Wednesday, 29 July 2009

“Spinal Trap”, Simon Singh

The UK's laws on libel are widely regarded as some of the most restrictive in the world, and one of the few instances where the burden of proof is placed on the defendent - in short, you are guilty until proven innocent.

While the guiding principle of this legislation, i.e. to prevent publication of material that damages the reputation of a person or organisation, is laudable and should encourage good journalistic practice, there is a worrying trend seeing libel laws being used to stifle open debate, most significantly well known author and broadcaster Simon Singh being sued for an article he published in the UK newspaper, The Guardian. This has resulted in the original article being removed from the Guardian's website, and represents a challenge to the ability of people to question what may appear to be spurious claims made, in particular, by alternative therapy practitioners.

In protest at this, many websites and blogs are reprinting Simon Singh's article, drawn from David Colquhoun's DC's Improbable Science blog. I am very proud to join this movement by providing an outlet for Simon Singh, whose superb article fully deserves to be read.

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

“The Chalk Circle Man”, Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas, described by the Guardian as “the hottest property in contemporary French crime fiction today” and winner of the Crime Writers' Association International Dagger multiple times undeniably has a head of steam behind her in terms of expectation creation. In this light “The Chalk Circle Farm” held a lot of promise, combining an author new to me with a Parisian setting, a location with so much potential for absorbing crime fiction.

The premise is pleasing at the outset. Adamsberg a quirky yet visionary detective with an ability to see deeper meanings in ordinary events, and Danglard, a more grizzled traditional cop with issues often trod in crime fiction supply provide good raw material for the sort of policing double act that fiction thrives upon.

Inherently Vargas' writing, and the way the translation is handled by Sian Reynolds, feels as though it's very good in a literary way. This is a book that leaves you in no doubt that there are depths to it and that by reading it you are being improved. This, as Francis Bacon would have put it, is the sort of book to be chewed and digested; and herein for me lies the problem. In using crime as the hook from which to hang high literature Vargas lessens the impact of the crime. The initial premise, that the Parisian police would be so engaged by what initially seems like trivial graffiti, indeed that anyone would notice scrawled blue chalk circles amidst the bustle of Paris does not ring true. This frustrates, when Adamsberg declares that “[t]here's cruelty oozing out of those circles”, the writing comes across as powerful, but that the time can be spent to think about it and identify the cruelty stretches credibility.

I'm sure this says as much about me as it does about Vargas' writing, but I struggle with metaphysical literature. “The Chalk Circle Man” is full of symbolism and concepts of how the notions of reality start and stop – which is interesting, provocative, and sadly not really what I'm after in something categorised as 'crime'. Indeed, this is much less a book about murder, and much more a work about reality – a fact that in retrospect is continually signposted – one of the first references to objects left in the chalk circles talks of two books, contrasting the “Metaphysics of the Real” with “The Fun to Cook Book”. This theme is most clearly shown in the workings of the supporting cast - the blind man, the scarred oceanographer, the deserted spinster. These, initially engaging, come across less as rounded people as devices to serve ontological purposes, creating different views of the world in which the events can take place. It works effectively on this level, but it is inherent in such a work that by doing this well the nature of 'realism' is challenged, which raises questions about whether this is an effective work of crime fiction. If we accept that there are multiple realities is the crime, and ultimately the murder, still something tangible and real?

As Fiona Walker puts it in her review on Eurocrime, these are “not for people who demand gritty realism from their crime fiction”, and while I think there can sometimes be too much grit in crime fiction, this more ethereal writing doesn't gel with what I'm looking for in a roman policier.

Friday, 24 July 2009

“Razor’s Edge: The Unofficial History of the Falklands War”, Hugh Bicheno

I'm lucky enough to remember the Falklands War. I was 9 when the invasion took place and my 10th birthday was two weeks before the Argentine surrender. To this day I remember walking through Kew Gardens discussing with all the earnest boyhood intent I could muster, what the prospects were with my father, and subsequently, as the task force moved south, with my school friends. As my life and career evolved, the Falklands somehow have stayed with me. I distinctly remember discussing how to make an undergraduate course on "Warfare in the 20th Century" more real to students in the late 1990s, and floating that maybe if we had a week on the Falklands it might work, as some of them might remember it, only for a senior colleague to gently chide me that given most of them didn't remember Thatcher being in power and were predominantly would have been 3 or so when the conflict took place, I was perhaps being a bit optimistic about their memory.

