David Olusoga described his emotions on seeing his grandparents’ lives recorded in the 1921 census (“Time collapsed as I saw how my grandad lived a century ago. History turned intimate”, Comment). I too have wept while researching my family history through the censuses of 1841 onwards. My forebears lived in industrial Birmingham and experienced the hardships of those times, including overcrowding, infant mortality and low life expectancy. I have found my ancestors in orphanages and asylums and discovered the range of work they carried out in the “city of a thousand trades”. Their work was hard and often did not provide an income to cover decent housing, even if it had been available, though the goods they made were sold all over the world. This is history I never learned at school and rarely see dramatised on screen.
During the pandemic, we have begun waking up to issues of historical and contemporary injustice but we are still a divided society and prepared to turn a blind eye to the fact that we benefit from the labour of people who cannot afford decent housing and healthy food, whether in this country or beyond. They are the key workers who have been so essential over the past two years.
Johnson’s time is up
“Only levelling up can save Johnsonism from being little but a hollow creed” (Comment): the headline on Anne McElvoy’s thoughtful column was wrong on only one crucial point. There is no such thing as “Johnsonism” and never has been, only an unprincipled political shape-shifter driven by hubris, personal ambition and a delusional image of himself as a kind of Churchill reincarnate. From Brexit to Covid crisis blunders and an addiction to snappy slogans over coherent policy strategies, Boris Johnson epitomised a passing public appetite for the “celebrity politician” with hollow comedic flair substituted for serious, substantive ideas.
The polls suggest the public is now ahead of much of the media in seeing through Johnson on several fronts, including Brexit where Buyers Remorse continues to gain momentum as reality replaces mis-sold fantasy. Combine that with the looming cost-of-living crisis and a sleaze and hypocrisy legacy that will refuse to go away and 2022 is the year when the Tory party’s ruthless self-survival instincts will seal Johnson’s fate. The May local election results could well prove breaking point when the men in blue suits conclude the prime minister’s time is up. As per the two words with which Ms McElvoy concluded: tick tock.
St Albans, Hertfordshire
Smart shopping? Hardly
Supermarkets occupy a particular place in retailing, because everyone needs food (“Do smart supermarkets herald the end of shopping as we know it?”, Magazine). Large corporations (whether existing supermarkets or newcomers such as Amazon) tell us that “smart” shops are for our benefit, but really they’re cost-saving for the companies. And do those savings get returned to the customer in lower prices? No, they increase company profits and hence dividends to shareholders. And what happens to the checkout and other low-paid staff who lose their jobs? They’re likely to need state benefits. So automation of our shopping becomes yet another indirect route (alongside privatising or outsourcing public sector functions) for funnelling taxpayers’ money into shareholders’ pockets. But if too many people lose their jobs to “smart” automation, who will pay tax to fund the benefits to those left un- or under-employed?
Stop striving. Start thinking
“Can you think yourself young?” (the New Review) looks at the issue from the wrong side. Evolution and resource constraints dictate that the growth and numbers of all living things must be limited. For the vast number of species, this means death. Thus, it could be that thinking fatalistically about death makes the inevitable easier to face and faster to come. And to ensure future generations have a habitable planet, all of us of all ages must “rethink our perceptions” that we must forever be achieving something in order to be fulfilled. Constant striving can be exhausting to the individual and ruinous to the planet. A better question might be: “Can you think yourself at peace?”
So much for going green
A subheading to the article “What I’ve learned from my year with an electric car” (Focus) equates driving an electric car with going green. The huge carbon costs of manufacturing and transporting cars, the environmental and human costs of lithium mining, the enormous amount of electricity needed to enable mass electric car use, the damage to human health of particulate pollution caused by the friction between tyres and Tarmac: these do not add up to going green.
We need to stop presenting electric cars as good for the environment. They are simply less damaging than petrol or diesel cars. Going green means walking, cycling and using public transport.
Science, but not as we know it
In “Is this the dawn of post-theory science?” (the New Review), Laura Spinney paints a picture that should be familiar, but depressing, to many working in the human and life sciences. She asks whether the “classic methodology of hypothesise, predict and test” has been superseded by big data and machine learning. As she rightly notes, this is to replace the traditional scientific project of understanding the world with one of merely predicting it. But this is not to propose a new way of doing science, but to propose not doing science at all. One can understand why Facebook and Google might want to “stop looking for the causes of things and be satisfied with correlations”. But why should humanity?
It’s simple, Simon
Simon Reeve’s reflections on his travels (“I worry I’m a climate hypocrite”, News) should serve as a prompt for programme makers to consider their impact on the environment. There may be a case (as Reeve explains) for engaging the audience by capturing “honest stories about what’s happening to our planet” and thus shocking the viewer. However, such tactics have been claimed before and they may do more to induce inertia and feelings of helplessness than to spur people into positive action.
Much harder to make a case for entertainment by “celebrities” clocking up air, land and sea miles in motorised vehicles. Do they do this on our behalf, so we don’t have to, thereby helping us all to minimise our own carbon footprint? Or are they about presenting themselves as having a jolly outing and inviting us to do likewise? The latter possibility is all the more worrying when it involves quests for ever new places to “discover” – places that have so far escaped the onslaught of tourism.
The plethora of media messages asserting what we must do in order to combat climate change needs to translate into personal commitments of, I will do today, tomorrow and thereafter. Any programme and presenter of the world around us should be able to justify the associated environmental cost by bringing about this shift in attitude. In the absence of such justification, they really should face the charge of climate hypocrisy.
Frimley Green, Surrey
I’m a (non-)believer
As a Catholic, I disagree with Harlan Coben’s opinion that, unlike Jews, “you don’t see too many Catholics… saying, ‘Oh, I’m a Catholic, but I don’t buy a word of it’” (“This much I know”, Magazine). This prompted a two-minute rant to my long-suffering wife, also a Catholic who doesn’t buy a word of it. So I was delighted to read, again in the Magazine (“Sunday with…”), the musician Maverick Sabre’s comment that “I went to a Catholic school like most kids in Ireland, but we weren’t religious”.
Newcastle upon Tyne