Paperhouse

A sort of lifestyle magazine. The "style" is "bookish indie girl with an arts-and-crafts fetish and a spendthrift fashion habit"; the "life" is, strictly, my own. It's a niche publishing operation.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Housekeeping

Ongoing Paperhouse activity at www.houseofpaper.wordpress.com.

I couldn't stand Blogger any longer. Sorry.

EDIT Fixed link.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Close reading: Cohen on MMR

A couple of years ago, I was at a graduate conference on English literature, attending a panel on research approaches. One of the speakers said that she simply didn't understand the designation of "close reading" as a critical technique - surely, she said, everyone reads closely, whatever their outlook. Actually, I'm fairly sure that almost nobody pays more than cursory attention to the things they read, otherwise the perpetual deluge of illogic and solecism which rushes from the national press would have have been long ago stopped up by embarrassment. Really, if Nick Cohen thought anyone was going to read this attentively, do you think he would have submitted it? Let's practise our close reading skills, oh Paperhouse visitors, and find out what secret inanities are buried in the big inanity of this column:
Ever since Andrew Wakefield published his Lancet paper in 1998, parents have been in a dreadful position. Even those of us who guessed that a large section of the supposedly adult population of the country was in the grip of a raving panic, couldn’t help asking: what if Wakefield is right?

On the remote chance that he was, we paid for courses of single jabs - at £140-a-go in my case. Now it turns out the Department of Health was telling the truth all along, I’m wondering who I can sue to get my money back.

[...]

Perhaps Wakefield, the Lancet, the Mail, the Eye and Channel 5 should be more worried about the people who took the mania so seriously they didn’t give their children any vaccines, single of multiple. In my experience, they were determined, if scientifically illiterate, middle-class mothers with easy access to lawyers.

If there should be a measles epidemic…

So class! What have we noticed? Let's start with Cohen's opening shuffle of responsibility: "Even those of us who guessed that a large section of the supposedly adult population of the country was in the grip of a raving panic, couldn’t help asking: what if Wakefield is right?" Clever Nick is one of the ones who "guessed", of course, and so by implication are you. Isn't it nice to be embraced in his little circle of intelligence? Don't you feel validated and warm and distinct from all those raving hysterics? But before we get too cosy, let's give some attention to the word "guessed". Cohen "guessed" that the panic was just a panic. Of course, if he'd read some of the studies in question and wrapped his head around a small portion of the science of epidemiology, he wouldn't have needed to guess - he could have made a rational assessment of the evidence and got to the right answer that way. But he didn't, so poor Nick had to suffer that niggling "what if".

Nick wasn't alone in this, of course. I had my first child in 2002, so I was right in the thick of the scare: one mother talked to me earnestly about her fear of vaccinating, saying that she knew "three children who got autism from the jab". People were genuinely alarmed - although it's fair to say that very few of the fearful parents took their concerns from the original paper in the Lancet, which doesn't feature quite as regularly on middle-class coffee-tables as the Mail or the Observer. Cohen doesn't mention the Observer as one of the organs he might sue for his £140 quid. Maybe he missed some of the great moments in science journalism featured in his own paper: "The only complete vaccination I have given my three-year-old daughter is tetanus and, after attending a lecture on MMR by the homeopath Trevor Gunn, I wish I had not" , said sub-editor Kate Edgley, presumably applying the full force of her proof-reading skills to the interpretation of medical data. (The Observer started out with a fairly rational line of reporting, but after the Blairs refused to give up their baby son's medical history for public consumption, began recklessly issuing opinion pieces from the frontline of doubt.)

It's the job of a medical journal to publish medical research so it can be debated. In publishing Wakefield's research, the Lancet was doing what it is supposed to do. Ideally, the national press would have made a responsible assessment of the paper in question and reported on it proportionately. What they actually did was produce reports on unsubstantiated fears which then became the cause for more and more widespread fears. I feel confident in saying that I and my partner are one up on Cohen, because we took our own case of "what if" as the occassion for doing more research: we confirmed that the single jab was without doubt the best option, and afterwards watched my son for fever and rashes a little more closely than we would have done normally. That is all.