It was largely down to a (different) former colleague that I picked up Hugh Bicheno's unofficial history. I've read a lot about the Falklands over the years, and while I'd seen it had come out I wasn't sure that it would add much to my understanding, or that I really needed to read more on the subject. Gratifyingly I was wrong. "Razor's Edge" is, without question, the wrong place to start if you're new to the 1982 war (better places to start would be Freedman and Gamba-Stonehouse's "Signals of War", or Martin Middlebrook's "Task Force"). Bicheno's account is forceful, opiniated, and authoritative, written with confidence, a command of his subject, and an eye for source reliability that is rare. A most pleasing side effect of the conviction with which this account is written is the unflinching passion communicated and an utter unwillingness to pull punches. This makes for a very good read.

The book unapologetically focuses on the ground war. Possession of Port Stanley is rightly seen as the conflict's centre of gravity, and as such, interesting as it is, the sea war and the relative performance in the air is subservient to the grinding battle fought by boots on the ground; two armies facing each other and being tested in environments neither had really prepared for. As such, episodes such as the sinking of the General Belgrano are not investigated in any great detail, Bicheno rightly assuming that those interested can readily find detailed explorations of such events elsewhere.

In this focus on the ground war Bicheno cuts to the heart of the matter in exploding the myth that the British achievement was somehow superhuman. He accurately cites a US document positing that no self respecting military officer should have learned anything from the Falklands War. In this light the whole conflict was not a tribute to flair and extemporisation in adversity, but rather to solid grounding, an appreciation of logistics, and an ability to work in a joined up way; in short, less being unbelievable heroes and more solid people doing their job properly. Indeed when the British Army deviated from what it had consistently trained to do, such as at Goose Green, it came closest to failure and defeat. In this instance Bicheno has no hesitation in questioning sacred cows, firmly asserting that it was only with Colonel H Jones' death (for which he won the Victoria Cross) that 2 Para were allowed to revert to what they had consistently trained to do, and secured victory.

Other popular conceptions about the war are also challenged, for example, the theory that the Argentine invasion constituted a classic intelligence failure, is pointedly exploded. In the words of Bicheno, himself a former intelligence officer in Latin America:

There was no 'intelligence failure' – the British government was well served with hard information from technical and human sources about Argentine actions and intentions. There was, however, an intellectual failure systemic to the political nation. (p.28).

This point ushers in the real central tone of "Razor's Edge". This is the work of a proud Briton disillusioned with what he feels his country has become. He wears his heart on his sleeve when denouncing what he sees as over liberal apologias for Britain's behaviour contrasted with a relative silence concerning the odium of the Argentine junta. The complicity of Britain's political system in creating the environment where the 1982 conflict could take place is clearly exposed, yet there is still the underlying admiration for an underlying mettle in the British character that made victory possible. The story of Hugh Leach's impassioned plea to Thatcher to allow the Royal Navy to try and retake the Falklands is widely known, and given rightful airing here, but Bicheno goes deeper. As he puts it, Argentina's whole strategy was:

…based on a calculation that the British soldier of 1982 was not the man his father had been. But he was: and better in attack than history might have led one to expect of an army more famed for stoicism than tactical flair. (p.93)

This point being rammed home by his assertion that:

The British owed their victory to the ferocity of infantry who went into combat stressed beyond the point beyond which even the best trained troops should be pushed. (p.110)

While there are undeniably points in the book where one could happily debate (for example his wholesale endorsement of then commander of HMS Ardent and latterly First Sea Lord Alan West) ultimately this is a deeply satisfying book that stays just on the right side of polemic. As I have said, it is not the right place to start if one seeks a primer on the conflict, but to one who thinks they already know all that has to be said about the events of March-June 1982, this is a useful antidote and a worthwhile addition to any library on the subject.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

“Ruinair”, Paul Kilduff

I bought this a few months ago, while idly shopping in my local bookshop, cheerfully forgot about it, then rediscovered it in one my periodic study tidy-outs – and happily was just in the sort of humour for a work like this. What sort of work is it however? “Ruinair” is the sort of book that challenges conventional categorisation, and probably should give librarians, booksellers, and others who obsess about locating books on shelves something of a headache. The dayglo cover and branding locate this as humour, and clearly Kilduff sets out to entertain, but there is undoubtedly a serious element to this, also representing a serious travelogue and interesting insight into Ryanair's business model.

While throughout the narrative is told with an eye on being funny, and certainly it has the power to make you smile, this isn't quite the laugh-out-loud-read-bits-to-strangers sort of book that sticks in your mind as being one of the funniest things you've read all year. Inherently, while Kilduff can write, I'm not entirely sure he's completely comfortable writing humorously and at times his slightly chippy attitude grated a little. At times too, one suspects that a degree of padding went on, as though late in the editing process there was a realisation that they really wanted to get the page count up thus the press clippings file related to Ryanair should be raided. This does not however detract from the fact that this is an enjoyable workthat kept me absorbed and is well worth a read.

To anyone living in Europe over the last 10 years or so, the low cost airline phenomenon has been unavoidable. Among the many positives is the extent to which it has enabled travel to be much more feasible, helped us keep in contact with more distantly located friends and relatives, and helped make the concept of an integrated Europe much more real. At the same time we've become accustomed to the sort of folklore that has grown up around such airlines, looking at the shortcomings in customer services, headline grabbing tales of having to pay to use toilets or seats being replaced by stools, and of course, the issue that the airports they fly to can often be nowhere near the cities they claim to serve, all contextualised by the larger than life persona of Michael O'Leary, Ryanair's chief executive. The true strength of “Ruinair” is that it cuts to the heart of these conceptions we have about low budget airline travel, and in the main shows them to be firmly grounded in reality, from the reality of where they fly to, how they go about getting you there, and in accumulating the public pronouncements of O'Leary, along with correspondence (accurately described as 'bolloxology') from Ryanair customer services showing the disregard towards the flying public.

At the outset (on page 2) the truism that it that people will fly from somewhere to nowhere is offered, and this sets the tone for the book as a whole. Kilduff's account of his time in Ryanair's many destinations around Europe show that often there's little there. If Ryanair challenges the proverb that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive by overtly stripping the romance out of the journey, then the onus is undeniably on the destination. Kilduff's experience shows that traveling to these places for the sake of going, adhering to the maxim that the flights are so cheap that it's almost more expensive to stay at home, probably isn't enough. Kilduff's odyssey, trying to fly to all 15 countries in Western Europe by budget airline, is a tale noticeably lacking in enjoyment. This is no holiday, and as he recounts bleak evenings in some of the more obscure parts of Europe you realise this, more perhaps than other travelogues of journeys to more difficult parts of the world, is something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Ryanair, along with other budget airlines, make it possible to travel widely, but the key question really should be whether you want to go there in the first place.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

“A Season for the Dead”, David Hewson

Most of my postings involve books I've read recently, reflecting my response to a book at its most visceral and critically when the plot and characterisation is fresh in my mind.

This is a departure from that principle and is not really a book review.

I picked up David Hewson's first Nic Costa novel back in February 2008, the result of a Saturday morning's stroll refamiliarising myself with Aberystwyth. “A Season for the Dead” formed part of a three-for-two offer in the local bookshop, along with Mark Mill's “Savage Garden” and John Niven's “Kill your Friends” (actually quite an unpleasant book, in a strangely compelling way, as things transpired). I'm hard pressed to remember which one was the 'free' book in this package, but memory whispers to me that it probably wasn't the Hewson, I'd just come back from Rome, and full of the prospect of more work there, the prospect of a rich Italian mystery really appealed.

Bringing things to the present day, late on Thursday night, coping with an oppressively hot Bologna night, I came across a recent spat concerning Hewson and his response to negative reviews, bringing up an array of topics including, among many others, cyber-bullying, fair use of copyright material, and libel. Ill tempered discussion such as this, which periodically flare up on the internet, often show the shortcomings of blogging, where there's too much reliance on literal communication and it's all too easy to post in haste and repent at leisure, however this did serve to make me, with the benefit of distant hindsight, think about what I've thought about David Hewson's books.

I read “A Season for the Dead” and while finishing it, being driven with a sense of curiousity about how the plot panned out, an interest in the core characters, and a real sense of enjoyment about the location, something about it left me feeling a touch disappointed. There was a palpable lack of redemption about the book. To take the persona of Nic Costa as an example, there's no shortage of troubled detectives with a surfeit of 'issues' in crime fiction, however I found a certain sense of frustration with him, and struggled to identify with him. Equally, while crime in reality is almost never elegant, much of plot represented humanity at its most tawdry, and left me feeling somewhat stained.

That said, my response to my first exposure to Hewson clearly wasn't completely negative. I clearly remember frustration at my local library not stocking the earlier books in the Costa series, and at some point last year I bought the third book, “The Sacred Cut”, probably at an airport, but it never really grabbed me, and despite a few attempts at starting, ultimately it fell victim to the demands of limited shelf space in a South London semi, and went to the charity shop unread with my feeling that for whatever reason I didn't really get on with Hewson/Costa and I didn't see myself reading it anytime soon.

There ended my engagement with David Hewson, probably concluding that while they were perfectly good crime novels of a particular type, they weren't necessarily for me, but that's just a case of horses for courses.

Reading about the spat referred to above raised some interesting questions in my mind though. I haven't seen the negative review penned by Norm, so I can't comment on whether it was or was not libellous. Raising the issue of libel is however something that does make my blood run cold. I've worked in publishing for many years, and still clearly recall the horror of receiving a phone call from the BBC asking if I was aware that a writ for libel was forthcoming from a third party. I was lucky enough then to be working for a big publisher, with the sort of editorial processes that gave us confidence in our story, and a wider support structure in terms of administration and legal help that cushioned the blow. Blogging is undeniably publishing, and libel is libel, but thinking back to my understanding of the laws surrounding such things, looking at reputational damage in the eyes of the right thinking person on the Clapham ominbus, one does have to wonder what purpose is served by taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

What I do find positive, having over the past couple of days revisited some of the controversial correspondence, is that David Hewson is reading and responding to writings about his work. Engaging in a dialogue, within reason, about its merits, is so much more healthy than leaving things in the hands of lawyers. Clay Shirky among others makes the point that the one thing the internet does is lower the barrier to publication, this has the effect that there is a blurring of lines between the old traditional 'book review' of the Saturday supplement and the impassioned conversation between friends previously the reserved preserve of small groups. From my perspective as a reader this has been vastly positive, introducing me to so many books I wouldn't otherwise have found, however there has to be a process of understanding that maybe principles arrived at for the long established print world do not work as well in a world where everyone can publish and accordingly have their 15 megabytes of fame.

There are going to be good and bad aspects to this, but perhaps it's worth revisiting the basic lessons of libel I was taught many years ago – as an author, would you want this written about you? And as a plaintif, once you enter into litigation gloves will come off and you lose control over what is said.

Restraint is usually the best way forward.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

“The Wolf”, Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen

A very brief one this time - as I'm currently doing a full review of this for Intelligence and National Security, but given the extent to which this is currently being pushed in the UK's airports some initial thoughts might be of interest.

Telling the story of the German warship Wolf's long raiding cruise between late 1916 and early 1918 "The Wolf" is unashamedly populist and while this makes it possible to question it academically the publishers almost certainly took the decision to make this a deliberately accessible book, and on a summer afternoon with competition for attention this is no bad thing.

The actions of the Wolf in the later part of the First World War were to all intents and purposes inconsequential to the ultimate outcome of the war, but this does not alter the fascinating human story of the ship, its crew, and its victims, as well as the wider impact of World War I on Australasia in the later part of the conflict told by Guilliat and Hohnen. It's also a lovely opportunity to go into a little known aspect of Great War naval history - while the Emden and the rest of Graf Spee's raiders have had their time in the sun, the later raiders are largely forgotten. It's easy to be sceptical about airport history, but in this case the result is really rather pleasing.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Books for a hot climate

It's ridiculous in London at the moment, plants in the garden are giving up the ghost, sleep seems impossible in the heat, and none of the infrastructure is at all designed to cope with this sort of weather - least of all the unassuming 3 bed Beckenham semi I call home.

So then surely my sanity is questioned by my cheerfull acceptance of a business trip to Madrid tomorrow - after all - chances are the temperature's not likely to be a whole lot lower there.

It's a fleeting visit, but one that holds the prospect, should Friday go well, of a rather more time than might be ideal at Madrid's quite nice Barajas airport - it's better than many others, but it's still an airport, and there's not a lot you can do about that.

This makes book choices really worth thinking about. I've got Mark Mills' "Amagansett", which will certainly be coming along, but what to bolster it with? Do I gamble on there being something worthwhile at the bookshop at Heathrow? Or do I revisit Charles Cumming's fantastic "Spanish Game" - topical given the location - especially as I like to be able to put some real experience of places to a novel? Hugh Bicheno's "Razor's Edge" has been a recent acquisition but for some reason I'm not sure I want to read it immediately, and of the fodder I saw at Heathrow last time round, the really appealing "Wolf" from Guilliat and Hohnen is one I'm hoping to write about professionally, thus buying it would be a waste.

If this is the largest cross I have to bear in July I'll be pleased - but please spare a thought for the dilemmas of what to cram into the world's smallest overnight bag...

Any suggestions gratefully received.