A Fortunate Man by John Berger

Years ago I was at a dinner party, one of the group being a quietly spoken woman who had largely stayed mute. Somebody happened to say that she had a good dentist. Suddenly this woman exploded. ‘How do you know he’s a good dentist’, she practically spat the words out. It wasn’t a question, it was an accusation. None of us really knew how to respond and I still don’t, despite having considered it a lot. Not being a dentist, how could I possibly ‘know’? Whereas she, it now transpired, was both a practising and academic dentist. We’d strayed onto her turf and there didn’t seem to be any getting off it. She mentioned no names, but talked darkly of dentists who were popular in Melbourne but who were clueless at their work. Gulp. My dentist was popular. I liked him. I went about calling him a ‘good dentist’. Suddenly my very teeth seemed to loosen in my jaw. I got a tooth ache on the spot.

So, let’s change that question to ‘How do we define why we see one doctor as good and another not?’

For me, it’s ‘bedside manner’. Some doctors have it, others don’t. Despite thinking it is vital, I have never tried to explain what it is. I’ve only felt either that I’ve been in its presence, or, more often, I haven’t. Having read this book, I can see how trivial my thoughts were. Berger took the opportunity to explore the question profoundly. I think it is important to note the wording of the question. We are not asking which doctor is better, we are asking which doctor we perceive as better and why.

Enter Dr Eskell, presented in the book as Dr Sassall.

How is it that Sassall is acknowledged as a good doctor? By his cures? This would seem to be the answer. But I doubt it. You have to be a startlingly bad doctor and make many mistakes before the results tell against you. In the eyes of the layman the results always tend to favour the doctor. No, he is acknowledged as a good doctor because he meets the deep but unformulated expectation of the sick for a sense of fraternity. He recognizes them.

The book begins by following Sassall about as he attends to patients. From the very beginning we are aware that he is nothing if not fallible. In the first scenario he tells witnesses to an accident in the forest that the victim will not lose his leg. He does. What confidence on the part of both doctor and writer to begin this way.

And then, after these descriptions, Berger starts his process of analysing what it all means.

This individual and closely intimate recognition is required on both a physical and psychological level. On the former it constitutes the art of diagnosis. Good general diagnosticians are rare, not because most doctors lack medical knowledge, but because most are incapable of taking in all the possibly relevant facts – emotional, historical, environmental as well as physical. They are searching for specific conditions instead of the truth about a man which may then suggest various conditions. It may be that computers will soon diagnose better than doctors. But the facts fed to the computers will still have to be the result of intimate, individual recognition of the patient.

On the psychological level recognition means support. As soon as we are ill we fear that our illness is unique. We argue with ourselves and rationalize, but a ghost of the fear remains. And it remains for a very good reason. The illness, as an undefined force, is a potential threat to our very being and we are bound to be highly conscious of the uniqueness of that being. The illness, in other words, shares in our own uniqueness. By fearing its threat, we embrace it and make it specially our own. That is why patients are inordinately relieved when doctors give their complaint a name. The name may mean very little to them; they may understand nothing of what it signifies; but because it has a name, it has an independent existence from them. They can now struggle or complain against it. To have a complaint recognized, that is to say defined, limited and depersonalized, is to be made stronger. The whole process, as it includes doctor and patient, is a dialectical one. The doctor in order to recognize the illness fully – I say fully because the recognition must be such as to indicate the specific treatment – must first recognize the patient as a person: but for the patient – provided that he trusts the doctor and that trust finally depends upon the efficacy of his treatment – the doctor’s recognition of his illness is a help because it separates and depersonalizes that illness.

There are certainly openings for criticising this book. Berger perhaps goes too far in his attempts to explain what he sees. As some have noted, he is not exactly waving the flag for feminism either. I think it’s obvious that Berger is feeling his way and that we may see this book as the precursor to what then became his life’s work, writing of the European peasant and his vanishing world. Without his thinking hard about Sassell and his community, I find it difficult to see that he would have picked up that cause.