Then again, I'm not one of the "determined, if scientifically illiterate, middle-class mothers with easy access to lawyers". But hang on! Nor is Nick - he might be scientifically illiterate, bar the odd happy guess, but he is absolutely, definitely a father. So that "large section of the supposedly adult population" from whom Cohen distinguishes himself, even though he partook of their terrors? That would be the women. Cohen might have had doubts, but it's the mothers who were in a "raving panic". Covert misogyny alert!

Of course, "if there should be a measles epidemic", we're all liable to suffer, whether we're vaccinated or not. The MMR isn't 100% effective, but it's effective enough to foster herd immunity. When take-up rates dip low enough for measles, mumps or rubella to spread in a community, even the immunised are at risk. So even if you did the right and responsible thing, your children could contract a sometimes-deadly, often-debilitating disease. Although on the plus side, you could then sign up with Cohen for a class action - if he suffered some loss that was not self-inflicted (the ill-health of a child caused by other people's failure to vaccinate, say) then maybe he could sue someone. Until then, he had better look on that £140 quid as a loss incurred in the course of being an irrationalist, conspiracy-hungry idiot.

Bad Science talks, rightly, about the importance of giving people (journalists particularly) a proper grounding in the understanding of statistics. People need to know how to interpret numbers to make decisions using them. And people (journalists particularly) should learn the basics of making an argument as well - how to distinguish a genuine case from a self-serving blob of commentary. Smarter readers would demand smarter writers. But brash, sloppy editorial is easy to churn out, and easy to position as "debate" on "controversial issues" when it isn't going to be read closely.

Monday, 16 June 2008

A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again

An occasional series in which I dissect some cultural object which has wasted my time, in the interests of sparing someone else the same misery. Today, it's Christopher Hitchens and his preposterous anti-religion screed, God Is Not Good. For fuck's sake, if you haven't bought it, don't.

The problem with atheists, according to one line, is that they're just so pleased with themselves. John Gray, in an essay for the Guardian review, lumped Dawkins, Hitchens, Pullman and Amis together as "atheist fundamentalists" and accused them of "never [doubting] that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things," and being "certain that one way of living - their own, suitably embellished - is right for everybody." To me, anyway, Pullman and Dawkins are in awkward company with Hitchens and Pullman. The former are pugnacious but gracious, and conduct intelligent dialogues with critical theologians: Dawkins converses with the Bishop of Oxford in a spirit of friendly intellectual competition, Pullman disputes atheism on stage with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and these exchanges model good relations between the theist and atheist worlds.

Dawkins and Pullman evangelise their atheism with sound arguments and vigorous example, and they are persuasive: the case they both make is that beliefs do not earn respect on account of being religious, and the fact that a stricture is supposed to derive from some specious deity does not exempt it from critical assessment. Decision-making is always done best on a rational assessment of the evidence, and teaching children to espouse irrationality as part of their education is a very bad thing.

This is pretty moderate stuff, but Dawkin's commitment to it is enough to get him labelled Darwin's pitbull; in that case, Hitchen's approach makes him a frothy-lipped Cerberus of godlessness. He is not exactly out to make converts. Compare his cover with Dawkins': yes, they both go with declamatory capitals, but Dawkins' cover has an elegant font in thoughtful white space, whereas Hitchens' chooses something with all the aesthetic sensitivity of a John Grisham cover. The embossed lettering in the style of cast-bronze on bloody-red marble is a study in aggressive ugliness; so is the "case against religion" made within. (Although, just in case the hideous front had somehow tricked you into thinking Hitchens was some sort of lowbrow pamphleteer, the front matter of the book is a barrage of high-culture: a Goya engraving! some underlining in the style of a nineteenth-century title page! a dedication to Ian McEwan! three, yes three, epigraphs from Oxford World's Classics!)

