A writer who toasts her demons

“To all the devils, lusts, passions, greeds, envys, loves, hates, strange desires, enemies ghostly and real, the army of memories, with which I do battle—may they never give me peace.”

This was Patricia Highsmith “New Year’s Toast” in 1947. It is the toast that only a writer could make: battling with her demons on paper is her life—peace would kill her.

I mostly steer clear of crime writers. They are too predictable, and there is too much emphasis on the plot. The quality of the writing is usually secondary. Agatha Christie is the supreme example, and I’ve never enjoyed her books (not that I’ve read many). I do enjoy George Simenon, who writes “why did he do it” rather than “who dunnit” books. I like Donna Leon for her evocation of Venice, and P D James does a good job of creating a sense of place.

But after I read reviews of a biography of Highsmith, I decided that I had to read one of her books because of the praise heaped on her by other writers. Here’s an extreme example from A N Wilson: “My suspicion is that when the dust has settled and when the chronicle of twentieth-century American literature comes to be written, history will place Highsmith at the top of the pyramid, as we should place Dostoevsky at the top of the Russian hierarchy of novelists.” You might cynically observe that being put at the top of American writers is no big deal anyway when making comparisons with Russian writers, but I wouldn’t accept that. But nor would I accept after reading one book by Highsmith that Wilson is right: I’d rank Bellow, Roth, Updike, Hemingway, and many others above Highsmith.

Edith’s Diary is the story of the disintegration of a woman, a woman who might be living nextdoor or even be a friend. Edith like Highsmith is a writer, although not a successful one, and her diary, filled with a fantasy, is her main comfort.

There is only one crime in the book, the almost accidental murder of an old, bedridden man. The murderer, Edith’s hopeless son, “showed a noticeable confidence in himself since George’s – removal.” The crime is not central to the book, and not only do we know whodunnit but we know that it’s coming. Graham Greene famously called Highsmith “the poet of apprehension.”

Highsmith seems to have been a ghastly person, a drunk, philanderer, and abuser. This bleak novel might contain Highsmith’s philosophy of life, which these quotes capture:

‘Don’t think, keep moving,’ was her frequent advice to herself, and she sometimes added, ‘Don’t look for a meaning,’ because if she did look for a meaning for even half a minute, she sensed that she was lost, that she had turned loose of her real anchor which was not Brett, but a kind of firm resignation.

One more little cog in the messy human-race machine, full of proper food and vitamins, destined to die one day like everybody else.

She admired his falseness. It was a kind of strength.

The joy of life is in the doing. Don’t judge too much what is done or expect praise or thanks.

I didn’t greatly enjoy Edith’s Diary, and I fear that it may be the kind of book that I forget that I have read in a few year’s time. But I will read at least one more book by her.

Other quotes I took from the introduction and novel:


If great writers had an oath it would begin: First, do not lie.

Highsmith’s writing won’t make you feel that everything will be all right in the end. It won’t make you feel taller or thinner or smarter. She won’t just keep your eyes busy for a commute, but she might prompt you to walk out of that job you hate. Her books will thrill you with the truth of things. Her books will make you reckless.

The novel

They talked of a variety of things – old family stories that Melanie might have heard from her own grandmother’s knee, Thomas Mann’s essay on Nietzsche and The Will, school integration (the South would do better than the North, Melanie predicted), and the proper way to make dill pickles.

So she wrote at greater length, voluptuously and voluminously, but still carefully in her big diary.

‘The funeral home told me they’re open day and night.’ Like death, Edith thought.

Time for a radical pivot in the welfare state, including the NHS

Every so often we encounter a book, or even an article, that says something important and changes our thinking. Often they are books that express clearly something that we have vaguely thought or partially glimpsed. For me (and others I know) Radical Help: How we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state by Hilary Cottam is such a book.

She argues that the welfare state, something we all value, no longer responds adequately to 21st century problems:  global warming, mass migration, demographic changes, chronic disease epidemics, concerns about security. and escalating inequality. The welfare state needs not just to change but to “pivot…a special kind of change that involves a new vision, a different solution and a new business model.” The current proposals for restructuring the NHS (yet again) are not a pivot.

