In the Critics this week

In the Critics section of this week's NS, a host of contributors tell us their favourite book of the year, Andrew Harrison explains the politics of Doctor Who and Rachel Cooke is enamoured by Last Tango in Halifax.

This week’s issue of the New Statesman begins with the “Books of the year”. Contributors and friends of the publication have been asked to choose their favourite reading from 2013. We feature contributions from John Gray, Ali Smith, Ed Balls, Stephen King, Rachel Reeves, Sarah Sands, William Boyd, Alan Rusbridger, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Simon Heffer, Andrew Adonis, Craig Raine, Felix Martin, Frances Wilson, John Burnside, Jesse Norman, Alexander McCall Smith, Richard Overy, Jason Cowley, Mark Damazer, Lionel Shriver, Jemima Khan, Geoff Dyer, Laurie Penny, Vince Cable, Alan Johnson, Leo Robson, Jane Shilling, John Bew, Ed Smith, Richard J Evans, David Baddiel, Michael Rosen, John Banville, David Shrigley, Chris Hadfield, Tim Farrin, Toby Litt, David Marquand, Robert Harris, Michael Prodger, Michael Symmons Roberts and Sarah Churchwell.

Have you ever wondered about the politics underlying Doctor Who? It may not be as simple as you think. In fact, it may not even be a singular political message, as Andrew Harrison explains: “Doctor Who has had plenty of nasty things to say about our society over the years but the politics and ethics of its hero has proved as malleable as its core cast.” Harrison traces 50 years of Whovian politics and assigns its political randomness to the constant reinvention of its creative team and authorship. This is a show that isn’t afraid to discuss apartheid, Thatcherism, depersonalisation through technology, tax worries and liberal interventionism. In its modern form the show is “more personal, less didactic but alive to the notion that the personal is political.” So Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor is a commendation of the common people and David Tennant’s Doctor shows that “sometimes the solution is worse than the problem – a very Noughties fate.” Nonetheless, it remains that the Doctor is “the last great Enlightenment figure: egalitarian, ever curious and dedicated to reason and principle that the sonic screw-driver is mightier than the sword.”

Rachel Cooke rejoices in the BBC drama Last Tango in Halifax. She argues that whilst it may be easy to dismiss the show,

Sally Wainwrights’s drama about late-life love in the north of England – a huge hit for the BBC – is amazingly well-written and superbly acted, and reaches places and feelings ignored by quite a lot of television, which is mostly predictably metropolitan in its impulses. It’s also peculiarly gripping.

Cooke admires the complexity that derives from its simple premise – two childhood sweethearts reuniting as septuagenarians – as the show addresses the anxiety and embarrassment from their grown up daughters and even the role of social class has to play. Most of all, she is impressed with the familiarity garnered by the show’s attention to detail. This is visuals and script working harmoniously together to become “terribly touching.”

However, Cooke does dismiss the new series of Borgen coming to BBC4. She writes: “My strong feeling is that if Borgen was in English, the Twittering classes would hoot with laughter at its wooden dialogue, its circular, talky plotlines and its plodding zeal for compromise.”

Opera has been going through a bit of a revival recently with the injection of several well acclaimed theatre-makers. The most recent of these is Complicite’s The Magic Flute. Alexandra Coghlan asks why John Berry, English National Opera’s artistic director, and the Met’s Peter Gelb are introducing these directors who are not well versed in the ways of Opera. She finds the answer in the sentiment that “directors with no background in opera” are “fresh pairs of eyes untainted by its tradition.” Yet, she is quick to note that music must remain central, there has to be “an instinct for that peculiar relationship at opera’s core”. When it comes to the production of The Magic Flute, however, Coghlan feels that the emotion has been lost from Mozart’s opera. The special effects and innovative stage design make it truly “magic” but lacks “humanity”. She concludes that Opera “is learning so much from theatre, but there are still, it seems, just a few things that opera can teach it in return.”

This week’s Critics section also features:

Whovian politics: cybermen don't seem to like traffic wardens. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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The best defence against Alzheimer’s

Spoiler: the best way to avoid Alzheimer's is to stay young.

At the recent meeting of the European Academy of Neurology in Copenhagen, doctors were signing up to attend a workshop teaching non-specialists to test for cognitive decline in their patients. How do you tell the difference between a scatterbrain and a case of early dementia?

It’s a question that is increasingly urgent. Last year, 47.5 million people were living with dementia. That will have risen to 75.6 million by 2030 and will reach 140 million in 2050. The World Health Organisation has declared that dementia should be regarded as a global public health priority. But what can we do about it?

The primary cause of dementia, accounting for roughly 70 per cent of cases, is Alzheimer’s disease. It’s all very well to put a name to it, but we don’t have a clear understanding of the mechanisms that cause it – or medicines to battle it. Alzheimer’s drugs have a high rate of failure. In the decade to 2012, 99.6 per cent of newly developed drugs failed to make it past clinical trials. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and none on the horizon, either.

There was, however, a small breakthrough last month. A study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine suggests that Alzheimer’s could be a result of fighting infections from other diseases that would, if left unchecked, ravage the brain. The hard lumps of sticky plaque in the brain that characterise the onset of Alzheimer’s seem to be the result of the immune system attempting to isolate and neutralise microbes and other pathogens that have made their way into the brain. The plaques catch pathogens, preventing infection from taking hold. Unfortunately, it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t: the plaques also trigger inflammation that leads to the death of brain cells.

This observation mirrors another catch-22 with Alzheimer’s. Some researchers have suggested that the drug failures might be averted by getting candidate treatments to the disease earlier, before symptoms appear. Put simply, the drugs may stand a better chance of success when trying to counter the first stages of damage to the brain. The problem is: how do you get that early diagnosis?

There are various genetic indicators for a heightened predisposition to developing Alzheimer’s. A gene called apolipoprotein E, for instance, comes in three variants: one kind seems to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s while another increases it. Other genes – variously associated with the body’s uptake of cholesterol, its propensity to engender inflammation and the efficiency of communication between neurons – also have a role to play in raising or lowering the chances of onset.

However, the interplay between genetic factors, environmental factors and what appears to be pure luck makes foreknowledge of whether Alzheimer’s will strike any individual impossible. It’s no wonder that the US National Institutes of Health does not generally recommend genetic testing as a worthwhile route for anyone wanting to know their future. After all, a result that indicates you are more likely than the average person to develop dementia is, in many ways, little more than a heavy psychological burden, to be borne until the symptoms start to appear – a scenario that keeps you stressed (a grave health risk) even if onset never happens. If the drugs don’t work yet, why would anyone sign up to be tested?

In the absence of a reliable test or cure, the best advice seems to be to delay ageing as much as possible, particularly where cardiovascular health is concerned. It’s an observation that fits with last month’s breakthrough. The plaque-provoking pathogens reach the brain through the weakening of the blood-brain barrier, a wall of cells that wraps around blood vessels and prevents foreign bodies from passing into the brain’s circulatory system. This weakening happens with age, suggesting that action to delay the degradation of the cardiovascular system will also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Here, at least, we have some good news: the rate of appearance of dementia cases seems to be in decline. This may be a spin-off of our attempts to cut deaths from heart disease. It seems that as we take control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, making significant improvements to our heart and circulatory function, we are unwittingly improving our cerebral health, too – almost certainly because the brain requires good blood flow to operate well.

The surest way to avoid Alzheimer’s, then, is simple to state and impossible to achieve. All you have to do is stay young. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain