Letter of the week: Story of a death mask

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email letters@newstatesman.co.uk to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

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In her article on sudden death in young adults (Personal Story, 5 July), Sophie McBain briefly mentions Resusci Anne (or Annie), the training manikin used worldwide to teach people CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation). Anne’s face is said to be “the most kissed face of all time”. There’s a poignant story behind the face.

The lifeless body of an unidentified young woman was pulled from the Seine in Paris in the 1880s. The pathologist was struck by her beauty and apparent serenity, and had a death mask made. Copies and photographs were widely circulated afterwards.

Her face was the one used when Resusci Anne was developed, in the late 1950s. In this way, L’Inconnue de la Seine achieved an anonymous immortality.

Robert Campbell
Dungannon, County Tyrone
Northern Ireland

 

Heart-warming

I have been reading New Statesman for a very long time. I have been educated, entertained, excited and annoyed – not all at the same time, or by the same piece of writing – but cannot recall anything quite like Sophie McBain’s account of her friend’s heart problem (Personal Story, 5 July), and the scholarship she subsequently engaged in to produce such an unexpected and well researched article.

Les Bright
Exeter, Devon


Schools inequality

In my recent letter I did not say that the inequality between independent and state schools was good or right – I am saying the best approach is to look rationally at how we can improve the lives of all schoolchildren.

My assertion, disputed by two of your correspondents (5 July), that England’s young people are less literate and numerate than their grandparents, is taken from the 2013 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. My point about the gradual loss of competitive games in state schools is partly based on the fact that more than 10,000 playing fields have been sold since 1979. Incredibly, after the 2012 London Olympics, the number of level one games coaches in state schools fell by 65 per cent over four years.

My references to obesity were based on National Health England’s 2018 research showing that a record number of UK children are leaving primary schools severely obese. In 2018, YMCA released a survey showing that more than half of children aged 11 to 16 have been bullied about the way they look, with 40 per cent targeted at least once a week.

In pointing out such issues I was not attacking state schools; the biggest problems facing young people today seem to me to be rooted in broader, social dysfunctions.

One of the best things my school does is sustain a partnership scheme with hundreds of children from nearly 30 state primary, secondary and special schools – every Friday and often at weekends and in holidays. I see from this the incredible achievements of colleagues and headteachers in our state schools: I don’t for a moment compare what I do with them. But I would appreciate the right to point out how simplistically convenient it is to say we can improve the lives of the 93 per cent by outfoxing the 7 per cent.

Andrew Halls, Headmaster,
King’s College School
Wimbledon

 

History in its place

In response to Helen Thompson’s article on Brexit (Politics, 28 June), and the lack of proper discussion over our constitutional history, I fail to see how the lack of such discussion detracts from the importance of it as an event.

On the issue of proroguing parliament, I have heard much discussion over its being a constitutional crisis, in particular accompanying the actions of John Bercow, as well as attempts by some MPs to prevent the government being able to implement policy if a no deal Brexit occurred.

The lack of historical context to such discussion does not strike me as being due to a lack of education on the part of the electorate, but rather to an active rejection of this by growing populist elements within our country. I do not find this to be related to our unwritten constitution, but instead to larger social factors that have changed the relationship between voters and MPs.

Professor Thompson herself acknowledges that “the constitution has allowed any number of unsteady agreements” and it is precisely this which is being demonstrated by Brexit. Surely this is a time of great excitement for anyone interested in Britain’s constitutional history, rather than a time for despair over our lack of proper education?

Thomas Rushton
Via email

 

Kirk’s fairy tales

Marina Warner’s article about Robert Kirk’s 1692 treatise The Secret Commonwealth was fascinating (The Critics, 5 July). Just a couple of comments in response.

We tend to read Kirk as a source of folklore, so it should be stressed that Kirk’s own interests were scientific, not folkloric or ethnological. He wasn’t interested in “fairy belief” as such; he thought that popular reports of “fairies” provided evidence for spirits that were intermediate between humans and angels.