But the most interesting point to be made is that both individual doctors and the medical establishment at large still place such great weight upon it. The faint praise waved in its direction by the ordinary reader, as represented on Goodreads, is incredibly different from the place it holds in medical literature.

Professor Roger Jones, in 2015 as editor of the British Journal of General Practice wrote that ‘First published in 1967, this is one of those must-read general practice books, essential for every trainer, trainee and practice library, and one, I suspect, which has been more frequently recommended than read.’ The review starts out in rather uncomplimentary terms, but grudgingly ends:

However, re-reading it at one sitting very recently, I recognised the limpid beauty of some of Berger’s prose, the subtlety of his descriptions of nature and of human interactions,  and his insights into the needs of ordinary people faced with illness, anguish and loss. His – or is it Sassall’s? – understanding of the role of the general practitioner as a witness and a “clerk of record”, needs to be widely understood, and never more so in these days of therapeutic miracles and performance indicators, when the unmeasurable essence of patient care can so easily be overlooked.

In my opinion, Jones, like lots of others, doesn’t understand that Berger is not painting Sassell as a saint, far from it. He is clearly concerned that Sassell is a human being trying to do things that are humanly not possible. And it is made obvious in the text that the ‘Fortunate’ of the title is not a positive thing. Rather, it is the cause of the doctor’s undoing. I don’t see at any point during the book anything but concern from Berger. Nobody could read this book and be surprised that its subject killed himself.

In 2005, on the occasion of a general celebration of Berger’s work, a special session on A Fortunate Man was held.  Leading up to it,  Dr Gene Feder said that it was ‘…still the most important book about general practice ever written.’

The plug for it continued:

Speakers will include Iona Heath, Tony Calland (who was a partner in John Sassall’s practice), Patrick Hutt (a recently qualified doctor and author of Confronting an III Society), Jane Simpson (junior doctor), Michael Rosen (broadcaster and writer) and Sukhdev Sandu (critic and writer). They will talk about what the book means to them and what it still has to tell us almost four decades after it was first published.

In 2009, in a post by Dr Peter Kramer, he comments not only on how influential this book was on his own determination to become a doctor, but quotes Iona Heath  “If I could choose only one book on the planet, it would be this book.” She said it on the occasion of the 2005 event at which a reissue of the book was launched.

On the evening of 26 April 2005, nearly forty years after its publication, and as part of a short London season of events based around the work of John Berger, over 200 people, many of them doctors, packed into one of the lecture theatres at Queen Mary College, London, to testify to one extraordinary book which had shaped their lives and political beliefs. The event was sponsored by the Royal College of General Practitioners, who have just republished it.

Professor Ken Worpole, later commented in his report of the event that ‘Rereading A Fortunate Man I was astonished to realise that I had absorbed many of the passages in it by heart and have paraphrased them as my own thoughts and insights over the past forty years, forgetful of their origins in this remarkable work.’ His report continues

Two junior doctors, Jane Simpson and Patrick Hutt, dwelt on the impact A Fortunate Man had had on them during medical training, when they experienced the feeling of belonging to two completely different worlds, of clinical practice and human community, the understanding of the latter being almost entirely missing from their training. While their medical education had prepared them for the functions and malfunctions of the human body, it had in no way prepared them for the glaring inequalities in life experience and shocking levels of material deprivation they found out in the wider world. Nor for the stresses and feelings of guilt when tragedies occurred.

To an audience made up largely of men and women in general practice, the National Health Service as a political ideal still seemed to have been one of the great achievements of British politics in the 20th century. Yet its implicit political meanings were perceived to be under attack as never before. Ideals of public service were being replaced by market-based contracts. While it was a good thing that the older deference of the past had been replaced by a greater degree of parity of esteem between doctor and patient, the more communitarian aspects of the doctor’s role had been negated in a target and output-based culture.

In 2016 we find in the British Journal of General Practice The process of empathy: insights from John Berger’s A Fortunate Man by David Jeffrey.

