turned Carnforth station waiting room into a place of pilgrimage. The poem captures the moment when, for lovers, time stands still. My favourite line, apart from the final couplet, is the intentionally childish, And they were neither up nor down, from the Grand Old Duke of York nursery rhyme. Private passion, all over the place – in public.

Meeting point

Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.

And they were neither up nor down;
The stream’s music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.

The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise –
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.

The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.

Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.

Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.

God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body’s peace
God or whatever means the Good.

Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.

By Louis MacNeice


October 9, 2016

Eugenic NHS screening should stop


Sally Philips’ powerful BBC documentary, A World Without Down’s Syndrome? (iPlayer here, articles here or here), deploring how NHS screening may soon eradicate the syndrome, has provoked a pro-choice push back (e.g. here, here, here and here).

Philips’ son Olly has Down’s syndrome. He lives a worthwhile life, enhances the lives of those he meets, and has taught her that many parents are given unduly pessimistic information about prognosis.

Her opponents accuse her of bias in the other direction. They say that Olly is a relatively high functioning boy with Down’s and that Philips, a successful actress, ignores the reality of caring for a more typical children in less privileged circumstances. They also suspect that Philips, who is quite open about her Christian faith, is secretly anti-choice, and wants to impose her rose-tinted view on others.

I’m pro-choice – I actually perform abortions – but I’m on Philips’ side on this one. She understands that people make different choices, and as a good liberal accepts that. Her objection is to deploying the power of the state to screen for a particular vulnerable group, those with Down’s, for which the only “treatment” is abortion. She’s asking us to consider how members of other similar groups would feel if that power were directed to screening for people like them.  She’s accusing the NHS Down’s screening programme of eugenics.

It’s a serious accusation. My NHS Down’s screening colleagues would be mortified to be so accused. Ever since Hitler incorporated eugenic ideas in his mad schemes for racial purification, eugenics has been a dirty word.  NHS screeners say they’re nothing like that: “We’re just offering choice. No-one has to have the test. If they have the test and find out the baby has Down’s, no-one is forced to abort. The counselling is carefully non directive.”

But the programme overall is clearly encouraging Down’s abortion. The government has decided that Down’s screening is worthwhile because most parents choose abortion. If no-one did so, screening would simply add six months of futile worry to 600 or so parents’ lives. Someone has judged that the “benefits” of preventing the births of 600 Down’s babies outweigh the costs of the screening tests and abortions. That’s a perfectly reasonable decision for a parent to make – parents may decide to abort a pregnancy with lesser abnormalities than Down’s, about 180,000 abort normal pregnancies – but it’s not a decision for the state.

To see why, consider some hypothetical, and some not so hypothetical, prenatal tests. Say for skin colour, sexual orientation, autism, bipolar disorder, increased cancer risk.

Imagine a woman who chooses to abort a healthy child because his skin is black. Perhaps she knows the father was black and she prefers a white child. We may not approve, but unless we are prepared to argue that women don’t have the right to choose, we would support her decision. But we would never, I hope, offer NHS skin colour testing because we wanted to give parents the right to choose the skin colour of their offspring.

Perhaps that’s a far fetched example. Consider parents who choose abortions for sexual orientation, autism, bipolar disorder, increased cancer risk. Individual parents may one day choose to abort pregnancies for any of these reasons. Tests will soon be available for many more genetic abnormalities, some serious, some trivial and many in between. As individuals we will likely agree with some decisions and be shocked by others. A woman has the right to choose. But the state does not.

Many people think that somehow, by discussion and argument, and fancy cost-benefit analyses, the NHS, i.e. the state, will be able to decide that some abnormalities justify screening and others do not. It won’t. People will never agree. Even two middle class liberals like Sally Philips and I can’t agree whether a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome justifies abortion. Collective prenatal screening decisions will always be arbitrary and discriminatory. They will get progressively more difficult.

Now is the time for the NHS to step back; it has plenty else to worry about. Leave prenatal screening to the private and charitable sectors, i.e. to genuinely individual choice.

