Communicating about climate change: think audience and messenger

Climate Outreach,  leaders in communicating about climate change, do not aim to proselytise, sell, or persuade but rather fulfil people’s “right to know.” Just as people have a right to know what is wrong with them and what doctors propose as treatment, people have a right to know about what is happening to the planet. What they do with that information is their business, but, said George Marshall, founder of Climate Outreach, when talking to the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, the aim of good communicating is to build a social mandate necessary to make the changes necessary to counter climate change. In democracies it’s hard for politicians to act without such a mandate.

The idea of a right to know about climate change is far from revolutionary. It is written into both the United Nations Framework on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The first recommendation of the UK Assembly on Climate Change, a group of people selected to reflect the population, reads: “There is a need for information and education for everyone – individuals, businesses, government and others – about climate change and the steps needed to tackle it. It is essential for buy-in to the changes that are needed.”

People not knowing about climate change—or being positively misinformed—leads people to act in ways that are against their long- term interests. Marshall cited the example of the Australian government being brought down by campaigns against a carbon tax.

Despite the international commitments, governments have been poor at communicating about climate change. Perhaps the subject has been low on the political agenda, perhaps they have been were nervous about frightening people, or perhaps they think people “know” about the dangers of climate change. It’s true that most people in Britain do know that climate change is harmful, but they are much less knowledgeable about the gravity and urgency of the problem, sources of the change, the range of impacts, what needs to be done, and what they can do.

Most governments have recognised the importance of communicating about the Covid-19 pandemic, and a social mandate was built for rapid change that seemed almost impossible. The same needs to happen with climate change.

Just as understanding of climate change is underpinned by science so communicating about issues as complex as climate change is underpinned by the science of communication. Climate Outreach bases its work and recommendations on science. Communicating the facts, figures, and science of climate change is not the best way to communicate about climate change to most people. Many are baffled by the complexity, especially when the “facts” are disputed, as is often the case in science. Climate deniers succeeded for many years in making many people believe that climate wasn’t happening by sowing doubt.

Successful communication means finding a narrative that is understood, believed, and trusted. The narrative must fit with the identity and values of the people at whom the narrative is aimed. It must validate who the people are and what they want to be. Most importantly the narrative must fit with the group to whom people belong.

The importance of “what people like me think and do” is seen dramatically in the US where climate change is highly politicised. It is (or has been) difficult to be a Republican voter and support strong action on climate change. I remember hearing a radio broadcast where a lifelong Republican described being rejected by his colleagues after his son convinced him of the importance of acting on climate change.

Messages must be designed to fit with the values and world view of those at whom they are aimed. Messages to people of faith might use messages from their scriptures, whereas very different messages will be needed for, for example, venture capitalists.

The message is important, but who delivers the message is probably more important. Messengers must be trusted and respected. An analysis of net-trust in different groups shows nurses and doctors to be the most trusted and journalists, economists, business people, and politicians as the least trusted; but, pointed out Marshall, it is the least trusted people who produce most of the messages on climate change.

Studies of which determines beliefs about climate change show that political allegiance and ideology are by far the most important. Gender has little influence, while education and age have more. People concerned about climate change are almost all politically on the left, and the movement to reduce the impact of climate change is, said Marshall, “fueled by disdain for conservatives.” Disdain is a not for communication.

Climate change, he continued, must not be seen as simply an environmental issue. “We must break out of the environmental box.” It’s better to emphasise issues like health, security, the economy, food, community, property, family, heritage, landscape, jobs, fairness, and independence.

As a contribution to improving communication on climate change Climate Outreach has conducted an analysis of views on climate change among 10 400 people in Britain. The analysis divides people into seven segments, including “progressive activist,” “backbone conservative,” and “disengaged battler.”  The aim is to shape messages to fit with the particular segments, but analysis of the views on the need for change because of Covid-19 showed that more than three-quarters of every group want change.

The facts that health professionals are trusted, health is a good topic for engaging people on climate change, and there is a large appetite for change all present a great opportunity for health professionals. We need to make our voices more prominent in the debate over climate change.

But more work is needed on what the messages should be. Marshall suggested emphasising the need for caring, the importance of clean air, the effects of floods, and mental health issues. He also advocated more original thinking—for example, unerlining the harm to health from poorly ventilated, damp housing, and in this way joining the drive to renovate homes in Britain to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve health. He also said that we should prepare ourselves for when health and climate change rise high on the agenda—as will happen when we next get a major heat wave.