And somewhat earlier,  in 2001 In search of A Fortunate Man by JS Huntley, DPhil, also appearing in The Lancet. Huntley literally went on this search.

Why is this book so enduring, even though the very idea of the sort of doctor inspiring it has been killed by the system long ago? The Lancet used to (still does?) have a section called Literature and Medicine. Gillie Bolton in Stories at work: reflective writing for practitioners begins by saying

Every triumph, disaster, or joy of our lives is a story waiting to be written. We create this dynamic literature about ourselves and patients, patients create it about us, and colleagues give us principal or walk-on parts in their own dramas. Stories and poems in The Lancet, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the British Medical Journal bear witness to this. These are well-thumbed pages; even doctors who claim never to peruse these journals know these stories. Why? Because such stories are data-banks of experience, knowledge, and skill: they are embedded in practice. Reading or hearing stories makes skilled experience and knowledge available not only to colleagues, trainees, and students, but also to the writers themselves. Reflective writers can study their own decision-making processes, relationships with colleagues, and responses to patients; analyse their hesitations, and gaps in skill and knowledge; and face difficult and painful episodes.

From this point of view, Berger’s book is merely part of a historical tradition, if one that has survived particularly persistently, perhaps because of his input. But John Berger is one of those who suffers from being many things. Artist, novelist, playwright, non-fiction writer, and this, a new type of book as we discover in Professor Poynor’s piece on A Fortunate Man as design. Here you will see what is special about this book from a completely different point of view and also understand the publication process and its impact. He comments that

In 1965, in an article in Typographica no. 11, Berger argued the need for new relations between words and images: “No editor yet thinks of a photographic library as a possible vocabulary; nobody dares to place images as precisely in relation to a text as a quotation would be placed; few writers yet think of using pictures to make their argument.” His most famous book, Ways of Seeing (1972), designed by Richard Hollis, applies exactly this principle.

A Fortunate Man, the first in a trilogy of innovative collaborations with Mohr — see also A Seventh Man (1975) and Another Way of Telling (1982) — was Berger’s first book-length attempt to mix words and images together in a way that invited readers to treat them on their own terms as contiguous but distinct kinds of information. Berger and Mohr had certainly seen Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) about sharecropper families in the depression, though the photographic section and Agee’s documentary text are not permitted to intermingle in that book. And it’s possible that they were also aware of W. Eugene Smith’s ground-breaking “Country Doctor” photo-story in Life, October 11, 1948. “Both Jean and I have a considerable admiration for Eugene Smith,” Berger writes in their book At the Edge of the World (1999).


Poynor has this thoughtful comment to make about the manipulation of the book’s last photo for the paperback edition:

Perhaps the most striking change Cinamon made in the paperback was to the final image of Sassall climbing the path to his house. “I hesitate to admit that, to make more visual sense of the ending of the book, I reversed the photograph so that the doctor was trudging off the right-hand page — nothing less than a criminal act! I hope I had Berger’s approval,” he writes in an unpublished private note he made about his design. On the following spread, Cinamon also repeats the central detail of Sassall climbing: a kind of cinematic “iris-in.” For me, these devices don’t feel necessary, though most of the book’s readers will know it in this form. The original Sisyphean image, in which Sassall seems to double back and return with a determined stride to the pages of his own story, is perfectly appropriate to the intense, troubled nature of the man and the book’s inward-turning reflectiveness.

And thus he ends with a plea for ‘republication in a new fully restored and annotated edition of the original fluid design.’ I can see I’m going to have to get a copy of the original if I can.

I’m old enough to have seen the changes in what a GP is supposed to be. From somebody involved in your life, to one who spits out patients at a rate of 8 minutes per appointment. Ready, set…your time starts now, keep your eye on the clock please. Mostly you see strangers at large clinics which are devoid of any human touch. Yet only a couple of months ago one could see this in the British press:

Keeping the same doctor reduces death risk, study finds. New research suggests continuity and bond between patient and doctor not only improves level of care, but can also save lives.