Jim Thornton


The Chamber over the Gate

August 23, 2016

By Henry Longfellow

One of Mrs Thatcher’s attractive features was her unpretentious love of poetry. She hardly ever quoted a line or title correctly, as she would if briefed to do so, but mangled it slightly, suggesting genuine mis-recollection. Philip Larkin was famously pleased that she mis-remembered the line “Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives”, calling Deceptions, the one in which that girl’s ‘mind was full of knives’. Here’s another occasion.

In the first volume of his official life (p 191) Charles Moore mentions a speech to the North Finchley Bible Society in 1966. Referring to the recent Aberfan disaster, and the horror of losing a child, she said that David’s lament for his dead son Absalom was a favourite Bible passage. But there isn’t much lament for Absalom in the Bible; just the single verse 2 Samuel 18, v 33.

“And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

Nor was she thinking of his lament over Saul and Jonathan, the one that ends “How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!” Neither Saul nor Jonathan were David’s children. I bet she had this poem in mind.  The title refers to the the place where David went to grieve after the rebellious Absalom had been killed by the King’s own forces.

The Chamber over the Gate

Is it so far from thee
Thou canst no longer see
In the Chamber over the Gate
That old man desolate,
Weeping, and wailing sore
For his son, who is no more?
O Absalom, my son!

Is it so long ago
That cry of human woe
From the walled city came,
Calling on his dear name,
That it has died away
In the distance of to-day?
O Absalom, my son!

There is no far nor near,
There is neither there nor here,
There is neither soon nor late,
In that Chamber over the Gate,
Nor any long ago
To that cry of human woe,
O Absalom, my son!

From the ages that are past
The voice comes like a blast,
Over seas that wreck and drown,
Over tumult of traffic and town;
And from ages yet to be
Come the echoes back to me,
O Absalom, my son!

Somewhere at every hour
The watchman on the tower
Looks forth, and sees the fleet
Approach of the hurrying feet
Of messengers, that bear
The tidings of despair.
O Absalom, my son!

He goes forth from the door,
Who shall return no more.
With him our joy departs;
The light goes out in our hearts;
In the Chamber over the Gate
We sit disconsolate.
O Absalom, my son!

That ‘t is a common grief
Bringeth but slight relief;
Ours is the bitterest loss,
Ours is the heaviest cross;
And forever the cry will be
“Would God I had died for thee,
O Absalom, my son!

Henry Longfellow

Balanced but biased

August 21, 2016

The BBC’s menopause advice

Is odd (click here), and not just because they chose three men to deliver it; “Imagine I’m a woman” says the interviewer!

For the series Trust me, I’m a doctor the BBC interviewed two doctors with opposing views about long-term menopausal hormone therapy. Klim McPherson an epidemiologist from Oxford, presented the conventional view (click here); it carries increased risks of breast cancer, strokes, and heart disease and therefore should be used for symptom relief only, and in the lowest dose and for the shortest time possible. The absolute risks are low, so women whose symptoms persist may choose to take it for longer, just so long as they know the risks. But hormone therapy should never be used for “health promotion”. Few would quarrel with that.

But the producers wanted controversy, an “expert” who would downplay the risks and say that hormone therapy is good for you. They found John Studd.

Studd’s early enthusiasm for menopausal hormone therapy was at least based on the evidence available at the time. It was hardly his fault that drug companies had concealed adverse cardiac events, and that the “healthy user” effect made observational studies misleading.  But his passion did rather run away with him.  Here he is from 1988 (quoted in “Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause 2011 by Louise Foxcroft here).

“[There is now] little serious controversy about the devastating effects of oestrogen deficiency or the beneficial effects of hormone replacement therapy in post menopausal women. Pockets of resistance remain, more spiritual than medical, but fundamentally the news concerning heart attacks, strokes and carcinoma of the uterus is good. Some minor skirmishes concerning the dose and route of oestrogens, and the correct progestagens for the prevention of endometrial pathology remain, but essentially the battle has been fought and won.”

As Foxcroft wrote, such “hideously inappropriate, crusading language of prophets and wars” hardly suggested a disinterested seeker after scientific truth.

She was right. When the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) trials (click here) were suspended because the hormone therapy harms made it unethical to continue, Studd couldn’t, or wouldn’t, alter his opinion. Instead he doubled down on his belief that hormone therapy is good for you, bad mouthing WHI overall, while selectively quoting those subgroup analyses and secondary endpoints which supported his ideas.