A pivot, explains Cottam, is not just another word for change. “The pivot is a special kind of change that involves a new vision, a different solution and a new business model. The pivot offers transformation, the potential for something much better and more successful.” It requires great courage to pivot, and many enterprises and businesses have failed because they lacked the courage.

To pivot the welfare state—and particularly the NHS—maybe be especially hard because of the national love for the institution. “We are in danger,” says a friend who has worked in the NHS for 40 years, “of loving the NHS to death.” Cottam argues that “Our most difficult relationship – the one that most threatens our health – is our relationship with the medical establishment….Medicine has captured our hearts and our minds. We are in thrall to the NHS and emotionally attached to our doctors.” We look to doctors, other health professionals, and the NHS to solve problems that cannot be solved by drugs, operations, and even simple advice. To avoid dependency we need to look elsewhere for help—to ourselves, our family and friends, our communities, and civil society.

Cottam is not anti-doctor. She is about achieving a better balance between what the NHS does and what others do. The NHS, for example, is well designed for vaccinating the population against Covid-19 and other infections, but it is not best placed to deal with the loneliness, despair, inactivity, and unwise behaviour that may result from lockdown. The Lancet Commission on the Value of Death, of which I’m a part, has reached the same conclusion. Death, dying, and grief have moved too far from families, community, society, and culture into health care. Health professionals are the best people to administer morphine for pain and treat breathlessness but not to respond accompany people through the long and lonely hours of dying.

“The current welfare state,” writes Cottam, “has become an elaborate attempt to manage our needs. In contrast, twenty-first-century forms of help will support us to grow our capabilities….Traditional welfare approaches see you as dependent according to their biases and then in response they try to give you something or do something to you, to manage your need in the best way they know how. The capability approach shifts the way support is offered.”

Interestingly, William Beveridge, the architect of the welfare state, recognised that he had made a mistake in leaving out of his plans a greater role for families, communities, volunteers, and civil society. He didn’t like that the state was doing everything. ‘It did frankly send a chill to my heart,’ Beveridge complained. In a report on voluntary action in 1946 “he worried that some core groups were not benefiting from his reforms; and he was increasingly aware that communities, rather than distant, cold and hierarchical institutions, are often much better at identifying needs and designing solutions.” Those “core groups” might be what are now called “the left behind” or the “hard to reach,” people who may generate huge costs to the welfare state but without getting much benefit. These are groups in whom Cottam is particularly interested.

“Beveridge,” writes Cottam, “had designed people and their relationships out of the welfare state.” She recognises the centrality of relationships to our lives and health. “Relationships – the simple human bonds between us – are the foundation of good lives. They bring us joy, happiness and a sense of possibility….Building on relationships enables the growth of further capability: supporting us to learn, contributing to good health and vibrant communities. Without strong bonds with others, or with unhealthy relationships, very few of us can feel fulfilled – or even function.”

Many people, including the authors of the NHS ten-year plan, have recognised the changing health needs of the population. When the NHS began the big health problems were infectious disease and trauma, problems that responded well to an industrial, transactional approach. Now the problems are long-term conditions, multimorbidity, poor mental health, loneliness, and the frailties of old age. One in three people over the age of 60 (2.4 million people) in Britain talks to another person only once a week, and one in 10 (850,000) only once a month. These are problems that don’t respond well to an industrial, transactional approach.

Much of Radical Help describes experiments where Cottam and others have designed ways of responding to “problem families,” the unemployed, people with long term health conditions, and the elderly. Building relationships is at the heart of all the experiments, but you don’t build relationships by importing a paid professional. Indeed, you can’t build relationships for people, they have to build them themselves: this is what is meant by “Building capabilities.”

Cottam approaches a problem like a designer, and unexpectedly and controversially was the UK Designer of the Year in 2005. She is a pioneer of what is called “social design,” and what was controversial 16 years ago is now mainstream.

The first step is to identify a problem—perhaps what are called “problem families,” unemployment, loneliness, aging, or health—and a location and partners with whom to work. Those for whom the services are designed must be part of the team: they are the ones most likely to have good ideas for redesigning the system. Many of the people who work with her come from statutory services but are frustrated, recognise the need for change, and are willing to try something different. Funding is needed, but usually is of an order less than that spent on the failing statutory services.