Could anybody possibly be surprised by this? However dehumanised the process of doctoring and patienting has become, evidently there is something else that is better, perhaps something that both doctor and patient want. That this book still haunts us is a clue as to why.


In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

4.30pm yesterday Start reading page one.

4.31pm Tablet makes noise. Stop to check email.

4.35pm Continue reading page one.

4.36pm Check phone, may be a test message.

Well, it would be easy enough, evidently, for most people’s diary of reading this book to go like that. But I, and most people who are important to me, aren’t like that. We hardly ever turn on our phones, if we do, we forget that they are on, get the text message days later. Don’t have smart phones.

I suspect Alan Lightman will never have the right audience. People like me don’t live in the way he rues. The people who might get something out of it aren’t going to. In fact, he pretty much concedes that it’s a do as I say, not as I do book. He did get a smart phone, later than other people, and was addicted within days.

One of the things I love about having a proper computer, with a proper screen, is that it’s in its proper place. It isn’t part of me. It’s part of the room it sits in. Very occasionally it goes on a trip and reappears in another part of the world, part of another room. Never part of me. Going to my computer is a conscious act and this keeps addiction to a minimum. When I do go through periods of sitting there, ‘wasting time’ it’s for a purpose, pretty much that which is, after all, the message of the book. There are some things one can look at in a sort of Zen way, if you like, whilst sitting on a computer, whilst one’s brain is in the background, figuring something out. It can be calming, it can be a way of pushing stress away. I collect on Pinterest pictures of green. Perhaps for a person living in the middle of a European cityscape with no chance to take the daily meandering rural walks as a child Lightman wistfully refers to, these take the place. I hope they aren’t just an addiction.

But I spend substantial periods away from my computer too. Lightman doesn’t talk about cooking, but much of the ‘drudgery’ involved is mindless, exactly the sort of time one’s mind can transport itself. Washing up, chopping, stirring. One of the reasons I resist using machines to do the work of chopping is that it would take away that time, it would replace it with ugly noise and forced concentration. Lightman also doesn’t mention knitting, the Zen of nice white women who are wealthy enough to do knitting for the process without concern for the time taken. A privilege we have, that our mothers didn’t, who knitted furiously to get that jumper we needed ready for the moment.

I walk everywhere, unplugged. There was a period in my life when I listened to music while walking, but I seem to have left that long ago. I have never driven so the anger and stress of that appallingly wasted time has never been part of my life. On public transport I read. Or stare out the window. Or knit. Contemplate.

Time – of course it’s our enemy in the end. We will run out of it. But on a day to day basis it is not my enemy, it has little to do with my life. When walking, if presented with the shorter path which has the pollution (in every respect, especially noise) of motors or the peace of the pedestrian path, the latter is taken almost every time.

There is nothing special about any of this, they are choices we all make. Many choose to be plugged in so that they don’t hear the trees as they walk along the lake. Many choose to take a photo of their surrounds, rather than look at them. Many choose to evaluate their lives through the competition of Facebook. In the case of time, I’ve often been accused of having the time to spare, to for example, cook properly. But I make that choice. The person accusing me of it spends a lot of time watching football on TV. They don’t see the choice as they cook indifferent meals for their children, butchershop marinated meat, supermarket chopped vegetables. On the one hand, I suppose it is something I give people, cooking properly for them. On the other, for much of the process I get the possibility of the sort of time Lightman says he wants, but can’t give himself. Not really. He doesn’t even convince himself properly, let alone the rest of us.

He says nothing we didn’t already know in this book, perhaps he says some of it a little better, being the nice writer and thinker that he is. But….it’s a TED talk. Sigh. Converted into a little book (because it isn’t long enough to sustain a normal sized book) padded out with pictures which I found irrelevant and irritating. I would have preferred more words for my money, if I’d been the sort of person to buy such a book. Which I’m not.

The book itself is part of a series, the TED talk capitalist drive at work. I guess people get suckered into buying the lot. I don’t see it rising above the morass of that whole industry.

