John Burnside (Nature, 4 December) is right to advise that we treat the Earth with more care, but wrong to imply that pagan societies displayed a “reverence for the Earth”. Perhaps they did in some cases, but in many others they were just as inclined as modern societies to treat the Earth as an expendable resource. There is evidence that Dartmoor was originally a fertile area that was ruined by too much agriculture. There is also evidence that ancient societies in what is now Iraq poisoned the Earth by reliance on irrigation, which brought in mineral salts with the water. And, although the Sahara is subject to periodic climatic influences which are the main cause of its desertification, it is likely that overgrazing exacerbated this problem in the past few thousand years.
The probability is that ancient peoples were just as prone to despoiling their environment as we are, but because there were comparatively few of them, they could get away with it. Now, we no longer can.
Robert A Forde
Reading the “Jazz handbags” letters on the sublime heights of music (Correspondence, 11 December) – otherwise known as “my music is better than your music” – I was reminded of the Steve McQueen film Lovers Rock, recently voted the best film of 2020 in the BFI’s annual Sight & Sound poll.
Central to the film, which is about an all-night house party in early 1980s black Britain and the spark of tentative young love, is a pop-soul song called “Silly Games”. As the party guests dance and sing along, and when the women in particular continue to sing it long after the record ends, the mood becomes rapturous and sublime for both actors and viewers.
In the Sight & Sound interview, McQueen says he hoped to “take you on that journey where it gets to a point where it transcends, even beyond the people in the room. It becomes church. Some people say the Holy Spirit or whatever, but you know, it did happen. When I was shooting… I became invited into that situation. It was an honour to be there. As an artist, you wish to be invited, and that’s what happened. I’d never experienced that before. It was a spiritual experience.”
This illustrates what I have always thought: that being transported to the sublime by music is more to do with the way humans are wired to respond to it than the particular genre, be it classical, jazz, blues, rock, pop, or anything else. Anybody who says one genre is “better” or “more capable of touching the sublime” than another is deluded by the fallacy that musical genres are located in a hierarchy (with opera at the top).
It’s this sort of false superiority that even now, at 68, tends to put me off classical music. It’s not the music that’s the problem, but the exclusivity and often smug superiority of the people that revere it while dismissing other forms.
[see also: How I finally learned to love jazz music]
Beasts of England
Jason Cowley’s introduction to the new Macmillan Library edition of Animal Farm (“The road to revolution”, 11 December) sent me back to George Orwell after 30 years. What I found was not the allegory of the Russian Revolution I recalled, but an alarmingly prescient prophecy of the Brexit “Battle of the Cowshed”.
Mr Jones represents the careless farmer David Cameron; the Major is of course Nigel Farage; Napoleon, leader of the porcine revolutionaries, is Boris Johnson; Squealer is Michael Gove; Snowball is Dominic Cummings; the disgraced Mollie suggests Theresa May (“none of the animals ever mentioned Mollie again”) and Boxer, “who never lost heart”, is conspicuously Matt Hancock.
The line that worries me most is in chapter seven: “In January, food fell short. The corn ration was drastically reduced.” Let’s all sing the New Year in with a hearty rendition of “Beasts of England… hearken to my joyful tidings/Of the golden future time!”
Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire
Jason Cowley writes that Orwell was on the side of “freedom” and “truth telling” and that ultimately he believed in “common decency”. It is this term “common decency” I will carry with me into the New Year as I set about teaching journalism ethics to my BA Journalism students at UWS, the University of the West of Scotland.
Cowley notes that you could say Orwell was of the left, but not with or on the left. Similarly, there should be no “book trained” socialism in the exposition and interrogation of the increasing range of regulatory formats laid out before journalism educators.
When remote home-working and teaching is pivotal it may even be time to bring to the fore some old-fashioned homespun philosophies as well. As my old mum used to say, treat others as you would expect to be treated yourself, a simple piece of advice for those of us tiptoeing through the journalism ethics minefield in 2021.
Dr Ken Pratt
Jason Cowley’s article on Orwell brought back a childhood memory, when as a naive 13-year-old I was set some homework asking what was wrong with Boxer’s attitude in Animal Farm of always working harder. I was unable to answer but after working 35 years in a manufacturing environment, I now know what was wrong with Boxer’s attitude. As Cowley mentions we have all met several Squealers. However, on the plus side, I have met several colleagues who remind me of the soldier in Homage to Catalonia who during a siege risked his life to fetch Orwell cigarettes.
Blame for Brexit
Philip Collins calling for Brexit to be swept under the carpet (The Public Square, 4 December) would be unrealistic even if it wasn’t just camouflage for the question of how Labour should vote on the Brexit deal.
Britain’s decision to leave the EU is far too significant an event in our political, economic and social history to be treated in that way. If those of us who believe the decision will leave Britain poorer, less secure and less influential are proven to have been on the right side of the argument, that is not something that can simply be written out of history. Better to try to understand why that decision came to be taken and to shape the best relationship we can with a group of countries that share our values and buy nearly half our exports.
House of Lords
Louise Perry’s excellent column on what the New Atheists got wrong brought to mind Chesterton’s aphorism: “It is often supposed that when people stop believing in God, they believe in nothing. Alas, it is worse than that. When they stop believing in God, they believe in anything.”
The good doctor
Thank you for devoting five pages in your Christmas special to your medical columnist Dr Phil Whitaker’s journal of a plague year (11 December). It was a deeply measured account by a doctor whose experience of some seriously dubious decisions from “on high” would justify a look back in anger at the mishandling of the pandemic.
I was sorry when his full-page column near the front of the magazine reverted to a column at the back again during the summer. Now we are in the anticipated second wave of what may well be a three-wave pandemic, perhaps you could bring back a whole page, though how he has time to write a weekly column, let alone a full page, I can only attribute to the habit of, or need for, cathartic reflection in a challenging week.
Echoes of Elvis
Thanks to Kevin Barry for the fascinating photograph of young Elvis (“Pictures of Us”, 11 December) at a railroad refreshment stop on a journey from New York to Memphis.
The now weed-choked station platform at Sheffield, Alabama, is still there, but it has been decades since it saw any passengers. Freight trains still snake through, and the sound of the locomotive horn echoes. But Sheffield boasts a far bigger echo built on Elvis and the crossover between blues and country that made rock’n’roll. A couple of miles from where he broke his journey is the site of the Muscle Shoals recording studio, where black artists from Otis Redding to Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Solomon Burke and Aretha Franklin handed a baton on to the likes of Boz Scaggs, Elkie Brooks, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Cocker, Jim Capaldi, Julian Lennon and the Stones. None of that could have come about without Elvis.
Redcar, North Yorkshire
The highlight for me of your Christmas special issue was the compelling “Pictures of Us” feature. A superb idea, it opened a window into your contributors’ souls and echoed our shared humanity.
Out of the valleys
I enjoyed Michael Prodger’s article on Valerius de Saedeleer (The Critics, 11 December), who was brought to Wales by the Davies sisters, benefactors of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. However, I was dismayed by the title “The Fleming of the valleys”, which fell back on that cliché locating anything Wales-related in “the valleys”. Aberystwyth is nowhere near the valleys of South Wales. It is a coastal town in mid-Wales.
Our friend electric
I’m astonished you saw fit to publish Gary Numan’s Q&A (11 December). I was born in the UK in 1948, but had never previously heard of this person. After reading the article, I wish I still hadn’t.
The folk queen
What a surprise and pleasure to see Joni Mitchell has adopted Welsh national dress (The Critics, 11 December). Finding no signs of her Welsh heritage in the accompanying article, I must hope it’s not just a fashion statement.
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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control