So now we know that Hitchens is an educated man, we can all get on with agreeing with him or despising him. That's how the opening sentences of the book envisages the reader-response, anyway:
If the intended reader of this book wants to go beyond disagreement with the author and try to identify the sins and deformities that animated him to write it (and I have certainly noticed that those who publicly affirm charity and compassion and forgiveness are often inclined to take this course) then he or she will not just be quarrelling with the unknowable and ineffable creator who - presumably - opted to make me this way. They will be defiling the memory of a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith, named Miss Jean Watts.
Already, Hitchens has riled himself up into an orgy of self-importance and pretentious diction. Deformities! Animated! Affirm! Ineffable! Defiling! (If anybody on Vanity Fair is looking for a synonym, I suggest that they check Hitchens' belly, because he has apparently swallowed the thesaurus. Badum-tish, thankyouverymuch.) If you believe in God, knocking Hitchens would be like knocking God - a rhetorical flourish which I'm sure Hitchens thought would be cutely contentious, but comes off as supremely cocky. (What if the affronted believer holds with some form of deity who operates obscurely rather than creating directly? Hitchens didn't think of that. Oh well.) And then he wraps it all up with a tender pat on the head for his first RE teacher, which I think is meant to tell us that Hitchens is in fact a decent person beneath the bluster, but actually comes off more as the big man being patronising to one of the many, many people-less-brilliant-and-rich than himself.

The digression into the world of Little Christopher is for a bigger purpose than a cheap smirk at his "pious old trout" of a teacher, however. It is actually another opportunity to show everyone how terribly clever the author is:
At the age of nine I had not even a conception of the argument from design, or of Darwinian evolution as its rival, or of the relationship between photosynthesis and chlorophyll. The secrets of the genome were as hidden from me as they were, at that time, to everyone else. I had not then visited scenes of nature where almost everything was hideously indifferent or hostile to human life, if not life itself. I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences. The eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way around.
Oh young Hitchens, how wise you were to simply know - and while there is an almost-witty parody here at the moment of divine inspiration from which spiritual biographies tend to embark, I suspect that the lack of humility is absolutely genuine. Here are some other things a nine-year-old child might "simply know": bogies are good to eat and a joy to flick, Ben 10 is brilliant, and nobody else in the world is as important as you are. Perhaps the intellectual health of the nation could be ensured by encouraging small children to horde up their first intuitions, and then at a later date, splurge out whole reams of experience which has proved them right. Even if Hitchens is correct (and given that adaptation has been resoundingly proven, he is), this is a pretty tawdry way of making his point.

So Hitchens has already shown the force of his intelligence: there's an ad-hom attack on potential disagree-ers in the first paragraph, and a vigorous assertion his authority as an Extremely Clever Man. It is from these two fine forms of reasoning that Hitchens will argue the rest of his case - about which I will be saying uncharitable things in part two of this post, later this week.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Never Be Lonely Again

I secretly think that I would be friends with all the bands I love. It's a stubborn little belief which has survived endless disappointing revelations from the people I know who actually meet musicians (turns out that Judah Bauer is - goodness - sort of a bastard and not a superfun blues-exploding hipslinging rock god all the time). Music is more to me than anything else. When people seem nonplussed by museums, novels, movies, art, fashion - then I feel a bit of pity and confusion over what goes on inside them, but am ultimately able to put these things down as interests which people may or may not share with me. I don't care very deeply about sport. I'm ambivalent on cats. It's the same thing, I suppose.

But people who don't really like music depress me. People who say they like "a bit of anything" or "all sorts of things really". I don't hate them, I just know that there's an insurmountable gap of understanding between me and them and I will never never understand their depleted lives. I love music. I listen to music all the time - instrumental stuff when I'm working, pop songs when I'm walking around, punk and electro when I go running, folk and country in the kitchen. There is no finer way of conveying one human's feelings to another than the combination of sharp lyric and plaintive tune, unless it's a plaintive tune played out over and over again with pulsing intensity to a soul-bruising climax. Yes, yes, I've read Doestovesky and Eliot and seen Bacons and Goyas and gasped and cried and I still don't care - nothing feels as much like feeling as listening to a pop song.

