Bonne vacances d’ete (11ieme lettre a toi)

Cher Daniel,

Bonjour mon cher fils! J’espere que tu profites bien des vacances (il a quand meme fait beau ce dernier temps, bien que un peu frais pour la saison).

Moi je dois encore travailler, mais ta soeur Daphne est deja parti en vacances avec ses grand-parents (J’etais un jour a la plage au Pays-Bas, magnifique!). Anna va venir a Bruxelles aujourd’hui et ensuite elle partira en France pour marcher dans les montagnes – tres, tres joli la-bas (il parait qu’il y a meme des loups!)

Je ne sais pas si tu pars en vacances, mais si c’est le cas, et bien j’espere de tout coeur que tu t’amuse bien. Peut-etre aller a la plage et manger une glace? Peut-etre faires des stages avec tes copains? Tu es devenu tres grand maintenant, donc, je suppose qu’il y a beaucoup d’activites possible pour toi (malgre le corona).

Et puis, pour Septembre, esperant qu’ils ne vont pas fermer les ecoles de nouveau. Ces mesures corona sont tres nuisibles pour nos enfants, qui ont bien le droit a une education libre des peurs et des craintes des vieux…

Je te donne un gros calin virtuel,

– Dad

Take me back

Take me back somehow

To when I dreamed I’d have

A better now than now.


Return me in place and mind

To those fledgling times when we were lax and preened,

So small we lodged ourselves between the cracks

Of that and this unchanged machine

In which we now have risen to be full-fledged cogs.


Take me back

To when my back impressed upon the chain-linked wire

Dangled legs all splayed, tired out

From too much tennis played,

And spent this one forgetless hour

Before a shower and off to watch a movie.


Return me even to those since-forgotten fears,

To the stoney months and years

Of want and doubt and grit and scree,

From which Nostalgia – liar that she is –

Pans out her precious golddust memories.


Take me back

And if you say it can’t be done

For pity’s sake,

Give my back the strength to carry on.

My review of George du Maurier’s Trilby

TrilbyTrilby by George du Maurier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It happened the other day, while I was reading George du Maurier’s Trilby, that a young man asked me whether I read mainly fiction or non-fiction – his preference clearly being for the latter. I answered the former, and had to supress within me a slight sense of shame. Does the fiction reader not, after all, sunbathe in supercillious fantasy while lazing on the beach; whereas the non-fiction reader applies his mind to the ‘hard facts’?

Maybe it is engrained in us to think so. But the distinction is shallow and meaningless when you dig a little deeper. For one thing, if 2020 has anything to teach us, it is that the ‘hard facts’, even those that are as hard as rock, are so numerous and tiny that they give way to the cudgel of dogma and zealotry, like grains of sand on that very same beach. One eye-catching event, propelled by the right algorithms, can trump an entire discipline of rigorous empiricism.

Non-fiction can easily fall into the trap of pretending the ‘castle of truth’ which the author has built up is structurally sound. Fiction, as written from the perspective of the narrator, or better still, the third persons who inhabit the narration, harbours no such pretense of architectural stability. The reader knows that the truth on which a novel is based is a shifty one; changing with the tide and giving way to the footprints left by the author’s own biases, those of his characters and those of the reader.

In this respect, a book like ‘Trilby’ helps us gain perspective on the ‘truthiness’ of our own age. It places fantastical events in a historical and subjective context, and in doing so removes us from the fantastical context of our own time, allowing us to regard these as no less subjective and ephemeral.

At the time of its publication, ‘Trilby’ was a sensation – the ‘Da Vinci Code’ of its day. Upon reading it, it’s easy to see why. Borrowing with self-effacing openness from Thackery, Dickens and Dumas, this festival of vanity, a tale set in Two Cities, chronicles the adventures of three very British ‘musketeers of the brush’ (artists) and their acquaintance with the Anglo-Irish Parisian washerwoman of the title. The narrative is light and fun, rich in the tradition of turn-of-the-Century satirists like Wilde or Saki. The plot is compelling, though perhaps somewhat too linear for modern tastes.