Here Kirk had an important 16th-century precursor: Paracelsus, a Swiss physician and alchemist. His treatise On Nymphs posited four types of “elemental” beings – salamanders, sylphs, nymphs and pygmies (living in fire, air, water and earth respectively). Paracelsus’s works were translated into English in the 1650s and influenced several thinkers around Kirk.

Robert Kirk stands at the end of a tradition, since by 1692 science was already losing interest in the study of spirits. Today, the visions experienced by Kirk’s informants may offer insight into the human condition.

Professor Julian Goodare
Edinburgh

 

Elton who?

Reading Ian Leslie’s piece (Left Field, 5 July) reminded me of the time one afternoon 49 summers ago, when I stood outside the Jeanette Cochrane theatre, as it then was, in Holborn, waiting for a “pop star” called Elton John.

I had been sent out from the theatre, as a reward for remembering all six of my lines, by the National Youth Theatre (NYT) director Michael Croft: my task was to greet Elton John, who had promised to perform a fundraiser for the NYT.

Michael Croft had taken a shine to me as we were both from Manchester; at the time I was in rehearsals as one of the dozens of wannabe actors making the annual summer trek to London.

Elton John was hardly a household name then. What drew me to the strange, forlorn character on the street corner were his gigantic stack-heel shoes, his loon pants and the extraordinary amount of hair that was framing an abnormally large pair of glasses.

That’s got to be him, I thought, and looking so weird must be part of his act. As I took him inside to meet the NYT ensemble, I thought to myself: “Michael, what are you thinking – this guy’s a nobody, and he’s going nowhere.”

Jeremy Taylor
Coddington, Notts

 

Ways of seeing 

What a superb article by Will Dunn on the New York Times cartoon ban (Observations, 5 July). But as with all art, isn’t the understanding in the reading of it, not in the composition? We each see what we are educated to see. The artist, cartoonist, or classical painter relies on the viewer to make the judgement.

Keith Morgan
Collingham, Notts

 

Just Nicholas

Nicholas Lezard’s plea, “I always thought you shouldn’t have to go to school on your birthday” (Down and Out, 5 July), suggests that he may have been a Just William fan in his boyhood.

Reflecting on his more recent lifestyle… perhaps he still is.

John Young
Usk, Monmouthshire

I know that anyone bemoaning the state of spoken or written English these days is dismissed as a witless pedant, but one recent excrescence can have no defenders: the insertion of a meaningless “so” at the start of sentences (usually as an answer), where it has no place or meaning.

Alas, it is now invading even the pages of the New Statesman, heretofore an oasis of high-class English. Even worse, it has been perpetrated by Nicholas Lezard, whom I have always revered for his limpid and excellent prose.

Please ask him to stop it, or sub it out yourselves.

James Gourley
Faversham, Kent


Bearded PMs

Stephen Bush notes that if Jeremy Corbyn were to become prime minister he would be the first 70-year-old to do so for a century (Politics, 5 July).

More importantly, he’d be the first PM with a beard since Lord Salisbury in 1902. He was of course, Boris Johnson please note, a Tory.

Keith Flett
London N17

Stephen Bush describes the Liberal Democrats as “an explicitly centre party” – a faux pas most unworthy of him.

The 230-year-old left/right spectrum barely copes with the economic determinism of socialism and conservatism, but it is irrelevant in terms of a liberalism that is towards the extreme end of a very different line, running from authoritarian to anarchy.

Michael Meadowcroft
Leeds

 

Plastic packaging

Many readers have written to ask us to change the recyclable plastic packaging in which we deliver the magazine to subscribers. We recognise the importance of every business doing everything it can, as soon as possible, to mitigate the effects of pollution and climate change.

However, we are also wary of quick fixes. Plastic pollution endangers marine animals and releases greenhouse gases as it decomposes. But bioplastics and other alternative packaging materials can have their own impact on the environment, including deforestation; the use of water, fertiliser, pesticides and fuel in their production; and the production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, when they decompose in the anaerobic environment of a landfill site.

For this reason, we are reviewing our packaging to find a solution that produces the least cumulative impact on the environment. When we find this solution we will publish the reasons for our choice, and commit to it even if it increases our production costs.

We reserve the right to edit letters.

This article appears in the 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in