Sir: I worry that Matt Ridley and others are trying to frighten us about Covid-19 (‘Like nothing we’ve known’, 21 March). The fact is that we do not know how deadly the virus is. We know that it is widespread; but that does not make it deadly. How long-lasting is the danger from Covid-19? Will it remain in the system after the pandemic scare is over? We do not know. But will civilisation survive? You betcha!
I was called up to National Service in 1952 and while waiting for the train to take me to Aldershot, I bought a book at the station called Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. Written in 1949, this was about a deadly virus that wipes out 99.9 per cent of humanity. Civilisations collapsed, but slowly the remaining humans regrouped. True, the science of 1949 didn’t have any of our modern scientific knowledge; nevertheless, Matt Ridley might find it interesting.
The symptomless majority
Sir: Nicholas Farrell errs in suggesting that the death rate from Covid-19 is 8 per cent among those who contract it (‘A shadow over Italy’, 21 March). His figure derives from dividing the number of ‘cases’ in Italy (31,506) by the number of those who have died. However, this ignores the probably much larger number of people who’ve had the virus but not been tested — those with only minor symptoms. South Korea, which has tested a much greater number of people, reports a much lower mortality rate of just under 1 per cent. Still a lot of people, of course.
Know your Ramones
Sir: I don’t like to quibble with Rod Liddle’s daring analysis of punk rock and its possible influence on the Johnson government (14 March), but I fear the reader may come away with an overly simplistic view of the Ramones, which Liddle calls a ‘right-wing popular band’ that was in tune with the coming election of Ronald Reagan. While Johnny Ramone was, indeed, a conservative supporter of Reagan, it didn’t stop the group, in 1985, from producing ‘Bonzo Goes to Bitburg’, its devastating put-down of the President’s state visit to a military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany, where 49 members of the Waffen-SS were buried among regular army German soldiers. Reagan fatuously stated that the dead soldiers were ‘victims, just as surely as the victims in concentration camps’, which was evidently too much for lead singer Joey Ramone and bassist Dee Dee Ramone. Their song and lyrics were a powerful anti-Reagan protest that still resonates in the age of Trump.
John R. MacArthur
New York, NY
In praise of Sajid Javid
Sir: I was delighted to read Sajid Javid’s positive and gracious Diary (21 March). I have for a long time been an admirer of his, and was saddened when he relinquished the Treasury, albeit admiring that on a point of principle he was prepared to give up the job he had long coveted and was so good at, after such a short time. On every appearance of Rishi Sunak, who seems to be doing an extremely good job, I have wondered if Sajid regrets his decision not to go along with what the PM required. His Diary gave the answers, and placed him in a very good light: as a man of stature and integrity. I hope he may soon be back in government.
Silly old Pemberton Billing
Sir: Frank Brock (‘James Bond and Q in one’, Books, 21 March) was the ridiculous Noel Pemberton Billing’s trusted assistant in planning the Friedrichshafen air raid of November 1914. The story of how the two temporary RNAS officers spied out the Zeppelin works there and directed a few Avro biplanes to bomb it would have merited its own edition of Pluck. It was historically significant, being the first British attempt at strategic bombing. Great claims were made for the damage done to the factory, claims which were faithfully endorsed by the official history, The War in the Air. In truth, a few windows were blown out, a Swiss seamstress was killed, and two other women were severely injured.
Less than 18 months after the raid, Pemberton Billing was elected to the Commons as the ‘Member for Air’, where he tirelessly advocated an indiscriminate bombing policy. By the end of the war his ideal was becoming the British way in warfare, and nine RAF squadrons were — almost wholly ineffectually and at immense cost to themselves — bombing German towns and cities.
Sir: Peter Jones (Ancient and Modern, 21 March) is quite right to recommend autarkeia, or self-sufficiency, rather than TV and other mindless distractions during the isolation caused by this modern plague. Indeed, one of the ways I am doing so is by learning Classical Greek, studying the text Reading Greek — for which he is the course director.
Keeping yourself company
Sir: If you have to self-isolate there are strategies to fill the time well. Think of the words of Tibullus: ‘In solis sis tibi turba locis.’ [‘If alone, be to yourself a crowd.’] Perhaps find a new author. This winter I discovered Willa Cather, a great American writer. Try My Antonia as a start. Or spend half an hour a day visiting (online) the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
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