The news that one of our oldest manufacturing firms, GKN, is the subject of an £8.1bn hostile takeover by Melrose – which seems a similar operation to the asset stripper Slater Walker of the 1980s – was highlighted by a significant Easter cultural event. At King’s College, Cambridge, Elgar’s wonderful “Dream of Gerontius”, charting the passage between life and death, was performed by the London Philharmonic and the choir of King’s College.
It had special resonance at this time, not least because the first performance of this classic work took place on 3 October 1900, in Birmingham Town Hall, and one of its original sponsors was Arthur Keen (1835-1915).
The son of a farmer, Keen was one of the founding members of Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds; later GKN plc. Am I being cynical in suspecting we should not expect the same cultural benevolence from Melrose and its wealthy directors?
Healing and hope
Thank you for the brilliant article by Phil Whitaker (“Wounded healer”, 23 March). The way he blended his personal family and professional experiences of cancer with the way treatment has developed and progressed throughout the last four decades was very moving, informative and demonstrated impressive knowledge of the subject. And it brought back many memories.
As a retired GP with a particular interest in cancer for similar reasons, I could identify with virtually everything. Though in my case I came into medicine ‘‘second hand’’; as it was my father’s distress at his mother’s death due to ovarian cancer at the age of 54 when he was 19 that pushed me, ‘‘willingly’’, into medicine. Supposedly, as my father would announce to any audience he could conjure up, “to find the cure for cancer”. No pressure there then!
As it happened, after my pre-registration year and three years training in pathology and surgery I flunked further progress in surgery: I couldn’t stop my hands shaking when attempting that initial incision – it just felt like a terrible assault on a human being. Instead, I ended up in academic general practice, much to my father’s initial chagrin.
He was marginally mollified when – in the early 1990s – I and a few others took the burgeoning specialist palliative care movement into general practice. I eventually ended up working for Macmillan Cancer Relief (as it was then) rolling out a programme to “educate” GPs in the proper management of end-stage cancer, where possible at home, which is where the majority of patients requested they die.
It is gratifying to recognise that there is so much more being done for cancer patients and that there are so many new treatment initiatives, and that we are moving away from the destructive surgery and therapies that were so prevalent when I was at medical school in the 1960s. Even more gratifying when I’m now of an age where cancer is the commonest pathology and cause of death, and is appearing in relatives and friends with increasing frequency.
Let’s hope these new treatments come on stream soon enough to give us that extended good quality of life before we have to bow out with some composure and dignity.
It’s so good to hear from a GP able to balance the humanity, art and science of medicine as well as Phil Whitaker does.
Dr Ivan Cox
Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands
Dr Phil Whitaker’s essay was moving, scientifically informative and formally ambitious. I can’t think of another British magazine, with the exception of the London Review of Books, that consistently publishes long reads of this quality. How you have transformed this publication. And more on medicine and science please.
Dr Amanda Richards
I thoroughly enjoyed Phil Whitaker’s wise “Wounded healer” piece. In these times of target-chasing, while being chased by clipboard-waving efficiency consultants, it reminds me of Hippocrates’s words: “Cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always.”
Although we are aiming higher with treatment and cure, we should never forget compassion and comfort. Very difficult to measure, so not high on the political agenda.
Mr SU Sjolin FRCS Ed Orth
Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
Not all women
Helen Lewis is right to have misgivings about all-women shortlists (Out of the Ordinary, 23 March). In roles where competence rather than excellence is required, favouring people who can be role models for women, minorities, or the under-privileged is defensible: the police and BBC presenters would be examples. It’s an open question whether MPs are, or need to be, excellent or merely competent.
Where the highest level of expertise is essential, targeted selection is dangerous and can harm the very people positive discrimination is intended to help: in the US, reserving medical school places for black students led to nasty rumours about the competence of such graduates. Nor is respect from minorities guaranteed. One of my American students told me that Clarence Thomas (the black Supreme Court judge) as well as President Obama were derided in some quarters for “acting white” and not “thinking black”. Those of us who were voters 30 years ago don’t recall Margaret Thatcher being a role model for women or “thinking female”.
One could argue that all-women shortlists are an affront to human dignity, using women as a means to implement a social policy, rather than ends in themselves. The answer to inequality of opportunity lies in high-quality care and education from birth. We had such a proven system in the Sure Start nurseries, but the infamous Coalition was blind to its benefits and cut the funding.
The common good
The Editor’s Note (23 March) broaches the subject of the common good, not in terms of the all-pervasive utilitarian values of the modern world, but in terms of the moral values of a just society.
The editor points out the fundamental error of an elite telling the people that voting against Brexit was in their best interests. Indeed, the people’s best interest has perhaps never been served by the elite ruling classes. And, certainly, underlying the Brexit vote was disillusionment with the utilitarian economic values of our ruling elite.
A liberal populism alone can yield a just society. Such a government is the only democracy worthy of the name. It is the only form of government that is, by definition, founded in a consensus of moral values that can yield justice.
While I am not surprised that a male critic should focus on the erotic elements of Picasso’s work, I was extremely disappointed in the NS review of the current exhibition at the Tate Modern (The Critics, 23 March). Your reviewer writes at length about historical context and Picasso’s tawdry love triangles but says little about the work on show. This is a fabulous exhibition. What is it that makes these paintings so stunning? It is not eroticism, it is art. Picasso combines simple figuration with elements of abstraction and blocks of bright colour to achieve a profound emotional intensity.
This can be seen most clearly in works such as Le Repos and Sleeping Woman in which Marie-Thérèse is portrayed in simple outline with yellow hair, a single line for her eye and a block of bright green colour above; no signs of genitalia, not even the hint of a nipple. Particularly brilliant are the paintings with no inconsequential detail, which are marked by large blocks of pale green paint. In my opinion this is art at its most perfect. Before seeing this exhibition, I knew that Picasso was very special, now I know he was a genius. Whatever you do, go and see this exhibition. Then go again, and again, and again.
Gillian Mather MA(RCA)
Abba meets Dylan
Ed Smith describes his enjoyment at seeing Girl from the North Country, through which Conor McPherson professes to be “trying to lead the audience into Dylan’s soul” (Left Field, 23 March). Well, it would help if McPherson actually demonstrated that he knew Dylan’s music: significant highlights from Street-Legal and its cohorts do not fulfil this criterion.
What made Dylan great is the way he reinvented popular music: heightened political insights producing what seemed like newly framed “traditional songs”; personal songs with original poetic images linked to Rimbaud with a touch of symbolism and Beat ideas; surrealistic images reflecting the madness of modern society; the stiletto thrust of his voice. And this only takes us to the mid-1960s!
An example of the superficial nature of the play was when the two lovers sing passionately, “I Want You”, while the context ignores the surreal madness of the images reflecting the joy of being in love: it is not a realistic song.
A writer who understands Dylan might have been thinking of such influences as Brecht, Artaud and Peter Brook. Instead we have Abba meets Dylan: very enjoyable, a bit like shopping.
War and peace
Andrew Marr (The Critics, 23 March) raises an existential factor too little heard in the Brexit debate: peace. My grandfather fought in the First World War, my father in the Second, wars with estimated death tolls of 13 and 36 million respectively. Previous centuries saw many wars between countries of Europe, with territorial, economic, religious and other causes.
My generation has been mercifully free of such nightmares. The EU received the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for its role in “transforming most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace”. Yet the horrors of war are not far from us today. How sure can Brexiteers be that my generation, and our children and grandchildren’s, will continue to enjoy this freedom from war?