In the Critics this week

Richard J Evans on Michael Gove, Amanda Foreman on Lina Prokofiev and A L Kennedy interviewed.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Richard J Evans, Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge, examines Education Secretary Michael Gove’s new draft national curriculum for history. Evans notes that this has been “greeted with dismay by history teachers at every level, from primary schools to universities, and from every part of the political spectrum”. The latter point is particularly important. Even the conservative historians who had previously rallied to Gove’s cause – that of focusing the curriculum on “supposedly key personalities and events within the British past” – were dismayed, Evans notes. The new curriculum, which appears to be the work of Gove alone, “tells pupils what to think”. It is, Evans argues, “preparation for Mastermind or a pub quiz; it is not education … If he really wants more rigour in education, Gove should tear up his amateurish new curriculum and start listening to the professionals.”

This week’s lead book reviewer is the historian Amanda Foreman. She reviews The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev by Simon Morrison. Morrison, Foreman argues, has “told the story of a woman who was a desperate little nobody when she was married, and became a courageous heroine when she was single”.

Also in Books: Nicholas Timmins, former public policy editor of the Financial Times, reviews God Bless the NHS by Roger Taylor (“[Taylor] manages to grapple with … some of the most difficult issues in modern health care”); Sophie Elmhirst reviews The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon (“Hemon tries to work out what to call his life throughout these essays. He doesn’t come up with an answer”); Amanda Craig reviews Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Life After Life (“I would be astonished if it does not carry off at least one major prize”); Vernon Bogdanor reviews Mr Speaker: the Office and the Individuals Since 1945 by Matthew Laban (“Given the centrality of the speakership to the Westminster system, it is surprising that so little has been written about it”); Max Liu reviews How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields (“Shields wants to forge a literary form that can articulate experience and assuage loneliness”).

In the Books Interview, Philip Maughan talks to A L Kennedy about her new book On Writing. Writing, Kennedy tells Maughan, is like “walking out across a great, white wasteland, making little black marks”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey reviews Lee Daniels’s film The Paperboy (“no one in The Paperboy gives a hoot about anything not related to sex. This movie is in heat”); Rachel Cooke reviews A History of Syria with Dan Snow on BBC2 (“In Syria, your enemy’s enemy is your friend”); Antonia Quirke listens to Baroque Spring on Radio 3 (“who cares for Purcell’s words?”); Andrew Billen reviews The Audience with Helen Mirren and Patrick Marber’s repurposing of Arthur Pinero’s Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar (“mostly [The Audience] gets by, and gets its laughs from, libelling prime ministers”); Alexandra Coghlan reviews the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera as part of the Southbank Centre's "The Rest of Noise" festival (“I wonder whether a better dramatic compromise could have been found than the semi-staging offered by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir and Vladimir Jurwoski”).

PLUS: "Obit", a poem by Blake Morrison, and Will Self’s Real Meals.

Education Secretary Michael Gove (Photograph: Getty Images)
Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.