So it would be nice to think that the people who make music, the people who have this strange and ferocious hold over my interior life and can make me experience "love" and "wanting" and "fury" and "dance" are basically nice people who would want to hang out with me and agree with me on all my favourite opinions. And it's even nicer when people you already like make music you love. Slow Down Tallahassee contains three people I know and know to be lovely, and make achingly pretty songs with sweet, stinging vocals discoursing on all the important things: righteously dirty sex ("Kiss Me Again"), fierce friendship ("Never Be Lonely Again"), bitter bitter revenge ("When you beg him to stop may the devil only fuck you faster" they sing, sweetly, prettily, on "A Little Hex For You"). Lyrics like, "limbs that float like tiny ships, a handful of buried teeth" ("Limbs") open a world of tenderness and violence, mysterious phrases which touch the exact point of your heart they are meant to.

The band are from Sheffield, and while they don't caress the city's streets and landmarks with quite the specificity of Pulp or the Arctics or Richard Hawley, they still give good provincial glamour to the alleyways and beautiful prostitutes. It's like listening to Suede when Suede were sexy and new and before all the lyrics about dogs and petrol fell down to cliche (SDT even have a line about gasoline on "Tallahassee Bop"). Bouncy keyboards and trilling two-part harmonies flirt with tweeness but take weight from swathes of MBV-ish noise, especially on the sighing standout, "Electric Sun". You can buy the album from the ever-splendid SPC and download the single for free if you want a taster. I recommend their lovely, bloody world to you.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Think of the children

Last night, MPs voted down amendments to the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill seeking to reduce legal access to abortion to the first 24, 22, 20, 16 or even 12 weeks of pregnancy. In line with the scientific evidence on the subject (as picked over by the Select Committee on Science and Technology in their report of October 2007), the Commons decided that there was no case for changing the current 24 week limit. The evidence on foetal development and viability presents no case for changing the laws on abortion, and MPs voted accordingly.

This is excellent news for people who like their policy humane and evidence-based. Reading the debate through, it is reassuring to see parliamentary representatives discussing the EPICure 1 and EPICure 2 studies, and basing their decisions on the data. And it is profoundly depressing to read the pro-life response to peer-reviewed research:
"I cannot disagree with a body of evidence, but neither can I agree that abortion at 24 weeks is acceptable."
- Clare Curtis-Thomas, MP (Crosby, Labour)
Curtis-Thomas's stated objection to the 24-week limit, and her reason for proposing a 12-week limit in its place, is on the grounds of viability: "I believe that many Members on both sides of the House are convinced that, given the opportunity, far more babies born and delivered at 23 weeks would be viable, and that we therefore have to protect them." Informed that the survival rates of infants born at 22 and 23 weeks gestation are extremely low, Curtis-Thomas announces that she accepts the evidence - evidence which proves her premise is flawed - and refuses to give the evidence any sway over her own thinking. Which is, if you think about, rather a horrific thing for someone to say in the middle of a parliamentary debate.

Curtis-Thomas was speaking in support of an amendment tabled by Edward Leigh, seeking to restrict legal access to abortions to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. After making some conciliatory noises about the pro-choice argument ("I understand the strongly held views of many people who feel that they have to defend the rights of women to make a choice about something in their own body", he said, which is quite a different matter to sharing in the belief that women have a right to make a choice about something in their own body), Leigh made this statement:
"In modern Britain, the most dangerous place to be is in one's mother's womb, which should be a place of sanctity. Ninety-eight per cent. of abortions are social. Only 1.3 per cent. are because of foetal handicap and 0.4 per cent. are because of the risk to the mother's life. It is a bleak picture of modern Britain."
What is a social abortion anyway? It's a handy little phrase which plays off of uses like "social drinking" to suggest abortions for convenience, undertaken by selfish women who cannot bear to submit to maternity. But in the debate over the HEF Bill, another amendment sought to force providers of IVF to consider the importance of the father-figure to the welfare of the child before offering fertility treatment. That is one example of a social consideration - and while I am happy that the "Conditions of Licenses for Treatment" were left unchanged, I agree strongly that anyone who is going to have a child should consider whether they are able to provide a stable family for the child. In the case of late-term abortions, many of these occur when the family unit breaks down: faced with the prospect of becoming a single mother, the pregnant woman decides that she cannot raise a child alone and has an abortion. She makes this decision for social reasons, and rightly so.