His reputation suffered. In the last century his papers regularly appeared in BJOG, the BMJ and Lancet. Now he’s pretty much confined to obscure menopause journals supported by industry and run by his friends. But pharma loved him, and put him on their advisory boards and flew him round the world to spread the word.

Before long he had turned into a single issue campaigner advocating estrogen therapy for everything. On his website (click here) he cites “10 reasons to be happy about HRT”, and even castigates psychiatrists for not treating depression with hormones!  His “10 reasons” include making women more beautiful, more randy and nicer to live with!

Studd performed as the BBC hoped (click here). When asked about the increased risks of breast cancer he first avoided the question, and segued into his polished riff about the WHI trials which, according to him, studied “the wrong patients, with the wrong drug, by the wrong route, using the wrong dose and came to the wrong conclusions”. Of course he’s entitled to his opinion, but it’s him who’s wrong; no-one who knows anything about clinical research would agree with him. The two WHI trials studied more woman for longer than any other, and in the latest Cochrane review (click here) were among the minority accorded a perfect score of 7/7 on trial design.

When the interviewer pushes him, and asks about the claim that long-term HRT doubles the risk of breast cancer he denies that anyone thinks the risk is that great, and suggests that even the most anti-hormone experts only quote a relative risk of 1.1 or 1.2. This provokes incredulity in the interviewer who had just recorded McPherson stating the risk was doubled (click here. It’s at 55 seconds). McPherson is right. The relevant Cochrane review (click here) gives a relative risk of breast cancer death after long-term hormone therapy of 1.98.

When asked if he ever takes women women off hormone therapy, Studd replies: “No, I don’t take women off HRT.” Women must be thankful that he no longer works for the NHS.

Thank you to my colleague Susan Bewley who pointed out this poor choice of “expert”, and persuaded the BBC to add a sentence to indicate Studd’s conflict of interest:

“Professor John Studd now works entirely in private practice, specialising in HRT-based treatments.”

I think this is inadequate. I think the BBC should remove Studd’s interview altogether. If they won’t do that, they should add a much stronger conflict of interest statement. Here’s a suggestion.

“Professor Studd has a conflict of interest. He has received funding for travel, lecture fees and payment to sit on their advisory boards, from many manufacturers of menopausal hormone therapy. He no longer works for the NHS, instead running a private clinic where he advocates and prescribes estrogens, either alone or in combination with other hormones, for pretty much every woman who comes through the door.”

Jim Thornton

Girl on girl

July 24, 2016

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

A Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment by Jane Gallop

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The Argonauts (click here) is not your usual baby book. According to Maggie Nelson’s faculty page at the California Institute of the Arts it is:

a work of “autotheory” about gender, sexuality, sodomitical maternity, queer family, and the limitations and possibilities of language

Nelson is a lesbian-ish poet and writer. Her partner, Harry Dodge, a female to male transsexual film maker and actor. Her politics are far left – the anti-capitalist rhetoric sometimes grates – but she is a wonderful writer. Her subject is not just sex and babies, not even the complexity of human sexuality, gender roles and reproduction, although she takes the reader to some wilder shores. Nor is it even about individual complexity, how so many of us, can hold mutually opposing opinions at one and the same time. Nelson’s real subject is the difficulty of writing about all that. How it is impossible to put the truth about our feelings into words, but that still we must try. Words are the best we have. “Words are good enough.”

She describes caring as a step parent for Dodge’s son, and the conception, pregnancy and birth of their shared son, Iggy. The conception was of course complicated, but the rest was normal; spontaneous labour at 39 weeks, some unspecified pain relief, amniotomy at full dilatation and an unassisted vaginal birth. At six months Iggy “was stricken by a potentially fatal nerve toxin that afflicts about 150 babies out of the 4 million+ born in the United States each year”. She doesn’t name the disease; “I am not going to write anything here about Iggy’s time with the toxin”, presumably that’s for her next book, but elsewhere we are told it cost $47,000 to be treated with an “infusion of rare antibodies harvested from other people’s bodies”. My guess is immune globulin for infant botulism.

But this is all background. The interest lies in dozens of loosely linked vignettes about life and attitudes in a fluidly gendered community in present day California. Here’s a few.