The year the BMJ banned anniversaries and days, weeks, years, and decades devoted to diseases and worthy causes

My heart was in this curmudgeonly editorial I wrote 22 years ago.

After an orgy of anniversaries in 1998 and with the prospect of the mother of all anniversaries causing civilisation to grind to a halt in 2000, the BMJ is declaring 1999 an (almost) anniversary free year (because of popular demand Christmas will be retained). Please do not contact us about the anniversary of your favourite institution, invention, or person, and we won’t call you.

This year we have celebrated 50 years of the NHS, 150 years of the Public Health Act, 50 (or is it 100?) years since the first randomised controlled trial, 50 years since the first injection of cortisone, 150 years since Phineas Gage blew out his frontal lobes,and 175 years of the Lancet. And we are bored already by the millennium, almost a year before it happens. Next year you will be missing (because we’ve already said no) the 50th anniversary of a famous BMJ paper on the fate of the foreskin, the 200th anniversary of British government financial support for biomedical research, the 40th anniversary of the contraceptive pill in Britain, and a dozen other unremembered anniversaries.

Anniversaries can silt up journals. Consider the possibilities. We could celebrate the 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th, 150th, 175th, 200th, 250th, and 500th anniversaries and so on for ever of the birth, death, and year of great achievement of every individual, institution, and journal and of every government act, important medical development, and great paper and so on ad infinitum. And by definition this is cumulative. So if we don’t give up marking anniversaries we will be overwhelmed. Already we dread the day when the BMJ will be filled with nothing but obituaries, but anniversaries might get there first. The consequence would be that the journal would be living permanently in the past. Our cry for 1999 is “let the news be new.”

(And once we’ve got over the decade of the brain, we are also banning days, weeks, years, and decades devoted to different diseases or age groups. They are a boring device invented by public relations companies to hijack public attention.)

“Cured by trees” and “Survival actions”: two found poems

Cured by trees: a found poem

Tea from infant trees for heart trouble,

Leaves from young sprouts to cure sores,

Cold bark brew to stop bleeding after birth,

Warmed galls to pare back an infant’s navel,

Leaves boiled with brown sugar for coughs,

Poultices for burns,

Leaves to stuff a talking mattress,

An extract for despair, when anguish is too much ….

Survival actions; a found poem

Lob a cannonball over the mountain onto your enemy.

Keep the rats out of your corn harvest.

Spin the wheel of fortune.

Seek and destroy every alien in the quadrant.

Spell the word before the poor stick man hangs.

I found both of these poems in The Overstory by Richard Powers, a novel filled with poetry and nature.

Depression—a description of the near indescribable

This blog was posted on the BMJ site in June 2016. I shared it recently with a depressed friend, which reminded me of its existence.

I’ve never been depressed. I’ve been down, sad, blue, but never depressed. But many family and friends, people I love, have been depressed. Some have tried to describe it to me. I learnt about depression as a medical student, but I’ve felt my understanding to be shallow. I wanted to know more about this pernicious disease, something that strikes at a person’s soul in a way that cancer, TB, or any physical disease do not.

I made some progress when I heard the biologist Lewis Wolpert talk about his depression. It came in fast and left him in unutterable distress. What I remember from his talk was the extreme severity of his depression. The pain was so unbearable that only suicide was the answer, but he didn’t kill himself. His account, and various writings (including a BMJ personal view by the brother of a man who killed himself) made me realise that to die by suicide is exactly comparable to dying from leukaemia: the disease has killed.

But finally I have come closer to understanding depression by reading William Styron’s Darkness Visible, an account of his depression. Styron, as most readers will know, was a leading American author, whose best known book is Sophie’s Choice. He died in 2006 aged 81.

His depression began in Paris in October 1985, and his attempt to describe it began with a lecture he gave at Johns Hopkins in 1989. This led to an essay published in Vanity Fair in the same year and the short book published in 1990.

From the beginning he recognises that he is trying to describe what is almost indescribable. “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.” Certainly you can achieve only a shallow understanding from psychiatry textbooks, and doctors who have not experienced the extreme form must struggle to help those who suffer from it. There isn’t, I suggest, the same gulf between a doctor and a patient with cancer.

Styron quotes a clinician on our ignorance about depression: “If you compare our knowledge with Columbus’s discovery of America, America is yet unknown; we are still down on that little island in the Bahamas.” We don’t understand the disease, and despite tens of millions of antidepressant pills being prescribed every day, we don’t know how to treat it. “The most honest authorities face up square to the fact that depression is not readily treatable.”

The job of description is made still harder because depression has many manifestations. “It should be kept in mind,” writes Styron, “how idiosyncratic the faces of depression can be.” “But,” he insists, “never let it be doubted that depression, in its extreme form, is madness.” He likes the old, unacceptable word madness because it acknowledges both the extreme turmoil and our ignorance. Depression is too tame a word.

The whole book is an attempt to describe depression, and I recommend everybody who wants to try and understand more—and what clinician could not—to read it. But I have picked out some quotes.

“It is a positive and active anguish, a sort of psychical neuralgia wholly unknown to normal life.” Styron is here quoting William James, “The brain, in thrall to its outlaw hormones, has become less an organ of thought than an instrument registering, minute by minute, varying degrees of its own suffering.”

“[Depression] comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room.”

“One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes.”

Styron emphasises again and again the protean nature of the disease, but one of the commonest features is a complete failure of self-esteem, an overwhelming sense of worthlessness. “Of the many dreadful manifestations of the disease, both physical and psychological, a sense of self-hatred—or, put less categorically, a failure of self-esteem—is one of the most universally experienced symptoms, and I had suffered more and more from a general sense of worthlessness as the malady had progressed.”

One thing I do remember from my limited training in psychiatry was always to ask if people with depression if they had considered suicide. Styron describes its powerful attraction: “Death was now a daily presence, blowing over me in cold gusts….Yet in truth such hideous fantasies [of suicide], which cause well people to shudder, are to the deeply depressed mind what lascivious dreams are to a person of robust sexuality.”

It was another book, All My Puny Sorrows, which taught me how some depressed patients will pursue suicide remorselessly. In her novel, Miriam Toews uses the experience of both her father and her sister killing themselves, to describe how the narrator’s immensely talented sister keeps trying to kill herself and eventually succeeds, using great cunning. The book is funny, and I thought it a remarkable achievement to write a story that spells out the agony of her sister and of herself and yet makes you laugh.

Styron, like many with depression, found no comfort from drugs: “But until that day when a swiftly acting agent is developed, one’s faith in a pharmacological cure for major depression must remain provisional.” I’m aware of the intense debate over the efficacy of antidepressants, and later this month I’m chairing a debate where the Danish epidemiologist Peter Gøtzsche will argue that psychiatric drugs do far more harm than good. Some of my friends and family have found that the drugs have helped, although some have got no help. The help may be a placebo effect, but I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that the drugs crudely dull the pain and that the name “antidepressant” with the implication that the drugs attack depression as antibiotics attack infection is misleading.

As you’d expect from a great writer, Styron inquires deeply into the causes of depression—and his general conclusion is that “The very number of hypotheses is testimony to the malady’s all but impenetrable mystery.” But he does think that loss is a cause, including in his own case: “Loss in all its manifestations is the touchstone of depression—in the progress of the disease and, most likely, in its origin. At a later date I would gradually be persuaded that devastating loss in childhood figured as a probable genesis of my own disorder….One dreads the loss of all things, all people close and dear.”

Styron’s depression persisted for months. One of the worst features of the illness is that you cannot imagine ever being well again. Eventually he was admitted to hospital. The drugs hadn’t helped, and the hospital was a ghastly place—but he was helped. “For in fact the hospital was my salvation, and it is something of a paradox that in this austere place with its locked and wired doors and desolate green hallways—ambulances screeching night and day ten floors below—I found the repose, the assuagement of the tempest in my brain, that I was unable to find in my quiet farmhouse…In the orderly and benign detention…one’s only duty is to try to get well.

Eventually Styron was ready to heal, and music was crucial to his recovery: “From unseen musicians came a contralto voice, a sudden soaring passage from the Brahms Alto Rhapsody. This sound, which like all music—indeed, like all pleasure—I had been numbly unresponsive to for months, pierced my heart like a dagger, and in a flood of swift recollection I thought of all the joys the house had known.” I can’t listen to that beautiful piece of music without thinking of Styron in that moment.

Styron ends by arguing, perhaps wrongly, that the storm will eventually pass. “Mysterious in its coming, mysterious in its going, the affliction runs its course. And one finds peace.” He concludes: “For me the real healers were seclusion and time.”

Publication and research ethics: 14 cases for discussion

1. You have looked after the first five cases of Covid-19 in Country X. Two of the patients died. You write up the cases and want to submit them to an international journal. Where should you submit them and what issues do you need to consider?

2. You are the editor of a journal. You are sent a report of three cases of Covid-19 infection from a country A. The cases have new features that could be important. When you look at the John Hopkins website you see that no cases have been reported from country A. When you search the web for information on the authors you find that one of the them has had a paper retracted for “unrecognised errors.” What should you do?

3. You are the editor of a journal and have published an important paper on treatment of Covid-19. The authors told you that they had full access to the data, but a named correspondent writes to tell you that they didn’t have access to the original data but only summary data. Th authors on questioning agree. What should you do?

4. In 1918, when the Spanish Flu epidemic began, conventional wisdom was that flu was caused by a bacillus, but René Dujarric de la Rivière thought it was caused by something smaller. He asked a friend to inject him with the filtered blood of a flu patient to “prove” his hypothesis, saying to the friend that he would infect himself if his friend didn’t do it. Would you inject him? And if you were the editor of a journal would you publish a report of the experiment?

5. Seven of you have worked on a paper together. Abby had the idea but took no part in data collection or writing the paper. Billy collected data but had nothing to do with the analysis or the writing. Carol designed the study and analysed the data but wasn’t able to approve the final version of the paper as she was out of touch in the Amazon rainforest. David wrote the first draft of the paper after interviewing all the authors. Edith, the head of department, didn’t work on the study but did read the paper critically before publication. Frank looked after the patients included in the study.  Gladys, who works for the drug company that funded the study, analysed the data and read the paper critically before publication. Who should be an author?

6. The British Journal of Tautology publishes a paper that describes the eye signs in a series of 30 patients with PLUCK syndrome. Later Neurotautology publishes a paper by the same authors that describes eye and ear signs in the same 30 patients, but the paper makes no reference to the paper in the British Journal of Tautology. A reader points this out to the editor. What should the editor do?

            What if the second paper described eye, ear, mouth, and nose signs?

            What if in the second paper there were 60 patients describing simply eye signs?

            What if the second paper described signs after five years of follow upwhile the first described signs after three years?

What if the second paper had referenced the first?

7. You write a paper on influence of various factors on drug compliance. You are not writing about a specific drug, but a student who is working with you has a small grant from a drug company. Should you declare this as a conflict of interest?

8. You are a professor of medicine in a country in South Asia. You are approached by a global pharmaceutical company about doing a trial of a new and expensive treatment for hypertension against usual care. All those in the trial will have all their medical care paid for during the trial. Should you participate?

9. A reviewer notifies an editor that a paper she has reviewed for the journal has three paragraphs out of 30 lifted verbatim from her own work without attribution. What should the editor do? If the same thing happened in a student essay what should the dean of the school do?

10. You are the editor of a South Asian medical journal. You have submitted to you a well conducted trial of a low cost drug for AIDS against placebo. The trial had ethics committee approval and was done in a country where less than 20% of people with AIDS receive any treatment. Would you be willing to publish the paper if it is scientifically sound? What if the treatment was not a drug but “fever therapy,” inducing fever by giving patients malaria?

11. You are working for an eminent professor on a study of 120 babies. You are gathering the cases. You’ve collected 30 cases when you discover that the professor has published a paper describing the results in 120 babies.  Your name is on the paper. What should you do?

12. Your journal receives a study from a large intensive care unit in a poor African country. The unit does not admit patients with HIV. In the study you receive some patients with HIV have been admitted to the unit to see if the outcomes are the same for patients who don’t have HIV. Patients obviously had to be tested for HIV. Most were unconscious at the time of admission. Neither patients nor relatives gave consent for patients to be tested for HIV nor to be in the trial. The local ethics committee have approved the study. Should you publish the trial?

13. Five authors have a paper published. Afterwards one writes to say that he thinks that there was a major problem with one of the tests used in the study and that the paper should therefore be retracted. The four other authors disagree. What should the editor do?

14. You completed a complex qualitative study with two colleagues three years ago. You’ve had it rejected by two journals. The last rejection was a year ago, and you are now busy with other studies and have a young family.  A mentor advises you to forget the old study and concentrate on the new ones. Is she right?

Guidance and a large series of cases can be found on the website of the Committee on Publication Ethics:

Plato: “the ladder of love,” from love of the beauties of the earth to love of the essence of beauty

One of the many ideas in Plato’s Symposium, a discussion on love, is that of the ladder of love—how we should aim to ascend from love of people and the earth through a series of steps to love “the essence of beauty,” which is God to Christians and something that non-believers like me must define for themselves (with the help of no end of philosophers, poets, musicians, and mystics).

This is the crucial sentence in the Symposium:

“And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is.”

And what is the “essence of beauty”?

“This, my dear Socrates,’ said the stranger of Mantineia, ‘is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute; a beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you; and you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them without meat or drink, if that were possible–you only want to look at them and to be with them.

But what if man had eyes to see the true beauty–the divine beauty, I mean, pure and clear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life–thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine? Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may. Would that be an ignoble life?’”

Here is another way, which I found on the web, to think of the six steps of the ladder:

FirstLove for a particular body Love is a desire for physical features. An individual tends to get attracted to what is missing from the own body. Different particular bodies trigger different individual.

SecondLove for all bodies When an individual recognizes the physical features that he is attracted to and understand that many bodies can have the beauty. Love is then express towards all beautiful bodies in the lover’s view, not just a particular body. He then sees beauty in all body and learns to love the differences.

ThirdLove for souls The stage in which physical features are put aside and spiritual and moral beauty trigger love. One will fall in love with beautiful minds in this step.

FourthLove for laws and institutions Love for the practice, custom or foundation that derived from people with beautiful souls.

FifthLove for knowledge When an individual turns his attention to all kinds of knowledge and love that there is knowledge to acquire everywhere.

SixthLove for love itself An individual sees the beauty in its form and loves the beauty of love as it is. Every particular beautiful thing is beautiful because of its connection to this Form. The lover who has ascended the ladder apprehends the Form of Beauty in a kind of vision not through words or in the way that other sorts of more ordinary knowledge are known.

Plato’s views of love: “he whom love touches not walks in darkness”

I’m fascinated by philosophy and have even contemplated (lightly, not seriously) doing a degree in philosophy in my dotage. But I find it hard to read original philosophy: I tend to read philosophers writing about other philosophers rather than the original philosophy. It’s cowardice. But now I have read Plato’s Symposium, and it wasn’t hard. It was enjoyable.

I realise, however, that reading philosophy is more like reading poetry than prose. Every word, every sentence must be studied carefully. Rereading is essential. And copying out, digging deep into the sentences, is useful. Writing down what I think I’ve learn would be even more useful.

The Symposium is the story of a drinking party where a group of men that includes Aristophanes and Socrates each make a speech about love. They make very different types of speech (illustrating different types of knowledge), and Socrates tells the others that they’ve got everything wrong.

I was inspired to read Symposium after listening to a conversation about it on In Our Time, one of my favourite radio programmes. If you’re tempted to read Symposium (and I urge you to do so, it’s short), then listening to the broadcast is a good introduction.

One thing I found odd about Symposium was that although the men all made speeches about love they didn’t define which love they were talking about—and I know that the Greeks distinguished at least six different sorts of love. But in the radio broadcast the experts on Greek philosophy used the word eros rather than love—the Greek word for sexual, romantic love. But at least some of the speakers move beyond eros, not least Socrates when he describes (via Diotima, a female priest) “the ladder of love.”

The most lyrical of the speeches about love comes from Agathon, the host of the party and a playwright.

“Of all the gods he [the god of love] is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race. [This sentence comes from Aristophanes, but I include it here as it fits well]

Of his [love’s] courage and justice and temperance I have spoken, but I have yet to speak of his wisdom; and according to the measure of my ability I must try to do my best. In the first place he is a poet, and he is also the source of poesy in others, which he could not be if he were not himself a poet. And at the touch of him everyone becomes a poet, even though he had no music in him before; this also is a proof that love is a good poet and accomplished in all the fine arts; for no one can give to another that which he has not himself, or teach that of which he has no knowledge.

Who will deny that the creation of the animals is his doing? Are they not all the works of his wisdom, born and begotten of him?

And as to the artists, do we not know that he only of them whom love inspires has the light of fame?–he whom love touches not walks in darkness.

The arts of medicine and archery and divination were discovered by Apollo, under the guidance of love and desire; so that he too is a disciple of love. Also the melody of the Muses, the metallurgy of Hephaestus, the weaving of Athene, the empire of Zeus over gods and men, are all due to love, who was the inventor of them.

And so love set in order the empire of the gods–the love of beauty, as is evident, for with deformity love has no concern. [Very politically incorrect in 2021, except that Agathon probably doesn’t mean physical deformity but rather a falling away from beauty, which is not a physical thing.] In the days of old, as I began by saying, dreadful deeds were done among the gods, for they were ruled by Necessity; but now since the birth of love, and from the love of the beautiful, has sprung every good in heaven and earth.

Therefore, Phaedrus, I say of love that he is the fairest and best in himself, and the cause of what is fairest and best in all other things. And there comes into my mind a line of poetry in which he is said to be the god who…

 ‘Gives peace on earth and calms the stormy deep,

Who stills the winds and bids the sufferer sleep.’

This is he who empties men of disaffection and fills them with affection, who makes them to meet together at banquets such as these: in sacrifices, feasts, dances, he is our lord–who sends courtesy and sends away discourtesy, who gives kindness ever and never gives unkindness; the friend of the good, the wonder of the wise, the amazement of the gods; desired by those who have no part in him, and precious to those who have the better part in him; parent of delicacy, luxury, desire, fondness, softness, grace; regardful of the good, regardless of the evil: in every word, work, wish, fear–saviour, pilot, comrade, helper; glory of gods and men, leader best and brightest: in whose footsteps let every man follow, sweetly singing in his honour and joining in that sweet strain with which love charms the souls of gods and men.

For God mingles not with man; but through love all the intercourse and converse of God with man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual; all other wisdom, such as that of arts and handicrafts, is mean and vulgar.”

Socrates takes a different view.

“In the first place he is always poor, and anything but tender and fair, as the many imagine him; and he is rough and squalid, and has no shoes, nor a house to dwell in.

He is always plotting against the fair and good; he is bold, enterprising, strong, a mighty hunter, always weaving some intrigue or other, keen in the pursuit of wisdom, fertile in resources; a philosopher at all times, terrible as an enchanter, sorcerer, sophist. He is by nature neither mortal nor immortal, but alive and flourishing at one moment when he is in plenty, and dead at another moment,

For love, Socrates [Diotama tells him] is not, as you imagine, the love of the beautiful only.’

‘What then?’

‘The love of generation and of birth in beauty.’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Yes, indeed,’ she replied.

‘But why of generation?’

‘Because to the mortal creature, generation is a sort of eternity and immortality,’ she replied; ‘and if, as has been already admitted, love is of the everlasting possession of the good, all men will necessarily desire immortality together with good: Wherefore love is of immortality.’”

Plato’s definition of medicine: “the knowledge of the loves and desires of the body”

“Medicine may be regarded generally as the knowledge of the loves and desires of the body, and how to satisfy them or not; and the best physician is he who is able to separate fair love from foul, or to convert one into the other; and he who knows how to eradicate and how to implant love, whichever is required, and can reconcile the most hostile elements in the constitution and make them loving friends, is a skilful practitioner.”

Robert Maxwell: a monster without morals I felt sorry for

When I finished Fall, John Preston’s fast moving, entertaining, insightful, and at times funny biography of Robert Maxwell, I felt sorry for Maxwell. I don’t suppose that was the reaction that Preston expected, and I feel sorrow because it’s a story; I wouldn’t have felt sorry for Maxwell if I’d known him and certainly not if I’d worked for him.

Maxwell’s life is the classic Greek tragedy, the man who goes against the Gods, tries to fly too high. “He seemed cast right from the beginning in the role of the Greek tragic hero, who is inevitably defeated in the end, since in Greek mythology, man cannot avoid the gods’ anger or vengeance if he rebels against them in an attempt to alter his destiny.”

Born into a desperately poor Jewish family in Czechoslovakia, Maxwell left his family to join the war.  Most of his family died in the holocaust, leaving Maxwell with a lifetime of guilt. Greatly gifted at learning languages (he spoke nine) and brave, he had an excellent war, ending up in the British army and winning the Military Cross. Spotting his chance in post-war Berlin, he made a fortune from publishing science. Adopting a plummy upper-class English accent, ignoring his Jewishness, and marrying a wealthy English woman, he had a meteoric rise through British society and business, buying the Daily Mirror and hobnobbing with political leaders and royalty. But then his fall began, culminating in him going over the side of his yacht and being found dead in the sea. Was it an accident, suicide, murder, or did he stage his death? Nobody knows. His body was flown to Israel, where he was buried on the Mount of Olives in what was effectively a state funeral. Prime ministers and presidents sent messages of acclamation. Days later his extensive frauds became apparent. He “got out” just in time.

Maxwell lacked morals: “It seemed to me that there was something not so much amoral about him, as pre-moral. It was as if he was literally uncivilized, like some great woolly mammoth stalking through a primeval forest wholly unaware of things like good and evil.” But who was he: “How much of Maxwell’s behaviour was for show and how much was real – and was Maxwell himself able to tell the difference?”

He could feel sorry for himself: ‘“Sometimes I don’t know why I go on,” he muttered. “Everything I try, people turn against me … I’ve got no friends, no one I can turn to … no one to share my life with … Sometimes I think I should just end it all, throw myself out of the window … I sometimes feel I can’t go on.”’

Maxwell created himself with great talent and energy but in doing so lost touch with himself: “Just for a moment the loneliness of a man who delighted in meeting everyone and knowing no one showed through. It was the uncertainty and deep insecurity of the true outsider, a man who feels he has been precluded from the world of others and had therefore determined to build his own, with his own rules for his own game.”

Perhaps my feeling sorry for Maxwell, a monster to most, after reading the book was not unusual, a tribute to the book.

Other quotes I took from the book:

His character

What was clear was that Maxwell, still only twenty-three, had a genius for bartering, browbeating and generally getting what he wanted.

Perhaps most important of all, he had an unerring ability to home in on people’s weakest points.

‘He was incredibly sensitive … Bob’s desperate need to be loved was so great that he tortured himself … At first he almost persecuted me to arouse my love, and when I reached the point of being in love with him, he simply would not believe it and carried on with his perpetual doubts.’

Like a perpetually squalling child, Maxwell had also become addicted to drama – a drama in which he naturally played the lead role, wildly overacting, impossibly histrionic and always displaying a compulsive need to be centre stage.

‘The strangely orange colour of his complexion, his ink-black hair and enormous eyebrows gave him the look of a music-hall comedian; but his smile was like that of Richard III.’

By now he had become a figure of fascination, regarded with a constantly shifting mix of awe, fear and derision.

In Maxwell’s presence, normally bullish, swaggering people – usually men – would often became sycophantic to the point of spinelessness. Yet afterwards they would be full of stories about how they had fearlessly stood their ground, refusing to have any truck with Maxwell and his disgraceful ways.

Stott offered his own analysis of Maxwell’s character: ‘He was generous but never kind; far-sighted but, on occasions, blind, stupid, cunningly subtle yet numbingly unpleasant. Unhappy, lonely, terrified of boredom, constantly wining and dining the great and good of the world but never truly liking or trusting anyone. Nervous, uncertain and insecure, which he dealt with by being decisive to the extent of lunatic folly, secure in the belief of his own infallibility even when presented with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, and charging through people and events like a demented rhino.’

A proto-Trump

Trump then stood gazing at the yacht’s décor – described by one visitor as ‘1970s Playboy Baroque’. As he did so, Grigg noticed a peculiar expression come over his face: ‘It was almost like he was in awe, but didn’t want to show it.’


President Herzog was the first to speak. When it came to lauding Maxwell’s achievements, he did not hold back. ‘He scaled the heights,’ Herzog declared. ‘Kings and barons besieged his doorstep. He was a figure of almost mythological stature. Few are the persons who stride across the stage of human experience and leave their mark, Robert Maxwell was one of them …’

‘Dear Dad,’ Philip concluded, ‘Soldier, Publisher and Patriot, Warrior and Globetrotter; father of nine children and grandfather of eight; newspaper proprietor and football club owner; speaker of nine languages; we salute you; we love you, we need you, we miss you, we cry for your presence and our very great loss.’

Members of the immediate family of the late Robert Maxwell stand behind the body laying on a stretcher during the funeral service in Jerusalem’s main convention hall on Nov. 10, 1991. The body is laying on a stretcher, draped in a white Jewish prayer shawl with black stripes as is it tradition of Jewish burials in Israel. (AP Photo/Natik Harnik)