Anecdote is a poor basis for an argument, but if parliamentarians feel justified in offering their own religious beliefs for consideration, my own experience of the abortion laws must be worth at least as much as that. At 20, midway through university and while taking the pill (taking it badly, as it turned out, but there you go) I found out that I was pregnant. It took me 12 weeks to realise this: I didn't want to be pregnant, I didn't think I could be pregnant, and I could have gone on in ignorance for some weeks longer if I hadn't had a routine pregnancy test while renewing my prescription for the pill.

If the Leigh amendment had been law, my life and my baby's life would have been decided right then, regardless of my ability to care for a child. Fortunately, my doctor was able to assure me that I had several weeks to come to a decision, and I was able to go back to my boyfriend and assess our social circumstances. We had a stable, long-term relationship and families who could support us, and I decided that I did want this baby - much to my own surprise. The right to choose meant that I was able to make a positive decision to become a mother. Without that choice, I could easily have felt trapped, bitter and resentful of the child; with that choice, I am married with two children whom I love very much, and to whom I can give a safe and comfortable home. Choices like mine don't turn up so much in the statistics on abortion, but being able to choose whether or not to have a baby - even when the pregnancy itself was not chosen - is one of the most precious rights we have, for the welfare of both mother and child. Because what happens to the child who isn't wanted, or who is born into social circumstances insufficient to his or her welfare, is more grotesque than abortion by a long, miserable way.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Snap

Kate at Needled published a thoughtful post about the reinvention of remnants and oddments as jewellery: by turning the recovered scraps of things and people into new objects to wear about our bodies, we both transform them into new objects and keep the ghosts of their old forms about us. A picture, a button, a miniature portrait - all these things can be "a tiny detail that, because it is broken from its context, can now be looked at, scrutinised, properly treasured."

Kate compares mourning jewellery of the nineteenth-century with the found-object aesthetic. The idea of loss and partial recovery followed by reinvention is constantly replayed and reconsidered in Victorian writers' responses to bereavement. (Thomas Hardy used an epigraph from Virgil at the head of his Poems of 1912-3, the sequence marking the death of his wife Emma: veteris vestigia flamae - ashes of an old fire, sparks from an old flame.)

Kate's post reminded me of a curious piece of jewellery I bought from the end-of-term show at Sheffield Hallam a couple of years ago (I have sadly lost the maker's details). This broach is an old packet of hook-and-eye fastenings set in a block of perspex. The snaps themselves sit at the bottom of the broach, as though they have spilt from their packaging and had their fall arrested by the plastic. And there is something mournful about it. The oval of the logo is like the frame of a miniature. It is a lovely thing to wear, but the fastenings themselves are never going to fasten anything - as haberdashery, they are dead things embalmed on my lapel. The simple cardboard packet with its so-mundane, so-lovely old-fashioned commercial typography is one of those unremarkable objects which has become special by dint of sticking around longer than its peers.

And now, wrapped in plastic, it can stick around for still longer, a portable monument to its little metal charges who will never perform their intended function. It's painfully special for being irreplaceable, and terribly ordinary, for it lives on the collar of my winter coat and gets worn in the wind and rain on every cold day of the year.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Still learning

I wrote a review of Alasdair Gray's Old Men In Love for the Oxonian Review of Books. As far as I'm concerned, Gray is one of the best writers at work today - constantly inventive, furiously intelligent, shockingly compassionate, and very funny indeed - so the publication of this piece made me happy as anything. To find out what I think of dirty novels by aging writers, and why this book is better than that sounds, click here.

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