Mostly though, I read it as an antidote to the irrationality and illiberalism of the dominant ‘Liberal’ world view. If we must inhabit sand castles in order to have a coherent frame of reference, let’s at least decorate them with the colourful seashells of funny, well-written Victorian prose.

View all my reviews

Open Letter to Dr Trish Greenhalgh on her BMJ article concerning face masks

Dear Trish,
I’m writing to you to express my concern about the medical consensus that has slowly formulated around the use of face masks in public settings as a measure to mitigate against the spread of COVID-19. I read your bmj article on the subject and was frankly alarmed at the arguments you used to back this position.
Having looked at the issue in some detail, it seems reasonably clear that there is at best, as you put it, ‘sparse and controversial’ evidence that face masks stop the spread of SARS-Cov-2 in the community setting.The fact that you nevertheless argue in favour of such measures, on the basis that you see them as essentially costless – “we have little to lose” – is deeply worrying.
Mandatory rules around the use of masks in public are far from costless. In the first instance, they have important and detrimental consequences on the hearing impaired, who rely on lip reading to understand and contextualise verbal meaning. More generally, facial expression is an intrinsic part of human interactions; physical barriers impede not only droplets of saliva, but also the visual appreciation of body language which is a large part of the context in which speech is delivered.
Second, there is the economic and environmental cost of mass production, dissemination and disposal of face masks. A single mask is of low cost, but multiplied by millions, it represents a not-insubstantial addition to our impact on the planet, and a related economic burden, particularly on the most vulnerable in our society.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the very act of mandating an accoutrement of this kind entails a system of state intervention and imposition on public life. The symbol value is strong; it is a mark of control, just as certain religions mandate the use of clothing to demarcate adherence to doctrine; just as military and law enforcement mandates the wearing of uniforms to instil discipline and diminish any instinct towards individualism which might threaten the goals of the collective.
Indeed, the very requirement to conform is a small – but persistent and deep – incision into our liberties. It lessens our individuality all the more to have the most expressive and personal part of our anatomy covered from view in public, and it allows the state and the medical establishment to dictate our behaviours, not – I repeat – on the basis of any substantiated scientific knowledge, but rather on the whim of a cadre of experts, who merely deem it possible that this measure could have a beneficial effect.
Apropos the beneficial effect: Your article was written in early April, when less was known about the shape and scale of the COVID threat. Though even at that stage the contours of the epidemic were crystallizing as less than apocalyptic, there was still some concern that COVID could carry with it an infection fatality rate of as high as 1-2%, with an infected population of 70 to 80% of the general population.
It is now amply clear to anyone who takes an honest look at the data that this worst case scenario is not only implausible, but in fact nearly impossible. In Belgium, where I live, almost all lockdown measures have been relaxed since early June – schools reopened, shops, bar and restaurants are full – all with no effect on new ICU admissions. Hospitals are almost completely empty.
Indeed, as some experts wisely predicted even at the time, populations would reach full exposure (Belgium, France, Northern Italy, most of the UK, New York) as the disease followed a classic gamma trajectory, with heavy left skewness; whereafter the rate of new infection would cease to be a major public health concern. The infection fatality rate will never exceed 0.01%, and is even lower when measured in quality adjusted life years.
As the evidence gathers, in fact, it becomes increasingly obvious that the lockdowns put in place had only marginal or no effect on the spread of the disease, and that to the extent they did anything, it has been only to slow the virus’ inevitable progression across the population.
In this context, your core argument for insisting on the use of face masks: “covid-19 is a serious illness that currently has no known treatment or vaccine and is spreading in an immune naive population. Deaths are rising steeply, and health systems are under strain.” appears much less compelling than it perhaps did in April.
Given the above, I would ask you to reconsider your position as expressed in the article, and work with your co-authors to publish a corrigium, in which you argue against the mandatory use of face masks in the community setting.
The stakes are, in fact, quite high.
Kind regards,
Graham Stull