One postcard that might have contrasted with those you published (“Postcards from Planet Covid”, 18 September) could have been from Nicaragua. Here, the government came under strong criticism for its decision not to impose a lockdown, including from the international press. Grave forecasts were made about escalating numbers of Covid cases and consequent deaths. In fact, after a peak of cases in May, the numbers have declined sharply. Of 19 hospitals with units equipped to deal with virus cases, most now have few Covid patients. The Pan American Health Organization reports Nicaragua as having one of the lowest fatality levels in Central America.
The approach is modelled on Sweden’s (though Nicaragua has a much younger population), bearing in mind the needs of the 80 per cent of Nicaraguans who have to work daily in the informal economy to put food on the table. Face masks are in widespread use and there has been contact tracing. The policy seems to have worked – at least so far.
Andrew Marr’s article (“The search for a national story”, 25 September) was made doubly interesting by his cardinal error in taking for granted that there is a British nation, rather than a British state comprising four nations.
It follows that there is no “British” history – there is English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish history. When events involve the four nations, interpretations are different. For example, the building of Caernarfon, Conwy and Pembroke castles was in English history the story of a successful occupation campaign; in Welsh history it was a transgression.
In 1966, Gwynfor Evans was the first politician to win a seat for Plaid Cymru in parliament. He said then that “there is no British nation, there is a British state”. More than 50 years later, it seems this simple lesson has still not been learned.
Andrew Marr rightly identifies Ali Smith as the national novelist for our times. He quotes at length the “anguished monologues” with which each volume of her seasonal quartet begins. However, despite his reference to the use of “Shakespeare and Dickens” in the novels, he appears to have missed that each monologue mirrors the start of a Dickens story. Autumn’s “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times” is of course from A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”). Less obviously, Winter’s “God was dead: to begin with” is taken from A Christmas Carol (“Marley was dead: to begin with”). Perhaps least well known is that Summer’s “Everybody said: so?” are the first three words of The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. And although the article omitted Spring’s beginning, “Now what we don’t want is facts”, that is a deliberate contrast to the first line of Hard Times: “Now, what I want is, facts.”
These deliberate connections across seemingly fractured stories are integral to what Ali Smith is trying to achieve for our divided nation in her brilliant quartet.
I strongly endorse Judith Butler’s view, expressed in her interview (“Judith Butler on the culture wars, JK Rowling and living in anti-intellectual times”, NS Online, 22 September), that the violence, anger and no-platforming stemming from radical disagreements among those who call themselves feminists is to be condemned.
I am a feminist and a philosopher, and I respect trans rights. But I find it surprising that there is no mention of biological sex in this interview. Biology ought not to be reduced to “biological essentialism”. We can inject ourselves with testosterone but we cannot (at the moment) inject ourselves with an alternative chromosomal make-up. If sex is a matter of choice then we create another binary: that of human and animal. This means we place humans on a pedestal above the rest of the natural world, as many dualists have done in the past – surely not what we want at the present time.
Professor Alison Assiter
University of the West of England, Bristol
Over to Brady
My congratulations and thanks to your newest columnist, Philip Collins, for his brilliant column explaining the “Boris” phenomenon and articulating precisely how and why Johnson is out of his depth (The Public Square, 18 September). It will now fall to Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, to undertake in 2021 the equivalent of Leo Amery’s most famous parliamentary invitation, in the May 1940 Norway debate: for Chamberlain to “let us have done with you… go!”.
Beverley, East Yorkshire
Forget the firsts
The postwar explosion in education in the UK meant hundreds of thousands of people were “the first in their family to go to university”. Why do so many politicians, particularly in the Labour Party, seem to think this needs to be mentioned every time they are profiled? It’s irritating, not impressive.
The last laugh
Eli Goldstone’s personal story (“The lives of others”, 11 September) is one of the funniest, most honest one-pagers I’ve ever read in the New Statesman. The picture of the marigolds pegged on the washing line was the icing on the cake. If I ever considered paying someone to remove my household detritus, Eli Goldstone would be the one. I enjoyed her piece so much I’ve just bought her book.
Vera Lustig is right: there are too many of us on Earth (Correspondence, 25 September). We should encourage birth control everywhere and, in the UK, offer and reward voluntary euthanasia at, say, the age of 80. I am now 87, consuming resources and costing the NHS a fortune. What a waste!
Leo Robson devotes just five out of 27 paragraphs of his long review-essay (“Why Gatsby was not so great”, 25 September) to a summary dismissal of The Great Gatsby, while spending the other 22 paragraphs promoting his own seemingly obtuse view of it.
The title of the novel is ironic: far from being “great”, Gatsby is “Mr Nobody from Nowhere”, which is why only three people attend his funeral. The idea that Gatsby is a 1920s version of Trump, “a millionaire playboy” and “a thoughtless womaniser”, can only be entertained by the kind of reader who mentally rewrites the novel into clichés.
Robson complains that Fitzgerald’s “grasp of practicalities” is “weak” and instances Daisy’s statement to Nick Carraway that her daughter is three years old, when she can at most have been two years and two months. Evidently it has not occurred to Robson that Daisy is lying to cover up Tom’s post-honeymoon affair with a barmaid, just as it does not occur to him that Tom’s claim to have “cried like a baby” over Myrtle’s death, even if true, is merely an expression of self-pity. To be fair, it does seem to be some time since Robson last read the book, as he describes Jordan Baker, a professional golfer, as a polo player.
Nick Carraway is able to reconcile his disapproval of Gatsby’s corruption with his admiration for Gatsby’s “incorruptible dream”, a paradox that lies at the heart of Fitzgerald’s tragic allegory of America. If Robson doesn’t understand this, he doesn’t understand the book.
It is not difficult to imagine someone like the Great Gatsby strolling along the Corniche promenade in Beirut during its days of prosperity. There is an unsettling parallel to be drawn between the romantic idealisation of individuals of great wealth found in F Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant novel and the fate that has befallen Lebanon. Publishing articles on both subjects in the same issue (The Critics and Letter from Beirut, 25 September) drove this point home.
I read with interest the letters about This England and Subscriber of the Week (Correspondence, 25 September). However, I cannot join in the discussion as those of us who have a digital subscription are denied these features of the magazine. We hear a lot these days about the digital divide, but only the New Statesman seems to put the digitally enabled on the wrong side of it!
Editor’s Note: From this week, we will publish This England and Subscriber of the Week on the New Statesman website alongside the usual print magazine content.
May I help to fill some gaps in Hannah Roberts’s memory? My own first successful entry in This England in July 1968 won me ten shillings (had it been the first cutting in the list, it would have been £1). By 1984, the going rate was £3, regardless of placing, and by 1990 I was receiving the £5 book tokens that remain the currency today. Since 1990, the price of a second-class stamp for the postcards has nearly quadrupled, from 17p to 65p, but that hasn’t deterred me from submitting candidates and, to date, I have 65 successes to my name.
Milton Keynes, Bucks
Best in Brighton
Nicholas Lezard doesn’t need to leave the Brighton area to find excellent Oxfam bookshops (Correspondence, 25 September). At the Blatchington Road shop where I volunteer, we are often told by customers that it is the best bookshop in Brighton (Hove, actually!).
All and Sunderland
Katy Shaw (Red Wall Notebook, 25 September) may not be aware that Sunderland is in Cumbria. There’s a hamlet of that name a few miles north-east of Cockermouth.
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This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union