Nelson rages against the mother of a transgendered child, a pupil, likening the child’s sex change to a bereavement, until Dodge reminds her of her own fears about how he would change with testosterone.

Dodge explains that it takes a female to male transsexual to see the ways men acknowledge each other publicly; the nod as we pass in the street that women never make. Nelson notes that we presumably do it to reassure other men that we have no aggressive intent; throughout most of history a strange man was a threat in a way a strange woman rarely was.

She works herself into a lefty lather about being “forced” to work in a smokers bar, albeit long before she was pregnant, but admits to enjoying the company of the reckless smokers and drinkers she met there.

The sex seems to have been good. “You pretend to use me, make a theatre of heeding only your pleasure while making sure, I find mine.”

Most shocking is her description of an extraordinary attack (p 48) by art historian Rosalind Krauss on the feminist Jane Gallop. I don’t know anything about Krauss, but Gallop was to become famous with her controversial Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (click here). Nelson doesn’t mention that later book, although it’s surely relevant.

The seminar was at the City University of New York (CUNY) in October 1998. The topic photography. Gallop, a newlywed young mother, spoke of studying it from the point of view of the person photographed, illustrated her talk with slides of her naked self with her baby, and spoke happily and un-academically about sex with her new husband. “Heterosexuality always embarrasses me” notes Nelson parenthetically, but she is attracted to Gallop’s method, despite the tentative nature of her ideas and the incompleteness of her analysis. She is also attracted to Gallop, to her vulnerability, her unfashionable dress sense.  And then Krauss, sharp, classy, Ivy League, responds with, as Nelson recalls it, a vicious unsparing academic take down of Gallop’s temerity.

The lashing Gallop received that day stood for some time in my mind as an object lesson. Krauss acted as though Gallop should be ashamed for trotting out naked pictures of herself and her son in the bathtub, contaminating serious academic space with her pudgy body and unresolved self-involved thinking (even though Gallop had been perfecting such contamination for years).

The tacit undercurrent of her argument, as I felt it, was that Gallop’s maternity had rotted her mind – besotted it with the narcissism that makes one think that an utterly ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting.

Shocking, particularly for those, who in equivalent debates on birth itself, side with the Krauss’s of this world; rolling our eyes at soft midwifery-based mother and baby talk, when what is needed is manly science. Nelson describes how generally she also sides with the hard-edged academic. But …

In the face of such shaming, I felt no choice. I stood with Gallop.

She’s right. Gallop can talk nonsense, e.g. this from her home page (click here) “[…] The project brings together crip theory, feminist aging studies, queer temporality, psychoanalysis, and anecdotal theory. I consider how disability that begins in midlife and/or the entrance to middle age are [sic] lived as a threat to one’s sexuality and one’s gender, but also how these perspectives can supply us with alternative models of sexual temporality.” Lord save us!

But, like Nelson, when she draws from personal experience – A Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment is just that – she writes beautifully. Accused by two female students with whom she had flirted, Gallop got off with a warning from her university, and then jumped into print with this book. It’s not just a defence of her own actions, but a closely argued claim that sexual harassment rules in university have gone too far. Not only are they impossible to police – people start relationships at work all the time – but they harm academic discourse. Flirtation brings energy and intensity. Without sexual possibility universities would be grey and chilling.

Only a woman with rock solid feminist credentials would dare make such a claim – sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious and ongoing problem. But Gallop goes further. She describes previous escapades where she as a student fucked her teachers, and other occasions when as a more senior academic she flirted with, and sometimes fucked, her students. Apparently none of them complained.

She argues that even if she had gone all the way with the students who complained, she should have had no case to answer, just so long as the students had remained willing, and she had not unjustifiably discriminated against them academically. She even protests at the students legal attempts to prevent her writing about the story. It’s a racy read – not the sex itself, albeit both straight and lesbian – but the thrill of a woman writing so openly. And on the substantive issue Gallop surely has a point, although the line between constructive flirtation and harassment is a fine one, and tiny misreadings of intent can easily cause trouble, even for a sophisticated navigator of these choppy waters.

I can’t hope to do justice to either of these two short and brilliant books, and not just for lack of space; my words are not good enough.

Jim Thornton

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