The Lookout post
On being European
Recently my wife and I went on our first trip outside of GB since January 2020. I have a large extended family in Ireland and we used to go to the the Republic a lot in pre-pandemic times. And then it all came to a halt when the lockdown happened. So going back for the first time in over two years was a big deal.
It was very interesting to be back on familiar territory. The weather was consistently beautiful (which you could say was out of the ordinary) but the most striking thing for me was that the country felt different in some subtle way. The only way I can express it is that for the first time it felt much more European in that I was picking up the kinds of signals I used to get when we went to France, Denmark or Holland in pre-pandemic times.
This is entirely subjective, of course, and it could be partly a reflection of suddenly being in a country that is not entirely overshadowed by the results of Brexit and the incompetence of the ship of fools that is the Johnson government; but it felt very real, somehow.
Then I came back and a friend pointed me to a very interesting conversation between the economist Tyler Cowen, whose blog I read every day, and Roy Foster, the distinguished Irish historian. Here’s an exchange that stood out for me:
COWEN: John Stuart Mill once wrote this in a letter: “I know tolerably well what Ireland was, but have a very imperfect idea of what Ireland is.” Is that still true? Was it ever true?
FOSTER: It’s true of many people. It’s interesting you quote Mill, who wrote a wonderful essay called England and Ireland, which reflects, I think, that opinion.
He also said something which I’ve often quoted, which I like very much, which is that Ireland is in the mainstream of European history, whereas England is in an eccentric tributary. I think that’s very true, and a lot of what we’ve been saying today, Tyler, seems to me to bear that out, from the 17th century on.
Quote of the Day
I often wished that I had clear
For life, six hundred pounds a year,
A handsome house to lodge a friend;
A river at my garden’s end,
A terrace walk, and half a rood
Of land set out to plant a wood.
- Jonathan Swift
Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news
J.S. Bach | Toccata and Fugue (on a tin whistle) | Antoine Pithier
Truly extraordinary. Thanks to Ross Anderson, who as a piper himself knows what an achievement this performance is.
Long Read of the Day
Musings on a Chameleon
John Knowles’s essay on Truman Capote.
MOST OF US FEEL THAT we go solitarily through life. Despite marriages and children and close human ties, we feel the weight of a basic isolation. We sense a uniqueness about ourselves, which makes us secretly feel special, but also alone.
But we aren’t really: Most of us are not alone, not so special, and not unique. Someone in the next street or in Denmark or Algeria or China is quite like us, very similar. That is true of virtually everyone.
But Truman Capote really was alone, and he knew it. No one anywhere on earth can have looked like him, with his odd Pekingese features, or above all sounded like him when he spoke. This very short, thick-legged person with his big head and yellow, later gray bangs, speaking in a tissue-paper thin, whiny lisp, was not at all like anybody else. Clothes were not manufactured that fit him; no voice anywhere echoed his. When he would merely enter a room or utter a few words, strangers stopped short, jerked their heads around to behold him, usually—until he became so famous—with at least a tinge of mockery, or hostility.
So as a form of self-protection, Truman made himself the only writer in the world after Ernest Hemingway whom the man in the street recognized on sight…
Read on. It’s worth it.
COVID Is More Like Smoking Than the Flu
Hundreds of thousands of deaths, from either tobacco or the pandemic, could be prevented with a single behavioral change.
If you’re sick of hearing people who aren’t wearing masks telling you that Covid is “just like the flu”, then join the club. It’s pernicious nonsense and it was good to find this striking piece by Benjamin Mazer elaborating on that theme.
The end state of this pandemic may indeed be one where COVID comes to look something like the flu. Both diseases, after all, are caused by a dangerous respiratory virus that ebbs and flows in seasonal cycles. But I’d propose a different metaphor to help us think about our tenuous moment: The “new normal” will arrive when we acknowledge that COVID’s risks have become more in line with those of smoking cigarettes—and that many COVID deaths, like many smoking-related deaths, could be prevented with a single intervention.
The pandemic’s greatest source of danger has transformed from a pathogen into a behavior. Choosing not to get vaccinated against COVID is, right now, a modifiable health risk on par with smoking, which kills more than 400,000 people each year in the United States. Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine, told me that if COVID continues to account for a few hundred thousand American deaths every year—“a realistic worst-case scenario,” he calls it—that would wipe out all of the life-expectancy gains we’ve accrued from the past two decades’ worth of smoking-prevention efforts.
The point is simple: whatever the reasons people have for not getting vaccinated, they should at least know the risk they are running: an unvaccinated adult is 68 times more likely to die from COVID than a boosted one.
My commonplace booklet
Jonathan Holland writes:
I love how your Friday post segued into your Monday post via a Scott/Virginia hybrid! Next week: ‘Mrs Galloway’, a modernist novel about a woman preparing for a party in Silicon Valley?
It was generous of Jonathan to attribute creativity to my poor proof-reading! The heading over my Long Read yesterday read Scott Dalloway on Musk and Twitter, when in fact the post was by Scott Galloway!
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