The second step is to define the opportunity, and this requires a great deal of listening. Who does the listening, who is asked, and how people listen all matter. Cottam tells the story of working in the Dominican Republic to find out why the poorest children didn’t go to school. The Ministry of Education said it was because the poorest children couldn’t afford school uniforms, but reducing the cost of unforms didn’t increase attendance. Cottam went into the poorest (and dangerous) districts and found that the real problem was that the poorest children didn’t have identity cards, but they didn’t want to tell this to the authorities. Listening works best with people who are not in authority but who are prepared to listen to those at the edges for a long time. The second step also involves some desk research.

The third step is not to devise a solution but rather a prototype response that may be continually modified. Resources must be unlocked, and there must be a business case made. Once the concept is validated the programme begins, evolving as it goes.

Cottam describes five experiments in the book, and one was concerned with trying to help people age well. The work began on housing estates in South London, and by listening to the elderly, many of them living alone and lonely, the team identified three requirements for good ageing: somebody to help with small jobs in the home; good company with people with shared interests and with whom you feel at ease; and a sense of purpose.

The team devised Circle, which was “part social club, part concierge service, and part co-operative self-help group.” People paid £30 to belong and were provided via a telephone line with practical support and a rich calendar of social events. The elderly asked for life coaches to help them to find purpose through changes like taking up part time jobs, but it soon became apparent that new friends were more use than life coaches. People needed encouragement to join, and “Those who lead Circles have the mindset of the perfect party host, making sure no one is left in a corner alone, or stuck with someone they don’t really like.” The character and style of leaders seems to be crucial. Much of the value of Circle comes from the build-up of relationships allowed to grow organically.

An independent evaluation of Circle found that four-fifths of members grew their capabilities; a quarter volunteered within Circle, helping to host thousands of hours of activities; 120 000 new relationships were fostered; and unnecessary reliance on formal services was reduced by a quarter. Circle has spread around the country, but Cottam recognises that it didn’t deal with those with severe dementia or those at the end of life. It seems to me, however, that it could be evolved to help with both.

The emphasis in Radical Help is on building capabilities. Cottam identifies four that she thinks matter the most: “learning: the ability to grow through enquiry and meaningful work – the chance to develop our imaginations; health: our inner and physical vitality are central to a flourishing life, and good health implies a delicate balance between the acceptance of our minds and bodies and a commitment to good habits; community: being part of and contributing at the local and planetary level to a sustainable way of life, working alongside others in an effort to bring about change or to make something together; and relationships: a supportive and close network with others, some of whom are similar to us and some of whom are different.*mainstream.”

Cottam is by no means alone in recognising the need for a radical change, a pivot, in the welfare state. Minouche Shafik, the director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, has just published a book, What We Owe Each Other, arguing for a fundamental change in the social contract. She points out that surveys show that “four out of every five people believe ‘the system’ is not working for them in the United States, Europe, China, India and various developing countries.” Shafik points out that Beveridge designed the welfare state for a very different world where most women didn’t have employment but married and looked after children and elderly relatives, men worked much of their lives at the same work that was well paid and died soon after retiring, children could expect to earn more their parents, the internet was not invented, single-person homes were rare, health problems were mostly infectious disease and trauma, the capabilities of medicine were modest, and death usually came swiftly. Shafik predicts that “The political turmoil we observe in many countries is only a foretaste of what awaits us if we do not rethink what we owe each other.”

The Economist too has observed how the modern welfare state is no longer fit for purpose and how the pandemic has accentuated its deficiencies. https://www.economist.com/briefing/2021/03/06/covid-19-has-transformed-the-welfare-state-which-changes-will-endure The state has had to support many more people and may have to continue to do so, but how best might that support be provided?

Shafik and the Economist are thinking mostly of high-level policies, but Cottam is concentrating on the changes that communities and individuals can take. Hers is a very practical as well as visionary book that local leaders can read and follow. I urge you to try.

“Dying is exhaustion, but ending is perfection”: poems on mortality by Tagore

A medical student friend urged me to On the Shores of Eternity: Poems by Tagore on Mortality and Beyond by Deepak Chopra. Most of the book is  the poems of Rabindranath Tagore, but it’s not clear whether they have been translated or simply collated by Chopra. Many of the poems are just two lines long.

Chopra writes a brief introduction (the whole book can be read in 45 minutes) that starts “Dying is a natural process, but our attitudes to it can be very unnatural.” I agree, and the book is urging us to recognise that “it is a myth to think that death is out there waiting for us. Death is here with us, tied into the flow of life.” I agree with that too.

I’ve read many poems by Tagore, including those promoted by Yeats, and I like them. They have a mystic feel, and perhaps Tagore is more of a mystic than a poet. I can see that some people might well dismiss him as neither a poet nor a mystic but that rather than as an Eastern charlatan cashing on the hope of people in the West that the East offers some sort of salvation.

I don’t think that, but Chopra himself may well be a fraud—albeit, a clever rich one. He is a physician turned prominent advocate of alternative medicine. I read this about him in Wikipedia:

“Chopra believes that a person may attain “perfect health”, a condition “that is free from disease, that never feels pain”, and “that cannot age or die”. Seeing the human body as undergirded by a “quantum mechanical body” composed not of matter but of energy and information, he believes that “human aging is fluid and changeable; it can speed up, slow down, stop for a time, and even reverse itself,” as determined by one’s state of mind. He claims that his practices can also treat chronic disease.”

He is accused—surely rightly—of pseudoscience. Does that matter when it comes to collecting poems by Tagore? I’ve decided not, and I enjoyed the book. I took many quotes, many of them whole poems.


Tagore knew the most profound subjects—love, truth, compassion, birth and death

What he saw looming on the other side wasn’t heaven or hell or even a personified God. He saw a paradox. Hew saw the unknown that he always knew.

Tagore quotes

Because I love this life I know I shall love death as well.

Don’t be ashamed of tears. The earth’s tears keep her flowers blooming

Dying is exhaustion, but ending is perfection

The night kissed the fading day

With a  whisper

“I am death, your mother,

From me you will get new birth.”


God moves swiftly

The leaves are born and die

God moves slowly

The stars are born and die

The answer

I heard the sea and asked

“What language is that?”

The sea replied,

“The language of eternal questions.”

I saw the sky and asked

“What holds the answer?”

The sky replied

“The language of eternal silence.”


When I think of ages past

That have floated down the stream

 Love and life and death,

I feel how free it makes us

 Pass away.


The coin of life is stamped with death

So that what we buy will be truly precious.


Life is given to us

Then we earn it by giving it back.


What you are you do not see.

What you see—that you are not.


The day is thanked for the flowers

That blossomed in the night.


I live in the world afraid to lose anything

Take me to your world where I can lose everything.

Should hubris be a disease?

I posted this on bmj.com in 2013 and have discovered it while searching for something else. I’d completely forgotten it, as I have most of what I’ve written, said, and done–but still much remains. https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2013/02/12/richard-smith-should-hubris-be-a-disease/

Should hubris be a disease, asks my friend Faith. After a second I conclude, “Of course. It’s perhaps the most dangerous disease of all in that it destroys not just individuals, but potentially our whole species.”

I think of hubris simply as men acting as gods (even though I don’t believe in gods). But Wikipedia defines hubris as “extreme pride or arrogance” and then continues: “Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.”

The Greeks first described hubris, and Greek mythology is full of examples. Perhaps the best example is King Midas who asked to be able to turn everything to gold and then turned his daughter to gold. Ovid’s Metamorphoses describe many who succumbed to hubris. Phaeton, son of  Helios, insisted on driving the chariot of the sun even though warned against it by his father. He would have burnt the world to a frazzle if not destroyed himself by a thunderbolt from Zeus.

Marsyas was a satyr who played the pan pipes beautifully and challenged the god Apollo to a musical contest. Whoever won would choose a punishment for the other. Apollo, of course, won, and Marsyas’s punishment was to be flayed alive, very slowly and carefully. In Titian’s famous painting of the scene, Marsyas is strung up by his goatish feet, and Apollo is flaying him. A pet dog drinks the blood. King Midas is there and supposedly has Titian’s features.

But we don’t have to go to Ancient Greece to find hubris. Chris Huhne is a fine example. For those outside Britain, he’s a prominent politician, a cabinet minister, and near leader of his party who 10 years ago was driving a car that was photographed speeding. His wife, as I write, is still on trial, but she took the points. As in Greek tragedy the story made it into the newspapers when Huhne left his wife for a bisexual woman and the scorned wife told all. Huhne denied everything until he was finally in court last week and pleaded guilty. It was hubris to get his wife to take the points, to say nothing for 10 years, and to deny everything until the final moment.

Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson, Conrad Black, Robert Maxwell, Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken, Michael Jackson, Adolf Hitler, and Silvio Berlusconi have all displayed hubris, and David Owen, a former British foreign minister, has written a book called The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power.

I learn from Wikipedia to my surprise that “In ancient Greek, hubris referred to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the abuser. The term had a strong sexual connotation, and the shame reflected on the perpetrator as well.” Inevitably this makes me think of Jimmy Saville, the British television presenter who was discovered after his death to have sexually abused hundreds of children and women over five decades.

You will notice that every person I’ve named is male. Might hubris be a disease like haemophilia, affecting only men except in the rarest circumstances? I turn back to my Ovid. Arethusa, Echo, Semele, and Myrrha are all women undone by love (perhaps a disease more harmful to women than men), but Arachne is a woman who succumbed to hubris: she challenged the god Minerva to a spinning competition, lost, and was turned into a spider.

Hubris is, of course, a disease closely associated to power, which may be one reason it is commoner among men. I’ve Tweeted asking for examples of female hubris, and within seconds I have Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Palin, and Margaret Thatcher (twice). None are wholly convincing. Is Margaret Thatcher an example? She was incapable of stepping down as leader and had to be discarded by her party. Those are symptoms of hubris, but they don’t seem to me to amount to the full disease. Iris Robinson, the wife of Northern Ireland’s first minister who had an affair with a 19 year old boy, is the only woman I can think of, but she too was perhaps more undone by love than power.

But is it a disease? The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is due out in May and will include hundreds of diagnoses, but hubris will not be one of them. I discover, however, that the David Owen whom I have mentioned already has published an article in Brain arguing that hubris is an acquired personality disorder.

I’ve been around diseases long enough to know that defining them is an arbitrary business driven by fashion not science, so whether we call hubris a disease is for me a pragmatic question. Could we prevent, screen for, or treat hubris—ameliorate its effects, in other words? I doubt it, so let’s not call it a disease.

But there is a defined response to hubris—nemesis, the punishment of the gods, something like being chained to a rock and having your liver pecked out every day by an eagle, only for it to grow again overnight, the punishment of Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods, the ultimate hubristic crime. Huhne must now be experiencing something similar.

What terrifies me most about hubris is that it is not just a disease of individuals.  I fear that medicine is suffering from hubris, going beyond what is human to keep us alive. Nemesis is aircraft hangers full of the demented. But worse the whole human race may have succumbed to hubris and so suffer nemesis. We have tried to be gods and rule nature, and nature is striking back. The Greeks saw it all coming.

The future of predatory publishing (and roofing)

I’m searching for a lost email in my spam file, and I’m struck that almost every spam is from a predatory journal (see picture). Although I’ve been marking such emails as junk for years, I’m still receiving a new one almost every day. How many predatory journals are there, I wonder?

Google tells me a pay-to-view list of predatory journals had 4000 entries in 2017 and in June 2020 had 13000. Wikipedia says that predatory journals published 53 000 articles in 2010 and 420 000 articles in 2014 in around 8000 active journals. I find the website Stop Predatory Journals https://predatoryjournals.com/about/ that lists thousands (see picture). I suspect that the number of these journals is no longer countable. They come and go at remarkable speed.

How much money are the predatory journals making? It was probably a lot in the early days when few people were sensitised to their existence. I remember that about a fifth of the articles from icddr,b were published in predatory journals in about 2015, and when I talked a year or two later about these journals to a group of internationally-known scientists many of them had not heard of them. But surely there are few scientists now who are not aware of them.

The predatory publishers will continue to make money because a few scientists will still not know about them and because some scientists will be tricked even though they do know about them. We discovered at icddr,b that some scientists did know about them but still published in them as it worked both parties: the publishers got their money, and the scientists got citations that they could put on their CVs knowing that most people examining the CVs would not know that the citations were to predatory journals–and the cost was lower than for “respectable journals.”

But how respectable are “respectable journals”? Many of them, it seems to me, are also engaged in predatory publishing. Whereas it used to be expensive to launch a paper journal and took years to achieve profitability, now the software allows the creation of an electronic journal overnight at almost no cost. All you need are a few publications with the authors paying and you are in profit. The financial incentive is to milk your “respectable” brand and churn out journals—and that is exactly what “respectable” publishers are doing.

Where and how will it end—or progress? I don’t know, but some sort of collapse seems likely. An obvious response by the producers of research would be to abandon journals and post their own research on their own websites, something that was predicted at the dawn of the internet. This research could be at full length with the data—and would be searchable. Such self-posting would also save huge costs.

Two things stop this happening: the needs for some sort of external validation and for some way of comparing the performance of academics from different institutions. But these should not be hard to overcome: universities already have their degrees validated by external regulators and examiners; and other ways apart from publications of ranking academics are available and are no worse than how much and where scientists publish. Indeed, there still will be publications.

As for predatory publishers, the laws of economics may do for them. As I learnt at Stanford, if X creates a new business that makes a profit then other companies will enter the market, reducing the profits of X. All the companies will have reduced profits, and eventually the profits may be so low that it makes sense for companies to quit the market. Companies compete on quality (service) and cost, and as predatory journals offer no (or minimal) quality they must compete on cost. As the cost of a new predatory journal must be tiny there is an incentive to produce more and more, trying to capture the market by simply having more journals than other publishers. That’s probably what’s driving the rapid escalation in numbers—not only new entrants but more journals from existing companies. Profits will, however, continue to fall—unless predatory publishers can reinvent the business in some way.

All of this takes me back to a conversation I had yesterday with the man whose company is insulating our roof. Because of global warming there is huge demand for roofers, and governments are subsidising people to insulate their roofs. Demand outstrips supply (as it does perhaps with science publishing), so cowboys have poured into the market. As with science publishing there is minimal regulation, and our reliable roofer tells us that he can’t keep up with demand and that many people are falling prey to dodgy roofers who charge them large sums for bad jobs. It’s easier for somebody attracted by the profits available to do a bad job than to train to do a good job—and sadly most homeowners won’t know the job is bad. The respectable roofer finds that he can’t recruit staff to grow his business because people don’t want to take the trouble to train properly. He says as well that “young people would rather sit a computer than climb into a roof in all weathers.”

This market failure means that the requirement to cut to as close to zero as possible the fifth of carbon emissions that come from homes will not be achieved, threatening the planet. Does the proliferation of predatory publishing by both predatory and “respectable” publishers threaten science? Possibly.

A different standard of proof for rape cases?

My wife and I discuss over lunch the evidence that Britain (and much of the world) has a “rape culture,” and she suggests that perhaps rape should attract a longer prison sentence. I’m sceptical that would achieve much when the real problem is that so few rapes result in a conviction. (Actually the “real problem” is having a culture that not only tolerates but almost encourages violence against women, but I’ll put that to one side for the moment.) Our conversation leads me to wonder if it might be right to have a different standard of proof in rape cases.

Rape is a criminal offence, which means that the standard of proof for a conviction is “beyond all reasonable doubt.” This is a very high level of proof, particularly when you must convince a jury of 12 (or at least most of them). I think of the level of proof in terms of the sensitivity and specificity of a diagnostic test: by setting such a high level of proof we know that many guilty people will be found not guilty and that very few not guilty people will be found guilty. Society has in effect decided that it is worse to convict a person who is not guilty than to let a guilty person go free. (I suspect that many people do not understand this and might not agree if they did.)

There are many reasons why rape does not result in conviction, and the main reason is probably that many women (and some men) do not complain to the police because they feel so ashamed and disgusted, worry they will not be believed, dread the process of being examined and giving evidence in court, and worry about the stigma that might be attached to them forever. Perhaps as well some women do not complain because they know how hard it is to achieve a conviction.

But even when women (and a few men) do complain to the police it is often hard to gain a conviction because it is one person’s word against another. The woman may insist that she did not consent, and the man may insist that she did. In such cases it may be impossibly hard to prove the rape “beyond all reasonable doubt,” especially if both the man and woman have drunk heavily, which is often the case.

Should the standard of proof be changed in rape cases to “on the balance of probabilities,” the standard of proof in civil cases? This would mean in cold epidemiological terms more convictions of guilty people but also more convictions of people who are not guilty. (In writing this I see

 that I am categorising people as guilty or not guilty when there must be shades of guilt. Going back to the analogy of diagnostic tests, doctors usually use a range of tests to make a diagnosis; and with all diseases  (except sudden death and rabies) you don’t simply have the disease you have more or less of the disease.)

I imagine that many lawyers would immediately be against changing the burden of proof for rape cases, arguing that it would be a breach of human rights to separate out one group of offenders. And where would it stop? Should a lesser burden of proof also be introduced for child murderers, terrorists, or any other crime that particularly appalls society? What appalls society changes. But could it be argued that rape is a special case because it often hinges on two people disagreeing on consent when nobody else was present—and because patriarchal society has a long tradition of abuse against women that must be reversed.

I don’t know, and I imagine that legal scholars must have discussed the issue endlessly; but the question fascinates me, which is why I’ve spent 30 minutes writing this blog.

Can somebody help me?

What is to be found in the gorge of hell? Virgil tells us

There in the entryway, the gorge of hell itself,

Grief and pangs of Conscience make their beds,

and fatal pale Disease lives there, and bleak Old Age,

Dread and Hunger, seductress to crime, and grinding Poverty,

all terrible shapes to see—and Death and deadly Struggle

and Sleep, twin brother of Death, and twisted, wicked Joys

and facing them at the threshold, War, rife with death,

and the Furies’ iron chambers, and mad, raging Strife

Whose blood-stained headbands know her snaky locks.

Virgil, a great poem, the living past, and my future

Virgil’s Aeneid is one of the world’s four greatest epic poems along with the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Dante’s Inferno, none of them in English, the most recent 500 years old. I’ve read two of them, the Aeneid and the Odyssey, in the past year, and I read Dante’s Inferno some 40 years ago. It’s time to read it again. The Iliad is so familiar that it seems pointless to read it.

Educated Europeans of the 19th century could read Latin and often Greek and could appreciate three of these poems in their full majesty. I have to make do with translations, but Robert Fagles has done a wonderful job with the Aeneid. I don’t think that I understood how good until I copied out some of the lines (see below), leading me to appreciate how they sing. I should probably read the book again, probably out loud.

The Aeneid is the story of how Aeneas left the destroyed Troy to found Rome, fulfilling the requirements of the gods. The poem draws on both the Iliad and the Odyssey and repeats some of what they describe. Much of the poem describes war, and, although the slaughter is graphically described, the poem celebrates war, particularly heroes like Aeneas and before him Achilles and Hector. I was reading War and Peace as I read the Aeneid, and Tolstoy, in contrast to Virgil, describes the pointlessness and confusion of war.

Of the 12 books that comprise the Aeneid the most interesting to me were book four, The Tragic Queen of Carthage, and book six, The Kingdom of the Dead. Dido falls madly on love with Aeneas and he with her, but then, at the dictate of the gods, he must abandon her. She immolates herself, cursing Aeneas and the people he will found:

“…let him be plagued in war by a nation proud in arms…

Let him grovel for help and watch his people die

A shameful death! And then, once he has bowed down

To an unjust peace, may he never enjoy his realm

                                                           …let him die

before his day

Virgil describes the origins of the centuries of war between Rome and Carthage that ends with the destruction of Carthage.

The Kingdom of the Dead is a visit to the Underworld like Dante’s Inferno, where Virgil is Dante’s guide. Virgil meets many of the great dead, including his father, but he also meets great unborn Romans, including Julius Caesar. This device allows him to celebrate Roman achievements while writing primarily about the founding of Rome. He has another device, the shield that the God Vulcan makes for Aeneas: it is decorated with great scenes from Roman history. The unborn Romans that Aeneas meets in the Underworld must drink from the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, before they can be born.

The gods play a great part in the poem. Venus, Aeneas’s mother, protects him, while Juno, wife of Jupiter is set on destroying him. I like the fact that gods of the Greeks and Romans have all the faults of humans. If we must have gods let them share our human failings.

One thing I discovered from reading the excellent introduction to the poem is that there is a tradition of dipping into the poem at some random point to predict your future. Supposedly Charles I did this before he was beheaded and read and read Dido’s curse, which I gave above but will repreat.