I don’t see why the book and the talk couldn’t have just said this:




Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I read this several years ago, and catching up now to put pen to page.

All games players should read the first half or so of this book. As I read it, page after page was covered in notes, ‘yes’ ‘no’ ‘really?’ ‘but’….

What Kahneman discusses in this book is something we’ve all known in a less rigorous way, perhaps – the intuitive and the analytical paths to decision making and action.

Two Systems

Psychologists have been intensely interested for several decades in the two modes of thinking evoked by the picture of the angry woman and by the multiplication problem, and have offered many labels for them. I adopt terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, and will refer to two systems in the mind, System 1 and System 2.

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.

System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

The labels of System 1 and System 2 are widely used in psychology, but I go further than most in this book, which you can read as a psychodrama with two characters.

Surely you chess and bridge players are already sitting up and paying attention. We all know about that psychodrama. He continues:

When we think if ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book. I describe System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. The automatic operations of System 1 general surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps. I also describe circumstances in which System 2 takes over, overruling the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. You will be invited to think of the two systems as agents with their individual abilities, limitations, and functions.

Of course this hasn’t been written with game players in mind, and you may, like me, find yourself disagreeing with some of the ideas here. For a start, System 1 is based on the infinite hard work of System 2. As far as playing games go, you aren’t born with S1, it grows and improves because of S2. However, it is definitely food for thought and may help clarify aspects of how you are thinking and how you might address issues.

Educational and sometimes astonishing when it comes to how bad we humans are at dealing with data. There is a chapter dealing with Linda.  It’s quite incredible to see that around 90% of undergrads at major universities (I assume US), when presented with details leading to this:

Which alternative is more probable?
Linda is a bank teller.
Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

As the author notes, 89% of undergraduates had violated the rules of probability.

Equally, people were more likely to favour as more likely, the scenario of ‘an earthquake in California leading to a massive flood’, than they were the scenario of ‘a massive flood in the US’

and, most amusingly for all my sports betting friends, the scenario set at Wimbledon with Borg #1 at the time:

A. Borg will win the match
B. Borg will lose the first set
C. Borg will lose the first set but win the match
D. Bord will win the first set but lose the match

The critical items are B and C. B is the more inclusive event and its probability must be higher than that of an event it includes. Contrary to logic, but not to representativeness or plausability, 72% assigned B a lower probability than C

An important part of the book looks at financial investment at low and high levels. Highly worth reading to see what is being done to us from the top.



Legends of Our Time by Elie Wiesel

I discovered after reading this, that Wiesel is a controversial figure. I’m not talking about the anti-Semitic loons or the woman who wanted to join the ‘me too’ campaign. Rather, within the body of work that stands as ‘Lest We Forget’, there is much debate as to what his testament means, whether he has betrayed those he writes of, himself included, how his work fits into what others have done. He was the rockstar of the Holocaust preservation, the first to force non-Jewish people to acknowledge the horror. Yet he only managed to do that by watering down what he had to say, a process that started with The Night, his French and then English version of a much longer work written in Yiddish for an entirely different audience.

As has been noted by scholars in the field, the watering down process wasn’t only about making something that was palatable to the world that was complicit in the murder of millions of Jews. It made sense that a different audience would be presented with a differently written, more culturally accessible work.

However, there is also the issue of memory, what a memoir is, at which point it becomes a lie. Much has been written about this too in reference to Wiesel, and in particular his juxtaposition with James Frey on the Oprah Bookshow (whatever that is).

For my part, I can understand the impossibility of saying the same thing to the people you are accusing as to the people to whom wrong is done.  It is so easy to understand the humiliation as well as the rage. Even the idea of silence, as a major theme. What I find hard to relate to is the mysticism that is fundamental to his interpretations of the world. His rage feels as genuine as his talk of forgiveness feels forced. I can believe whole-heartedly in the one, not at all in the other.

This may be entirely my failing. I’ve never been religiously inclined and the notion of ‘forgive and forget’ does not sit easily with me. Eventually one sort of forgets. With that comes something which isn’t forgiveness, more like a moving on, I suppose, which takes the place of that more noble sentiment.

In any case, can one have it both ways? Forget in some personal way, and never forget in some social way which we believe is vital to the prevention of such events in the future? I had the misfortune to go to Berlin’s memorial for murdered Jews a few years ago. Full of people taking selfies and having fun. It could scarcely have been more offensive to point of the place. Richard Brody wrote of it:

The title doesn’t say “Holocaust” or “Shoah”; in other words, it doesn’t say anything about who did the murdering or why—there’s nothing along the lines of “by Germany under Hitler’s regime,” and the vagueness is disturbing. Of course, the information is familiar, and few visitors would be unaware of it, but the assumption of this familiarity—the failure to mention it at the country’s main memorial for the Jews killed in the Holocaust—separates the victims from their killers and leaches the moral element from the historical event, shunting it to the category of a natural catastrophe. The reduction of responsibility to an embarrassing, tacit fact that “everybody knows” is the first step on the road to forgetting.

Why no names, he asks? The victims are shrouded in abstract concrete anonymity, as are the murderers.

Nothing I read in this book of Wiesel’s shakes my conviction that the process goes on. It may have been hidden for a while, but it was never not there. The idea that it has ‘come back’ like it had disappeared because WWII was lost, for example, by the murderers of the Jews could not be further from the truth. It has never not been there. Not before, and not after WWII. The despising glee Wiesel describes on the faces of his Transylvanian neighbours as the town’s Jews were sent off to the camps has never changed. It only goes underground now and again when that is the right strategic thing to do.

Right now around the world anti-Semitism is going public in a million different ways. What happens when we permit ourselves to forget, to think that things are different now, is that they become the same. The Guardian reported a story a few days ago about a National Trust event in which Nazi uniforms were worn and displayed. The organiser denied this, but in fact a plethora of photos from the event showing them being worn gives the lie to that.

The purpose of the extremity of the Far Right and on-going Nazi groups is that its very existence makes this event acceptable. It’s okay, it’s just part of ‘living history’. It’s not like we actually bashed Jews or something. And before you know it, none of it means anything anymore. Anti-Semitism will simply be upfront  normal again instead of hidden where it should be in sewers with rats.

So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that when I wrote to the National Trust to complain about the very idea of this ‘Living History’ display of Nazis, to receive back a reply which barely contained its irritation with me. In particular I note that is said:

Historical re-enactments can help raise awareness of important and difficult moments from the past and bring stories to life in an engaging way. We don’t therefore have an issue with re-enactments in themselves but do believe they should be done sensitively.

My eyes are stuck still on the words ‘engaging’ and ‘sensitively’. How could these words ever be used to talk of such things? The answer is, because the events don’t really matter because they never did. Except to Jewish people, of course. And they will never stop paying the price.

Update 28/8/18 update 28/8/18 And even as we write and read, Naziism continues to come out of its hiding place to take its preferred place on the stage. And no great surprise to see that even (or especially?) Hitler salutes are ignored by the police, despite being illegal. The reason? Appeasement. ‘…a desire not to escalate an already tense situation had forced them to hold back.’ The police are the grand-children of Nazis too.

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

To begin with a mea culpa. Even though I knew Catte was fighting against the stereotypes, I still expected this book to be a sort of coffee table book one might find described in Stuff White People Like. A sumptuous publication in large format comprising artistic black and white photos of…weird poor people. Nice white people could talk about how awful it all is and how they wish they could do something about it. (Pass the organic vegan caviar, please.)

What did I ‘know’ about Appalachia before I read this? Image one: said black and white pictures. Image two: fiddle music. Image three: Deliverance. So yeah, not just fiddles, banjoes too.

As a consequence of this, if somebody had asked me, I would have guessed that Appalachia was small. It fits the homogeneity of the sense of the place. See? Place. Place is small. It’s a thing that’s clearly identifiable. Wrong word. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

One of the first things I found out, opening this small book, is that Appalachia is huge, encompassing many States and many millions of people. It would seem obvious, just from that fact, that it isn’t going to be homogeneous. This book is out to fight that, explaining how it has happened so that you understand why you’ve been duped.

It’s sort of an enraged lament, explaining the process of how we got to a particular point in US history which I hadn’t heard of before I read this book. Hillbilly Elegy. On Goodreads over 60 of my friends have read it, compared with a tally of four for this volume. Let’s lament just a little louder then, as we realise how many people have bought into the prejudice of Vance’s best seller.

There is a book coming out soon, Unwhite: Appalachia, Race and Film by Meredith McCarroll who says “Its central argument is that Appalachian people in cinema have been portrayed as phenotypically white, but using the same tropes that have long been used to portray non-whites in film.” If only that were it, films getting it wrong. The heartbreaking point of Catte’s volume is that this is a universal tendency, founded long ago, entrenched by those whose interests are served by it, and supported by the academic community which might largely hang its collective head in shame.

One of the more wrenching moments of a book which is full of them, is to find out that at Catte’s alma mater, not only has Hillbilly Elegy become required reading, but it has been put together with a deal to buy one of those books of photos which maintains the false image. For Catte on Hillbilly Elegy, which will give you a taste of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia go here. Eugenicists like Vance’s message. It makes you wonder what sort of educational culture presides in the US of A.

This is no reference book. It’s venting spleen, written in a way I assume she would not write with her historian’s cap on. There are no references, but a detailed reading list for where to go next. In a short, small form, it succinctly puts the reader in the shoes of those who live in this vast area. She makes you part of the action as she describes the long history of labour fighting capitalism, of capitalism cozying up with the academic sociologists and such like, of environmentalists – that is to say, ordinary people turned into activists by their foes – fighting for the preservation of the sweetness of the mountain areas as they are destroyed by coal production, amongst other evils. You watch the pregnant woman next to you being kicked by strike breakers. You watch sociologists agreeing with capitalists who want people off their own land, that it is for their own good to take them from their homes. You watch ordinary people being literally defined as cases for forced sterilisation because it makes it a moral imperative to take them from their homes, whether that be to rip mountains apart to mine coal, or to preserve areas for rich white people to take their vacations.

If you want a nuanced, if angry, view of this exploited expanse of the US, this is an excellent place to start, and it will guide you as to where to go next.

Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions by Christian Lander

These books are hilarious and really, the most hilarious thing about them is that white people think they are hilarious. Why is that?

I mean, it’s all true. But why doesn’t that mean that white people DON’T find it funny?????!

Read this morning:

To fully understand why white people love [Adult Swim] so much you have to understand the world of ‘under-ground animation,’ which is something that has been beloved by white people since Fritz the Cat. The more hard-core white people (single white men) will often take their passion for this type of animation so far as to attend an ‘Alternative Animation Festival,’ often held at movie theatres you thought were long abandoned.

So true! I took a couple of white men to a Fritz the Cat movie in Sydney ages ago now. It was held in a cinema in Glebe which was in the process of being condemned. Indeed, we all had to sit in the balcony level, I believe because it had been decided, all things considered, that it was better to fall than be fallen upon. Frankly, I thought the chances of falling were pretty good: any time anybody did something as vigorous as cross their leg, the entire balcony structure shook.

And, on the subject of bread:

It would be nice to believe that a white person has a choice in bread or cereal, but in reality they don’t.

When a white person is asked ‘Whole wheat or white?’ they are legally prohibited from saying ‘white.’ Watch them at any sandwhich shop or restaurant where they are given a choice. It is so ingrained in their heads that when presented with a list of options they will not let the waiter continue after he has said the words whole wheat….

Though they strongly prefer whole wheat bread, white people will eat white bread when there are no other options. And they will generally enjoy it, making the best of a bad situation.

When this happens you might be tempted to tell white people that being forced to choose white due to a lack of options sounds like your collegiate dating career. It is recommended that you avoid this, as white people might find this offensive. Not because you were forced to date white people, but because it will remind them that they are going to have to get their fibre from something else.

Following on from that, one of the things I find odd about white people is that although they do their very best to make sure people in refugee camps get more rice and water, they themselves think that they, white people, and their dogs should have the very very best modern scientific diet letting them live the very best life for longest. That would be hilarious, but somehow…

I don’t know. I guess somewhere Christian Lander makes that funny too.

Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major by Bob Woffinden, James Plaskett

I came upon this book via an internet post by GM Plaskett which discussed the case of the infamous coughing Major on the British version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’. He suggested, based on his own experience of the show and his watching of the video of the Major’s episodes, that Charles Ingram was innocent. It’s important to give the Major a name, since he has gone through that experience of being turned into a non-person partly by taking his name from him.

I was immediately hooked. As a bridge player I’d followed stories of cheating in bridge and done some investigation of my own, not only into the contemporary game of bridge, but also its predecessor whist, and earlier card and dice games. The story sounded very similar to ones I’d looked at, a person found guilty, but was the evidence enough? The authors kindly organised to send me a copy of the book and I devoured it.

That was a couple of years ago and I’ve been sitting on it since, because….I wasn’t sure what I really thought. Reading the book, it is clear that there has been a miscarriage of justice from a legal point of view. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that based on the arguments and evidence presented by investigative journalist Bob Woffinden and Plaskett. And yet, as I read, even though I felt that the case for innocence was compelling, I nonetheless wasn’t convinced that this constituted the facts of the matter.

I looked at video on Youtube which shows Ingram in action, and I felt more doubtful. Unfortunately there isn’t undoctored video available as I understand it, and I’m watching it as somebody who knows what they are supposed to see. Scarcely ideal.

Still, it made me think back to some of the old cheating scandals in bridge. Often the story would be similar to this games show one, involving accusations of coughing or sniffing, or foot tapping or some such signalling to illegally convey information.

A common argument by those accusing others of cheating was a sense of feeling at the table that something was wrong. My own opinion, in the absence of proper proof of a system of cheating, was that there needed to be bridge evidence, and that this was sorely missing. Often hands were interpreted as evidence of cheating when other interpretations of what took place, more innocent ones, were possible, but not considered. I was, as a consequence, entirely intolerant of the idea that a bad sniff combined with a surprising outcome in the cards, was sufficient to convict a person.

We do, after all, live under a system of innocent until proven guilty. And yet, reading this book makes me feel some sympathy for those who don’t want due process, even though I disagree with them.

This book is a fascinating account of the legal side of what happened, how Ingram was convicted in court and the obvious unfairness of the process. It is equally an eye-opener on how the TV quiz system works. It is anything but fair to the people trying to get onto it, making its profits from this process. One can see how it becomes a situation of ‘us vs them’, where depending on your point of view, ‘us’ is the TV show trying to stop people colluding to get onto it or it is the innocent public doing what they can to avoid the horrendous phone bills which mount up as they try to qualify for the show. The book indicates that the show even advertised that it was still possible to ring in to try to get spots when in fact the selection for the series in question must have closed. Not a good look from the show and no surprises that people felt that they were up against a powerful force which they had to beat.

I wonder how often straightforward cheating might start from such a relatively moral position? Beginning with a sense of conviction that one is only realigning the stars and gradually, believing in one’s own moral position, forgetting altogether what is right and wrong. And is it what happened in this case?

As I write, a play of the whole sorry affair is showing in London’s West End: Quiz. It’s closing in a week or so, unfortunately, as I would have gone to see it in July. The play involves the audience, they are given keypads to register how they feel at the half way point after watching the prosecution case, and then again at the end after the defence. Interestingly it is at least generally the case that the audience changes its mind from guilty to innocent. Isn’t this how justice should work?

It prompted Chris Tarrant to write a piece exhorting prospective show goers not to believe what is dished up to them – that Ingram’s innocence is in doubt. You may think that the arguments presented in the article are overwhelming, but please do read the book and see a balanced discussion by two men who know what they are talking about!