“…let him be plagued in war by a nation proud in arms…

Let him grovel for help and watch his people die

A shameful death! And then, once he has bowed down

To an unjust peace, may he never enjoy his realm

                                                           …let him die

before his day

Bernard Knox, an academic from Harvard, describes in the introduction how he dipped into the poem when he found a copy in a ruined building as an American soldier chasing the Nazis out of Italy. He read:

…a world in ruins…

For right and wrong change places: everywhere

So many wars, so many shapes of crime

Inform us; no due honour attends the plow.

The fields, bereft of tillers, are all unkempt

….throughout the world

Impious War is raging

I am now about to dip into the book to see what the future holds for me.

I read:

Then the Trojans throw themselves into labor,

launching their tall vessels down along the beach

And the hull rubbed sleek with pitch floats high again.

The end of lockdown.

Other quotes  took from the book:

Schooled in suffering, now I learn to comfort

Those who suffer to.

The powers of Massylian, an Ethiopian priestess, employed by Dido, who is “fixed on dying” after being abandoned by Aeneas

With her spells she vows to release the hearts

of those she likes, to inflict raw pain on others—

to stop the rivers in midstream, reverse the stars

in their courses, raise the souls of the dead at night

and make earth shudder and rumble underfoot—you’ll see—

and send he ash trees marching down the mountains

Lovers bound by unequal passion

Woman’s a thing

that’s always changing, shifting like the wind

You gods

Who govern the realm of ghosts, you voiceless shades and Chaos—

you the River of Fire, you far-flung regions hushed in night—lend me the right to tell what I have heard, lend your power

to reveal the world immersed in the misty depths of earth.

Achises, the dead father of Aeneas, “unfolds all things in order, one by one”


The sky and the earth and the flowing fields of the sea,

the shining orb of the moon and the Titan sun, the stars:

an inner spirit feeds them, coursing through all their limbs,

mind stirs the mass and the fusion brings the world to birth.

From their union springs the human race and the wild beasts,

the winged lives of birds and the wondrous monsters bred

below the glistening surface of the sea. The seeds of life—

fiery is their force, divine their birth, but they

are weighed down by the bodies’ ills or dulled

by earthly limbs and flesh that’s born for death.

That is the source of all men’s fears and longings,

joys and sorrows, nor can they see the heavens’ light

shut up in the body’s tomb, a prison dark and deep.

How each man weaves his web will bring him to glory or grief.

Each man has his day, and the time of life

is brief for all, and never comes again.

But to lengthen out one’s fame with action,

that’s the work of courage.

How blind man’s minds to their fate and what the future holds,

How blind to limits when fortune lifts men high.

Has Alex Salmond been touched by Allecto, mother of sorrows?

As I copied out these lines from Virgil’s Aeneid I thought of Alex Salmond, the former leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, who seems to have been gripped by some madness to destroy what he has spent his life seeking. The Gods are surely at work.

Allecto, mother of sorrows, up from her den

Where nightmare Furies lurk in hellish darkness.

Allecto—a joy to her heart, the griefs of war,

rage, and murderous plots, and grisly crimes.

Even her father, Pluto, loathes the monster,

even her own infernal sisters loathe her since

she shifts into so many forms, their shapes so fierce,

the black snakes of her hair that could so quickly…

Juno’s instructions to Allecto:

“…..You can make brothers

bound by love gear up for mutual slaughter,

demolish a house with hatred, fill it to the roofs

with scourges, funeral torches. You have a thousand names,

a thousand deadly arts. Shake them out of your teeming heart,

sunder their pact of peace, show crops of murderous war!

Now at a stroke make young men thirst for weapons

Demand them, grasp them—now.”

Virgil on rumour and “fake news”

Rumour, swiftest of all the evils of the world.

She thrives on speed, stronger for every stride,

slight with fear at first, soon soaring into the air

she treads the ground and hides her head in the clouds.

She is last, they say, our Mother Earth produced.

Bursting in rage against the gods, she bore a sister

for Coeus and Enceladus: Rumour, quicksilver afoot

and swift on the wing, a monster, horrific, huge

and under every feather in her body—what a marvel—

an eye that never sleeps and as many tongues as eyes

and as many raucous mouths and ears pricked up for news.

By night she flies aloft, between the earth and sky,

whirring across the dark, never closing her lids

in soothing sleep. By day she keeps her watch,

crouched on a peaked roof or place turret

terrorizing the great cities, clinging as fast

to her twisted lies as she clings to words of truth.